Tales of a stealth warrior before the Revolution

By Michael Kenney
Globe Correspondent / May 19, 2009
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In November 1759, reporting on his audacious mission to destroy the French-allied Indian village of Saint-François in Quebec, Major Robert Rogers wrote that he and his elite Rangers "[had] marched nine days through wet sunken ground; the water most of the way a foot deep, it being a spruce bog."

The return journey through that same unforgiving terrain, now pursued by Canadian militia and Indian warriors seeking vengeance, has become one of the great epics of the American frontier.

And Rogers, in John F. Ross's sweeping account, "War on the Run," stands forth as one of the most skilled tacticians of small-unit, backcountry warfare - a war of endurance and stealth.

An unschooled farmboy growing up on the New Hampshire frontier, Rogers volunteered in 1748 for a local militia unit after seeing the bodies of neighbors who had been killed in an Indian raid.

Over the next dozen years, as war with French Canada raged across the northern New England frontier, Rogers organized an elite commando-style unit, leading it in raids against French outposts, ambushing French patrols - and being ambushed in turn.

"It would be his signature genius," as Ross puts it, "to create a new and formidable mode of warfare; the invisibility and sweeping range of the forest people would be cleverly united to the newcomers' technologies, strategic vision, and cultural appetite for innovation." It would be a brand of warfare, he writes, "to match not only the continent's environment, but also its magnitude." It is no surprise to learn that Rogers's "Rules of Ranging" are now taught at Camp Rogers, the US Army's Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga.

Ross, the executive editor of American Heritage magazine, has crafted a thrilling narrative from Rogers's "Journals," the accounts of British and French commanders, and those of Rangers themselves. In addition to such traditional sources, Ross has hiked and kayaked over much of Rogers's territory and conveys a fine sense of place.

Here is Ross bringing the reader into those spruce bogs that the Rogers Rangers had traversed on the trek to Saint-François.

"As the men stepped into cold, dark water the color of long-steeped tea, each step proved uncertain: one foot might gain good purchase, the next sink in above the ankle or knee. Submerged, unseen branches, roots, and logs ripped at moccasins and stubbed now-numb toes. Stiff, sharp back spruce needles raked weary, stumbling bodies. Human beings entering any [such] habitat become conscious only slowly of the sheer magnitude of its life-sucking otherness. The glow of yellow tamarack needles in their fall splendor did little to temper the foreboding."

Rogers would live for another 36 years after the Saint-François raid.

There was a brief period of recognition when he was appointed commandant at the Great Lakes trading post at Michilimackinac, envisioning it as the gateway to an overland Northwest Passage. Suspected of planning to defect to his former French Canadian foes, he was court-martialed, but exonerated.

When the Revolution began, he offered his services to the Continental Army. But General Washington distrusted him, suspecting that he was a British agent, and ordered his arrest for treason. Rogers fled, received a command from the British, and in an act of typical cunning, tricked Nathan Hale into revealing himself as an American spy.

A romantic marriage, marred by long absences, had long since ended in divorce, and Rogers died, deeply in debt, in London in 1795.

Rogers has been a heroic figure for this reader since first encountering him some 60 years ago in Kenneth Roberts's classic 1937 novel, "Northwest Passage."

Here is Roberts's narrator describing Rogers on the night before the attack on Saint-François:

"Rogers, it seemed to me, could go beyond the limits of human endurance; and then, without rest, buoyantly hurl himself against the fiercest opposition of Nature or man, or both. There was something elemental about him - something that made it possible for men who were dead with fatigue to gain renewed energy from him, just as a drooping wheat-field is stirred to life by the wall of wind that runs before a thunder-storm."

It deepened the pleasure of reading "War on the Run" to find that historian Ross has matched the narrative skills of novelist Roberts.

Michael Kenney is a Cambridge-based freelance writer.

WAR ON THE RUN: The Epic Story of Robert Rogers and the Conquest of America's First Frontier By John F. Ross

Bantam, 548 pp.,

illustrated, maps, $30

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