Today, Emerging Revolutionary War is pleased to welcome guest writer, Arthur Ceconi.
There are a few figures from the French and Indian War that are recognizable to Americans today. They the European generals Jeffery Amherst, James Wolfe, and Louis-Joseph de Montcalm – Grozon, Marquis de Montcalm de Saint-Veran, and two North Americans, George Washington and Robert Rogers. In some ways Robert Rogers is the person that many Americans growing up in the 20th century associate with the French and Indian War.
In part, Rogers’ recognizability can be traced to the historical novel Northwest Passage by Kenneth Roberts, which was published in 1937. It was the second best-selling novel published that year behind Gone with the Wind. The book is split into two parts – the first part is about the 1759 raid on the Abenaki village of St. Francis by Robert Rogers and his Rangers, and the second part is about Rogers’ post French and Indian War life.
In 1940 MGM released the movie Northwest Passage (covering the raid on St. Francis) starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Young, and Walter Brennan. The movie was nominated for an Academy Award for best cinematography. MGM later produced a Northwest Passage TV series, and its 26 episodes aired in 1958 and 1959.
Rogers’ Early Life and the Beginning of the French and Indian War.
Robert Rogers was born in Massachusetts in 1731 and raised on the New Hampshire frontier. Little is known about Rogers’ life prior to 1754.
In 1754 he was arrested for counterfeiting and was standing for trial in 1755 when New Hampshire began enlisting men for an expedition to take Fort St. Frederic at Crown Point on Lake Champlain. Rogers raised a fifty-man company and obtained a captain’s commission. Rogers’ company was part of a regiment commanded by Joseph Blanchard, a justice who presided over the counterfeiting case. With that, the case ended. Rogers’ first lieutenant was a man, who a few months earlier had provided incriminating testimony against him in the counterfeiting case, named John Stark.
The expedition against Fort St. Frederic, led by William Johnson, was underway when Rogers and his company arrived at the south end of Lake George a few days after Johnson’s colonial and native force defeated the French and allied native army led by Baron de Dieskau in September 1755.
After the Battle of Lake George Johnson’s force did not advance and began construction of Fort William Henry. With Johnson’s native allies gone, he called upon Rogers and his New Hampshire men for scouting/reconnaissance and harassing/spoiling missions. The missions were directed at Fort St. Frederic and Fort Carillon at Ticonderoga and brought back critical intelligence on the French movements and manpower, and they raised Rogers’ profile and stature. The missions continued through the winter of 1755 – 1756 and kept the French on edge. Rogers and the rangers were providing the Anglo-American military on the New York frontier with a scouting capability they sorely lacked. In my view these small detachment scouting and harassing missions were where Rogers and the rangers excelled. Because of their success, Rogers was charged in 1756 with raising an independent company of rangers.
Rogers and Larger Scale Missions He Commanded
Due to their audacious and successful spoiling raids, Rogers and the rangers were marked men. From this point forward I am of the opinion that Rogers’ and the rangers’ significant engagements were largely unsuccessful and some were disastrous.
The First Battle on Snowshoes occurred in January 1757. Rogers and his command left Fort Edward and, after stopping at Fort William Henry, traveled down a frozen Lake George and bypassed Fort Carillon at its northern end. Several miles north of Fort Carillon they saw a French sled heading for Fort St. Frederic. John Stark and a group of rangers took the sled and seven prisoners. However, a larger trailing group of French sleds observed the ambush and escaped to Fort Carillon. Knowing they were now discovered, Rogers called a council of war to decide on their return route to Fort William Henry. The officers recommended making a return by Wood Creek, east of Lake George, but Rogers overruled the council and ordered a march to their last campsite. This tactic violated Rogers’ Rule 5 of ranging he had authored: “[I]n your return take a different route from that in which you went out, that you may the better discover any party in your rear, and have an opportunity, if their strength be superior to yours, to alter your course, or disperse, as circumstances may require.”
After gathering themselves at the prior campsite they dried their muskets and began their 40-mile journey to Fort William Henry. Late in the afternoon a combined French and native force of about 180 men ambushed Rogers and his party. After the initial shock from the ambush the rangers killed the seven French captives and formed a defensive perimeter holding out until nightfall, when they were able to retreat to Lake George. The rangers eventually arrived at Fort William Henry two days later. The battle toll on the rangers was substantial – of the 74 rangers in the battle 14 were killed, six were wounded, and six missing. The French reported 18 dead (11 from the battle plus the seven captives killed at the outset of the ambush) and 27 wounded (casualty figures from French and Indian War frontier engagements should be taken with a grain of salt).
For the remainder of 1757 Rogers did not participate in the Northern New York theatre as he was sick with smallpox and later assigned to a failed campaign to take Louisburg. However, the rangers were involved in both battles at Fort William Henry, the one in March and the siege in August.
In March 1758 Rogers led a force of about 180 out of Fort Edward toward Fort Carillon. It was bitter cold and they proceeded down a frozen Lake George. Before leaving, Rogers feared the secrecy of the mission may have been compromised in the days leading up to their departure by colonials captured outside Fort Edward. During their journey the rangers found signs they were being observed, and in fact the French had discovered Rogers was approaching and watched his progress down Lake George. Rogers decided to approach Fort Carillon by leaving Lake George and traveling overland from the southwest down Trout Brook, a small stream. The snow was four feet deep and the rangers donned large racquet like snowshoes. Rogers expected a French patrol would follow the brook and the rangers set-up an ambush.
Rogers’ instincts were correct and as a 95-man patrol consisting mainly of natives entered the kill zone an ambush was triggered. The rangers initial volley killed and wounded many (Rogers reported 40 killed), with the survivors fleeing. Some of the rangers descended on the dead and wounded and began killing the wounded and scalping the dead. A large group of rangers chased the fleeing French and native survivors along Trout Brook and they ran head long into the main French and native force of about 200 led by the Canadian partisan fighter Ensign Jean-Baptiste Langy. Langy’s main party unleashed a devastating volley on the rangers killing outright upwards of 50 rangers. Within minutes the rangers were overwhelmed by the counterattack and faced annihilation. Rogers rallied his remaining force and began a close-range fighting retreat toward Lake George. The situation was growing desperate—Rogers had lost maybe half his force within a short time and men were continuing to drop under the relentless assault of the French and natives. As darkness fell, Rogers and what was left of his command scattered and made their way to a rendezvous on Lake George. Rogers’ escape is a mystery, but the legend is he slid down what is now known as Rogers Rock to the shore of the frozen lake. A couple days after the battle Rogers and what remained of his command made their way to Fort Edward. The rangers were decimated – only about 50 survived.
In the summer of 1758 a British and American force of 17,000, the largest ever assembled in North America, gathered at the south end of Lake George. Their first objective was Fort Carillon, approximately 35 miles north. The army embarked by water with Rogers and the rangers leading the way. Upon landing a few miles from Fort Carillon Rogers was sent ahead to secure an advance position and, finding no French, they were followed by a mixed advance guard of British regulars and colonials led by Brigadier General Lord George Augustus Howe, who was effectively the leader of the British expedition. The advance Anglo-American guard encountered difficulty negotiating the terrain and collided surprisingly with a French party. In the ensuing engagement the French were routed, but significantly, Lord Howe was killed. With his death, General James Abercromby lost the heart of the command structure. A couple days later Abercromby ordered the army to assault the French entrenched defensive line with the disastrous consequences of approximately 1,000 dead and 1,500 wounded between the two sides.
Following the Battle of Carillon, Abercromby’s army retreated and encamped at the south end of Lake George. Fort Edward, situated on the Hudson River about 15 miles south, supplied Abercromby’s army by a military road. The British supply trains were regularly attacked by French and native raiders who inflicted serious casualties and ransacked the supplies. Following a couple major attacks Abercromby ordered a mixed force of rangers, colonials and regulars commanded by Rogers and Israel Putnam to intercept and destroy the raiders. A force of about 700 men set out for South Bay and Wood Creek, an area a few miles east of Lake George.
After more than a week in the field Rogers’ and Putnam’s command could not locate the enemy, and the sick and injured were sent to Fort Edward reducing its size to 600. The British force camped near the ruins of the long-abandoned Fort Anne. Feeling secure, camp security was dropped, including Rogers and a British officer competing in a marksmanship contest. Lurking nearby was a Canadian and native force of about 350 – 450 men led by Captain Joseph Marin de La Malgue, an experienced and skilled partisan fighter. Marin set-up an ambush which the British force stumbled into. The ambush was sprung and Putnam was seized at its onset. Rogers rallied the command and beat back the French, inflicting serious casualties. Reported British losses were 37 dead, 40 wounded and 26 missing. Rogers returned to Fort Edward with 50 plus scalps and it had been estimated Marin may have lost as many as 70 to 100 men.
In 1759 Major General Jeffery Amherst led a campaign to take Forts Carillon and St. Frederic and drive north up the Richelieu River into Canada. As the army of 11,000 approached Forts Carillon and St. Frederic the French blew up the forts and withdrew north into Canada. The campaign stalled as the British began construction of a massive fort at Crown Point, next to the ruins of Fort St. Frederic. Rogers and his rangers were attached to Amherst’s army.
Rogers had long wanted to attack an Abenaki settlement at St. Francis, which is located south of the St. Lawrence River about midway between Montreal and Quebec. The Abenaki originally lived in Massachusetts and Maine, but as the English encroached, a group settled in St. Francis. Around 1700 the Jesuits established a mission at St. Francis converting many Abenakis to Catholicism, and the St. Francis people became closely allied with the French. For decades Abenaki war parties from St. Francis terrorized the New England frontier, developing a notorious reputation among English frontier settlers such as Rogers.
In September 1759 Amherst approved a raid on St. Francis. Rogers with a force of approximately 200 men – rangers, Stockbridge natives, provincials and British regulars – left Crown Point by whaleboat heading 80 miles north down Lake Champlain. After beaching their craft, they set out on foot across Southern Canada; St. Francis was 75 miles away. Soon after leaving Lake Champlain their boats were discovered by the French and Rogers was warned by Stockbridge allies of the French discovery. Rogers considered his options and decided to push on to St. Francis. He sent back to Crown Point 58 sick and injured, proceeding with 142 men. The trip was daunting as the expedition crossed spruce bogs and unforgiving wilderness reaching St. Francis on October 4, three weeks after leaving Crown Point.
At daybreak Rogers’ force struck St. Francis and overwhelmed the village. Most of the Abenaki warriors were away. After pillaging the village the English torched it and departed knowing full well they were being pursued. The English battle casualties were one killed and seven wounded and the estimates of Abenaki killed range from 30 to 200.
After traveling through Southern Canada Rogers’ force was out of food and still being pursued. After nine days the party split up, with most heading to a rendezvous on the Connecticut River. At the rendezvous the expected relief was absent so Rogers traveled to Fort No. 4 and brought food and supplies to his starving survivors on November 4. The objective was achieved, St. Francis was destroyed, but of the 142-man English force that raided the village only 80 men made it to Fort No. 4 and Crown Point.
What to make of Rogers
Rogers is an iconic French and Indian War personality. He is the key figure in many books, a landmark movie, and a TV show. Historians have studied him for centuries. But how should he be viewed as a military figure?
The French and Indian War’s frontier was violent and brutal. The terrain was rugged and engagements often occurred in remote areas during the winter. The weapons were lethal and wounds very often fatal.
My opinion is that Rogers was a highly capable woodsman and scout at a time when the English sorely lacked such capability. The raids he conducted in 1755 and 1756 kept the French on constant alert and provided British forces with much needed intelligence. He was brave, physically strong, indefatigable, and a leader of men. I would not call him a uniquely capable woodsman because Canada had many experienced and battle-hardened Canadian officers of Compagnies franches de la Marinein the field such as Langy, Marin, and Langlade, as well as a large contingent of coureur des bois, and one can plausibly argue these Canadians were superior bush fighters to Rogers. His Rules for Ranging Service have withstood the test time. Some of Rogers’ best personal qualities (bravery, leadership, clear thinking, resourcefulness) showed when he faced possible disaster as he and the rangers were able to inflict significant casualties on their foes and Rogers every time led his surviving command to safety.
When I push my self back and examine Rogers as a military tactician and his contributions to the British triumph in North America I have a very different opinion from many historians. Why was he ambushed so often? Why did he fail to adhere to the Rules for Ranging Service at key times? Why were his men put at risk in battles and campaigns of no strategic consequence? In the crucial British victories of the French and Indian War Rogers did not play a role.
The purpose of this essay is not to tarnish Rogers’ military legacy, but to rather bring to light the blemishes of his service in the French and Indian War so there can be a balanced view of “the brave Major Rogers.”
- White Devil by Steven Brumwell
- A True Ranger by Gary Stephen Zaboly
- The History of Rogers Rangers, Volume 1, by Burt Garfield Loescher
- War on the Run by John F. Ross
- Betrayals by Ian K. Steele
- The Annotated and Illustrated Journals of Major Robert Rogers by Timothy Todish
- Ticonderoga 1758 by Rene Chartand
- Empires in the Mountains by Russell P. Bellico
- Stark by Richard Polhemus and John Polhemus
- Rogers Rangers and the French and Indian War by Bradford Smith
- Wilderness Empire by Allan W. Eckert
- Robert Rogers’ Rules For Ranging Service
- Northwest Passage by Kenneth Roberts
- Crown Point State Historic Site
- Fort Ticonderoga
- Fort William Henry Museum
- Lake George Battlefield Park
- Rogers Island Visitors Center and Museum
Art Ceconi was raised in North Tarrytown, New York (now Sleepy Hollow) and is a longtime resident of Montville, New Jersey where he currently lives with his wife Eileen. A retired tax attorney, he earned degrees from Fordham University (BS), Rutgers Business School (MBA), Rutgers School of Law (JD), and New York University School of Law (LLM).
Art’s passion for North American colonial history took root with a family vacation to Lake George as a 7th grader. His reading and research centers on the French and Indian War and Revolutionary War. As his five daughters can attest, no family vacation was complete without visiting at least one historical site.