The Return of Rogers' Rangers
By Michael F. Dilley
The military exploits of Major Robert Rogers during the French and Indian War are well known. It was during that war that Rogers raised, trained, and led the unit that bears his name, Rogers' Rangers. This was, however, not the last Ranger unit with which Robert Rogers was affiliated.
Prior to the war Rogers had narrowly missed being branded or hung as a result of a charge of counterfeiting. His exploits during the war left him with money problems but of a different nature. The new problems involved Rogers' accounts in the army – repaying some remaining obligations to his former Rangers as well as to certain men in Albany, New York who had loaned money for the Rangers' subsistence and loans some of the Rangers had taken against their future pay. Rogers spent almost a month preparing his statement and presented it to the Crown's representative. By his account the Crown owed Rogers about 6,000 pounds. Rogers was reported to have been “thunderstruck” when most of the statement he submitted was denied. Without detailing Rogers' claim for repayment by the Crown (or even the convoluted method of financing the British Amy in the mid 1700s), suffice it to say Rogers went to his grave still being pursued by his creditors. His attempts to pay these creditors drove almost all he did in life after the French and Indian War.
Rogers continued to serve as an active officer in South Carolina and in Detroit, the latter during what was called “Pontiac's Conspiracy,” an almost last gasp struggle by “northeastern woodland Indians against white supremacy.” It was in Detroit in 1763 that Rogers was one of 14 officers who preferred charges against Captain Joseph Hopkins, commander of a unit known variously as Hopkins' Rangers, the Queen's Royal American Rangers, and the Queen's Rangers. Hopkins was accused, among other things, of overcharging the men under his command for necessities furnished by him. In the end, though, Hopkins was not court martialed.
During the next 12 years Rogers' personal and professional fortunes went from good to bad to worse. After the end of the French and Indian War, Rogers married the daughter of a minister, Elizabeth Browne. He tried his hand at several trades including buying land for speculation and fur trading. He even tried to build a road using a lottery to finance it. Debt problems, including his claim against the Crown, led him to London. He had no luck trying to settle these claims.
When he returned to the American colonies the following year he had a new commission, a command at Fort Michilimackinac, and authorization to send out an expedition to discover the Northwest Passage. Within three years Rogers had been relieved of his command, arrested, charged with high treason, and court martialed, all on trumped up charges, based mostly on hearsay. His court martial resulted in an acquittal and he left for London again to attempt to settle his still-not-concluded claim with the Crown and to reclaim his name and honor. In London, Rogers was in and out of debtor's prison, once for almost three years. Finally, after discharging his debts through the new bankruptcy law and being granted a military pension, Rogers again returned to America. Prior to his departure King George III signed an order forbidding Rogers' being given any command. Rogers landed in Maryland in August 1775.
He first visited his family in New England and then went to Philadelphia, where he was arrested by the Committee of Safety. The reason given for the arrest was that Rogers was a retired British Army major, on half-pay. During the years that Rogers had been living in England he had paid little attention to developments in America and so he was generally unfamiliar with, perhaps even ignorant of, the independence movement then in full bloom in the colonies. He was equally mystified by his arrest. The arrest was short lived. The Continental Congress intervened and ordered Rogers' release. The release order said, in effect, that if the only reason for the arrest was the fact that Rogers was on half-pay, then the committee should release him, after he gave his word not to make war against the colonies. Rogers gave his parole and was released.
Over the next several months Rogers traveled to various places in the colonies seeking land grants, grants that he would be able to eventually convert to cash to pay off his still hounding creditors. Unbeknownst to Rogers, during this period his movements were closely watched and reports, many of them containing both lies and suspicion, were sent to General George Washington. Rogers was “Strictly examined” by several individuals, including army officers, about his activities and intentions. In early February 1776, Rogers, in a meeting with British General Henry Clinton, was asked if he would give services to the Crown. It seems that the King had changed his mind. Rogers declined, reminding Clinton of his parole to the Americans. Additionally, almost all of Rogers' comings and goings were reported, not always factually, in local newspapers. Washington received the various reports and was still not certain where Rogers' loyalties were.
In late March 1776, Rogers, still seeking land grants in vain, decided to seek a commission from the Americans. Over time word of Rogers' dealings with the Americans leaked out and various British reports to London told that “Major Rogers commands a powerful force of Indians” and other untruths. Now each side suspected Rogers of dealing with the other. At this point a twist of fate intervened.
After obtaining several recommendations in New Hampshire to support his request for an American commission, Rogers headed south to collect some others before presenting them to Washington. In New Hampshire a Tory plot was uncovered of unbelievable proportions (and what should have been unbelievable details) that included murdering General Washington and burning New York City. Rogers was featured prominently in this “plot.” On 2 July, two days before the Declaration of Independence was signed, the New Hampshire House of Representatives ordered Rogers' arrest. Rogers was apprehended in South Amboy and taken to Washington, who interrogated him at length. Rogers was completely forthcoming with General Washington, including his secret offer of services to the Americans.
Washington read the letters of recommendation but told Congress that Rogers was “not to be sufficiently relied on” and recommended that Rogers' offer, even if genuine, should be refused. Rogers was held in jail. Deciding that the American arrest negated any obligation imposed by his parole, Rogers escaped from jail on the night of 8 July and, ten days later, presented himself to General William Howe in New York and offered his services to the British. On 6 August, Howe authorized Major Rogers “to raise a battalion of Rangers.” Although this battalion was named the Queen's American Rangers or, more commonly, the Queen's Rangers, the American newspapers quickly took to referring to them as Rogers' Rangers.
Rogers lost no time in his recruiting drive. For the most part he selected men he knew who had previous military experience and commissioned them as company commanders (captains), authorizing them to recruit companies, usually 50 or so men. Some of his commanders were commissioned based on their claim to be able to recruit a company. The resulting battalion comprised men who were nowhere near the standards of the Rangers from the French and Indian War. Of course, the British were not the only ones recruiting – and it was harder to find loyalists in the colonies. What Rogers ended up with were “farmers and townspeople who scarcely knew one end of a gun from another” and “few had any experience as soldiers.”
headquarters for Rogers' new Ranger unit was on Long Island, New York, near Flushing. At first, hardly anything was known of Rogers' activated commission or of his new unit. In late August 1776, William Lounsbury was caught with a number of recruits for the Rangers. He had enlisting orders from Rogers and a list of men he had recruited when he was captured. Soon after his capture, Lounsbury was bayoneted to death. Reports of Lounsbury's capture and death provided Washington with the first information confirming that Rogers was, in fact, now an active British officer. Washington immediately publicized what he knew about Rogers to spark recruitment for his own forces.
In September, while still on Long Island, an informant told Rogers of the arrival of two men thought to be American spies, Captain Nathan Hale and Sergeant Stephen Hempstead. Rogers began looking for them. Unknown to Rogers, Hempstead had already returned to American lines. Rogers caught up with Hale several days after the American had landed. Rogers eventually convinced Hale that they were on similar missions. The next day Hale carelessly told Rogers that he was on a spying mission for Washington. Rogers immediately arrested Hale and turned him over to General Howe at Howe's headquarters in Manhattan. Hale was hanged the following day, after he made his final statement on the scaffold.
An active correspondence between Washington and Jonathan Trumbull, governor of Connecticut, included a discussion of the recruiting efforts of Rogers and his captains, in an exchange of letters dated 30 September, 4 October, and 13 October. The last letter discussed intelligence about a planned raid by Rogers “into the towns of Greenville, Stamford, and Norwalk…” Whether the plans for such a raid were real or not seemed not to matter; Rogers' name was enough to terrify the countryside surrounding those villages.
In mid-October, the British Army moved and Rogers' Rangers moved with it, fitting into its right wing in the vicinity of New Rochelle. Elements of Captain John Eagles' company were the first Rangers to enter New Rochelle. On 20 October, the Rangers were ordered to capture Mamaroneck. The Rangers encountered little opposition from local militia units in the operation, capturing or destroying supplies that had been left there for the American forces. These supplies included “rum, molasses, flour and pork.” Rogers used a local school for his headquarters and set up his outposts – to the north and east of the village. Since the British Army was to his west, Rogers set up only a weak outpost in that direction. The Rangers' strength at this point is not certain, and it would rarely have exceeded 500 anyway; at least 72 Rangers were on detached duty with artillery units and another 120 were with engineer units.
Some time after Rogers had established his outposts around Mamaroneck, a one-man reconnaissance was conducted of the British disposition by Rufus Putnam, an American spy, and the information was passed to the American command. A composite force that included soldiers from Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware was formed under the command of an excellent field
officer, Colonel John Haslet. Haslet was ordered to attack Rogers' position with his force of 750 men. Using men from the local area to guide his unit, Haslet swung his unit to approach Mamaroneck from the southwest. In the dark the Americans approached a one-man outpost, manned by an Indian, and caught the sentry by surprise, quickly killing him before he could raise an alarm. Just prior to this attack, Rogers had surveyed his position and the disposition of his outposts, and decided that he was vulnerable in the west. Rogers sent for Captain Eagles and ordered him to take his company to secure the western approach.
Area of operations of Rogers' Rangers
during the American Revolutionary War
(Sketch map by the author)
Eagles and his 60 men had just settled in when they were attacked by the Americans, who believed they had found the main body of the Rangers. Eagles immediately sent Rangers back to warn Rogers of the contact and continued to direct his unit's defense. But the attack was overwhelming. The Rangers were in danger of being overrun. Some Rangers surrendered; the Americans later reported the names of 36 prisoners. Some Rangers adopted a ruse that worked very well in the dark – in the midst of almost hand-to-hand fighting they began shouting curses at Rogers and the other Rangers as they withdrew. This tactic fooled the American raiders and pulled them closer to the main body of Rangers as they chased the withdrawing Rangers. An element of Virginia soldiers, led by a Major Green, had moved so easily through Eagles' company that a runner reported to Haslet that they had pushed all the way through the main body.
Rogers was notified of the attack in time to have his men standing to when the Americans approached. In the dark the approaching Virginians heard Rogers order his men, “Steady, boys, steady! Fire! Fire!” The onslaught caught the Americans completely by surprise. Not knowing who was opposing him, Haslet ordered his unit to break contact immediately.
Despite his ignorance as to who opposed him at the battle, Haslet reported, and newspapers enthusiastically repeated the lie, that Rogers had turned tail and “skulked off in the dark…” One paper charged “This blow will ruin the Major's Rangers.” It did nothing of the kind. The newspaper stories did, however, fuel the battle between Rogers and his officers on one side and regular British officers on the other. The regulars held the Ranger officers in low regard since they, unlike the British ‘gentlemen”, had not purchased their commissions but had earned them from Rogers based on his assessment of their worth. Purchasing was a common practice in the British Army at that time and for almost another 90 to 100 years. At any rate, General Howe was well aware of the truth of the encounter near Mamaroneck.
Later in October 1776, Rogers and elements of his Rangers conducted a patrol in Bedford. This patrol returned with several naval prisoners, captured en route, and with a 120-man company of Ranger recruits, which they met on the way back. Recruiting for the Rangers continued.
In mid-November, Washington sent General Charles Lee to attack a location east of New York where Rogers' Rangers were camped. Lee's force, which included General John Glover's Marblehead Mariners, attacked but was not successful. In mid-January 1777, elements of the Rangers were located at Fort Knyphausen when it was attacked by an American force. When the British rejected the American demand to surrender, the Americans withdrew.
Also in January, a new Inspector General of Provincial Forces was appointed by the British Army to review loyalist units, including the Rangers. Alexander Innes, the newly appointed officer, apparently agreed with the sentiments of the regular officers who looked down their noses at Rogers and his Rangers. Citing, incorrectly in places, the backgrounds of some of the Ranger officers and the fact that the ranks included “Negroes, Indians, Mullattos, Sailors, and Rebel Prisoners,” Innes submitted his report to General Howe. On 15 February 1777, Rogers, by now a lieutenant colonel, was relieved of command. Between that date and 15 October of the same year, the Rangers were commanded by two regular officers before Colonel James G. Simcoe, a regular officer who understood Ranger tactics, became the commander of the Queen's Rangers. Simcoe led the unit until the end of the war.
As for Rogers, his fortunes continued to fail. For a while he continued to recruit for the British, both in America and in Canada. He went back to London to seek some land grants there but returned without any. Once again in America, Rogers was authorized, on 1 May 1779, to recruit two battalions to be known as the King's Rangers. Rogers appointed his brother James as his second-in-command and began recruiting. His efforts did not meet his expectations and by August of that year he gave up his attempts to form a new Ranger unit.
Debt haunted Rogers for the rest of his life. Finally, on 18 May 1795, broke and sick, he died in Southwark, England. His funeral was held in the rain and attended by two unidentified mourners.
Written by Michael F. Dilley. The author retains the copyright to this piece bearing his name. No reproduction, copying, or other forms of retrieval without permission.
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About the author:
Michael F. Dilley has a B.A. in History from Columbia College in Missouri and is a retired U.S. Army Military Intelligence officer. He served two tours in Viet Nam and six and one-half years in airborne units. In the field of military history, he was written three books (one of them as co-author) and contributed to two anthologies. He has also written many articles and book reviews dealing with special purpose, special mission units.
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