by LTC JD Lock
The Ranger lineage predates the very birth of this great nation. The term “Ranger” evolved as far back as thirteenth century England, when it was used to describe a far-ranging forester or borderer. By the seventeenth century, the term emerged to serve as a title for irregular and unique military organizations, such as the “Border Rangers” who defended the troubled border frontier between England and Scotland. The term crossed the Atlantic to the North American continent with England’s early settlers.
The first “Ranger” references in the New World began shortly after the start of a war between the Native American Indians and the colonists of the Commonwealth of Virginia on 22 March 1622. Outside of the larger towns and villages, the Commonwealth was populated with a series of isolated plantations and farms owned by titled landowners, each responsible for the defense of his family and his workers. To successfully defend against a surprise Indian attack, advanced warning of a war party’s approach was necessary. Consequently, armed men were selected to roam, or “range,” the countryside to provide this warning or to search for targets of opportunity.
The designation of “ranger” had taken root and continued to be used during the intermittent Indian wars from 1675 to 1715. The first of these wars, referred to as “King Philip’s War,” raged throughout much of New England for several years. The challenges facing the colonists were significantly different than those military challenges faced by the regular armies of the Old World. The New World was much more rugged and the enemy significantly different. Toughened by the environment, accustomed to moving great distances by foot, and loath to fight pitched battles, the American Indian employed stealth and reconnaissance to select targets, execute a surprise and devastating attack, and quickly withdraw. Extremely competent in their movements, the Indians also showed themselves to be very adept at displaying their skill in the art of ambush. Cruel and ruthless in their application of force, the American Indian instilled a great deal of fear throughout the colonies.
Employing new methods and tactics, and expanding on the original concept of the individual “ranger,” the colonists raised small, organized groups of men who began to move out from the defensive walls of the settlements and into the forests and mountains. These mounted troops traversed or patrolled the frontier, screening between frontier forts and blockhouses. Looking for signs of enemy movement and serving as early warning scouts, these groups would cover the countryside and submit reports that, among other things, would state, “This day, ranged 12 miles.” Hence, the name “Ranger” was also attached to them.
Captain Benjamin Church
Captain Benjamin Church, considered by many to be the first American Ranger, commanded one such local company. Raised in 1675 and organized to defend the colonists and to take the war to the Indians, Church’s Rangers was manned by colonial volunteers who were daring, aggressive men, attracted to the dangers and hardships of this type of service, and in search of adventure and spoils of war. Additionally, and unlike most other militia organizations, Church incorporated friendly Indian auxiliaries into his independent company, employed for scouting and tracking, and treated as fellow soldiers.
A veteran of previous Indian battles, Church was an innovator who learned quickly from his adversary. The Indians were quick to note that the colonists always moved together as a group and never scattered. Hence, the Indians were able to engage a target-rich environment with little concern of being attacked by any unseen elements. Realizing this, Church developed a mode of operation very similar to that of his enemy. Leading with his own Indian scouts, Church’s Rangers would advance through the woods in a loose formation, providing no massed target and allowing for a maneuver element to deploy quickly when engaged, thus demonstrating with great precision the field tactic of encirclement.
The New England colonies were not the only Providences needing the services of Ranger-style military organizations. To defend the frontier regions of the thirteenth and final Georgia colony between its border garrisons, a small, mobile Ranger organization was formed in 1734. Although their numbers never grew to more than fifteen officers and one hundred twenty-two men, when they peaked in 1746, the Rangers proved to be an invaluable resource throughout the early years of the Georgia colony and especially against Spanish forces entrenched in Florida. The Georgia Rangers remained in service patrolling and securing the Ceded Lands until 6 March 1776, when they were disbanded for the final time.
One of the first Ranger companies enlisted primarily to support the British Army was Gorham’s Ranger Company. Raised and organized in 1747, Gorham’s company was composed of frontiersmen, hunters, mixed-bloods, and Indians. Identified by the British Army as “Independent Companies of Rangers,” this unit scouted and raided along the frontier borders on behalf of the British Army. Ultimately, Captain John Gorham went on to raise six companies that served on the periphery of the new colonies and in Quebec, Canada. Following his death in 1751, Gorham’s brother, Joseph, would continue to command the organization until 1759.
Rogers’ Rangers: 1755 – 1763
Commencing in 1754 and lasting until 1763, the French and Indian War on the North American continent served as part of a larger conflict called the Seven Years’ War in Europe. The British, having seen how successful Ranger units were against this new and unorthodox style of warfare, began recruiting American frontiersmen to form similar units to serve as auxiliaries of their Regular army. The impact of the war upon British infantry techniques and tactics was tremendous. Impressed by the successful combination of loose-knit Indian fighting and disciplined light-fighting skills, the British Army sought to incorporate these style units within their organizational structure.
The Ranger unit that eventually would leave its indelible mark on American military history and lineage of the United States Army Ranger was originally formed as the Ranger Company of the New Hampshire Provincial Regiment under the command of Robert Rogers. Rogers would not only win lasting renown as a Ranger leader but he would also be immortalized in American literature as the main character of Kenneth Roberts’ classic novel, Northwest Passage.
In February 1755, Governor Wentworth of New Hampshire awarded Rogers the captaincy of the 1st Company of Colonel Blanchard’s New Hampshire Regiment for having raised twenty-four recruits within one month. Rogers’ company was composed of approximately fifty men. The men were skilled and accomplished in defending themselves and their homes against Indian raids. They were well trained in the ways of the woods, having gained considerable experience from trapping beaver to hunting and pursuing Indians. Over time, as a function of these skills, they came to be known as Rogers’ Rangers, the Ranging Company of the Regiment. Gifted as a leader, Rogers set out to make a name for himself and his soldiers.
Rogers began to build his reputation with his first reconnaissance into French-held territory during the early morning hours of 14 September 1755 in support of British General William Johnson’s Crown Point Army. Embarking on a bateau with two of his Rangers and two Connecticut Provincials, Rogers landed at dawn on the west side of Lake George, in the vicinity of Bald Mountain, approximately twenty-five miles from Fort William Henry. Leaving the two Provincials behind to guard their boat, the three Rangers moved through the woods for three days to arrive at Crown Point. Moving under the cover of darkness, the group quietly infiltrated the enemy picket line, moved through a small village, and concealed itself in a freshly dug entrenchment on a small hill only 150 meters from the main fort. There the Rangers remained throughout the evening, eating a cold meal while Rogers made notes on the fortification.
Seeking a different perspective of their objective, Rogers moved the group to a large hill located a mile away on the other side of the fort. Somewhat fatigued, the Rangers were able to leisurely rest all day while observing the enemy’s movements. Despite troop movements all about their position, Rogers’ group remained undiscovered and departed the area later that evening.
On their return trip, the group passed within two miles of Fort Carillon, a new fortress under construction at the northern outlet of Lake George to Lake Champlain. Eighty-five miles northeast of Albany, this fort would eventually fall to the British in 1759 during the French and Indian War and be renamed, after the nearby village, to its universally known name of Fort Ticonderoga. Unfortunately, with provisions nearly exhausted, the Rangers were unable to stop at the fortress site to determine the percentage complete.
Taking less than two days to get back their landing site, the group was “mortified” to find the two Connecticut men, their boat, and all provisions gone. Left with no other alternative, Rogers and his two companions moved cross-country to Fort William Henry. Fatigued, hungry, and cold, the Rangers arrived late at night on 23 September.
Shortly thereafter, a scout party composed of Rogers and five Rangers departed on the evening of 27 September to check on Fort Ticonderoga’s progress. Moving up Lake George in a canoe and passing a number of Indian patrol campfires along the shore, the Rangers landed at Friend’s Point, near Isle au Mouton. Leaving three Rangers behind to secure the site, Rogers and his other two men moved forward on foot to encounter a large advance guard defending the perimeter. Crawling through the enemy’s perimeter, the Rangers counted nearly one thousand men. Moving on, Rogers spent the night of 28 September within the fortification.
Returning late the next morning, the group of three Rangers noted a bark canoe manned by nine Indians and a Frenchman moving south on Lake George. Arriving at their hiding site, Rogers was informed by the security element that the bark canoe had landed on an island five miles farther south in the middle of the lake. The enemy element remained on the island only briefly, for shortly thereafter, they departed the island heading north once more. Unknown to those in the canoe, they were heading straight for Rogers’ location. With plenty of time to prepare, the Rangers opened fire from their hidden position when the canoe closed to approximately one hundred yards. Within minutes, the enemy suffered four dead and two wounded. The Rangers gave chase in their own canoe as the enemy withdrew in the direction of Fort Ticonderoga. Roles were soon changed, though, as three additional enemy canoes sallied forth to assist the four remaining survivors. Rogers’ Rangers’ first skirmish concluded with his small group being pursued most of the way back to the other end of Lake George.
The Rangers’ exploits became the talk of Johnson’s army. Having had no contact with the enemy in over two weeks, the army regaled in Rogers’ “bold adventure,” which placed Rogers firmly in Johnson’s favor.
On 14 September 1757, Rogers’ ‘Ranging School’ was officially authorized. Its first group of students was British Cadet volunteers. To structure his training, Rogers drafted twenty-eight tactical rules that came to be known as ‘Rogers’ Rules of Discipline.’ In 1765, he would have them published as part of his French and Indian War Journals. His rules, as written, were detailed, comprehensive, and exceptionally insightful for the period. They proved to be so insightful, as a matter of fact, that they are still very much applicable to today’s modern battlefield. The ‘Rules of Discipline’ were truly a brilliant discourse on unconventional scouting and skirmishing and a very sound argument could be made that they constitute the first military field manual written on the North American continent. Within the military community, however, it is not ‘Rogers’ Rules of Discipline’ for which Rogers is well known. It is, instead, for a more succinct and entertaining ‘Rogers’ Standing Orders,’ that he did not write.
The truth about the ‘Rogers’ Standing Orders’ is that nearly two decades later, Robert Rogers served as the role model for Kenneth Roberts’ protagonist in the 1936 novel Northwest Passage. Within the written conversation between the fictitious characters Langdon Towne and Sergeant McNott one can find the foundation for the wording of what were to become the ‘Standing Orders.’ This passage from the novel apparently struck a cord with an officer assigned to The Infantry School as a doctrine writer for the 1960 version of Field Manual (FM) 21-50, Ranger Training and Ranger Operations. Within this FM was an appendix on Ranger History that included a paraphrased version of the novel’s passage attributed to Rogers and titled ‘Standing Orders’. A year or two later, a review of the reprinted Journals of Major Robert Rogers by The Infantry School led the staff to question the validity of ‘Roger’s Standing Orders.’ Despite an attempt on the part of the school to clarify the record, their efforts proved fruitless. Rogers’ Standing Orders had become?and now remain?part of lore and legend.
Rogers’ most legendary expedition was an incredibly audacious and arduous raid in 1759 against the brutal Canadian St. Francis Indians, also known as the Abanakis Indians, who had proven themselves to be a significant ‘thorn in the side’ to the British and their northern operations. By boat and by land, Rogers led a force of 190 Rangers for nearly fifty days over a distance of 400 miles. Penetrating deep into enemy territory, and taking significant losses en route, Rogers and his remaining men successfully attacked and destroyed the Indian settlement, thus eliminating the St. Francis Indians as any further threat. The Ranger attack on the village, however, proved not to be the end of their tale as an enemy pursuit and starvation shadowed Rogers and his survivors until their ultimate return to safety throughout the French and Indian War, Rogers and his Rangers continued to wage unconventional warfare throughout the upper New York, lower Canadian, and even the French West Indies regions. Following the war, there were periodical ‘revivals’ of Rogers’ Rangers in support of British operations until 1763 when they were ‘paid off’ for the final time.
Overall, Rogers and his men accumulated a total of thirty-six Battle Honors from 1755 to 1763.