“War on the Run” by John F. Ross

I just finished reading “War on the Run: The Epic Story of Robert Rogers and the Conquest of America’s First Frontier” by John F. Ross, the executive editor of American Heritage magazine. Rogers was born in Methuen along the banks of the Spicket River in 1732 but his family moved to the Concord, New Hampshire region along the banks of the Merrimack River when he was seven. Growing up on what was then the frontier of New England settlement, Rogers learned the woodland and survival skills that would serve him so well later in life. While most colonists of that place and era lived in fear of deadly raids by Indians from Canada, Rogers befriended several local indigenous people and learned to respect their culture and heritage.

By 1755, Rogers was a member of the New Hampshire militia and as such soon found himself at Fort William Henry on the banks of Lake George shortly after the start of the French and Indian War. Early in that conflict, the British suffered several significant defeats due largely to their ignorance of “North American warfare”, a set of tactics in which the French, the Canadian militia, and their Indian allies excelled. Desperate to catch up, the British began depending more and more on the colonial militia, especially those units drawn from the frontier, to provide intelligence and to conduct raids. In this Rogers excelled and his natural leadership traits soon made him the commander of the “rangers” whose job it was to conduct “scouts”, a mission better known to today’s soldiers as patrols.

Rogers exploits at Lake Champlain became legendary, especially because his most audacious missions were accomplished in the dead of winter in subzero temperatures. It almost defies belief that colonial-era soldiers clad in “blanket-coats and moccasins”, could traverse great distances on snowshoes made of bent branches and deer gut, but the exploits of Rogers and his men are widely documented and corroborated. Rogers’ most famous mission was a raid on the Indian village of Saint-Francois which was located on the Saint Lawrence, far to the northeast of Montreal and far beyond the range of any other undertaking staged by the British from Lake Champlain. The raid achieved surprise and the village was devastated, but when the boats and provisions that Rogers had hidden for their escape back down Champlain were discovered and destroyed, the Rangers only option was to walk through the Green Mountains of Vermont and then the White Mountains of New Hampshire then down the Connecticut River valley. Along the way, many of the men died from either starvation or the enemy forces that vigorously pursued them.

Despite the high cost to his own force, the Saint-Francois raid made Rogers perhaps the most famous man in the colonies by the end of the war. While I have read other books that do just as good a job as this one in detailing Rogers’ exploits, “War on the Run” exceeds them all in placing these events in a broader context. The Saint-Francois raid, for example, completely changed the strategic dynamic in the New England/Lake Champlain theater. The Indians and Canadians were suddenly placed on the defensive; for once it was they who were frightened that raiders would descend on their homes and villages without warning. On the British side, by matching and exceeding the boldness of Indian/Canadian missions, Rogers showed that the colonial militia and British troops were the equal of their enemies.

Rogers was also the author of the first military manual written in North America. His “28 Rules of Ranging”, composed by him in the midst of the French and Indian War to train others in the tactics he had mastered, is still used by American Special Operations Troops today.

After the war, Rogers’ fell upon hard times. He was constantly in debt due to England’s failure to fully reimburse him for expenditures he made to supply and outfit his Rangers during the war. Although he was named Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the Great Lakes region and met with immediate success in keeping the peace amongst warring tribes, he was also charged with treason when a letter suggesting he was listening to overtures from the French surfaced (the author contends the letter was a “plant” by French intelligence to get Rogers out of the way). Rogers’ problems were exacerbated by the antagonistic relationship he had with the overall British commander, Thomas Gage, who held a deep but irrational hatred of Rogers. A court martial acquitted Rogers but his reputation was severely tarnished. He traveled to England and ended up in debtors prison for a number of years.

Returning to America in the early 1770s, Rogers was transfixed with the idea of finding the “Northwest Passage” a water route across the North American continent to the Pacific Ocean. His efforts to mount such an expedition just as the Revolutionary War began cast suspicion on him by both sides. Although Rogers held a British captain’s commission, his nemesis Gage would not allow Rogers to serve. With nowhere to turn, Rogers made overtures towards the Americans, even being interviewed by Washington. The American commander distrusted Rogers, however, and ordered him confined. Rogers escaped and made his way to the British side where he was brought onto active duty. His most noteworthy accomplishment during the Revolution was capturing Nathan Hale, the famous American spy who was executed immediately after his capture.

The author (Ross) suggests that Rogers was a man before his time, a bottom-up leader who dealt easily with the Indians and the common people of the American frontier. His leadership abilities made him a threat to established leaders on both sides (like Washington and Gage). Insights of this type combined with the amazing war-time exploits of Robert Rogers that make “War on the Run” well worth reading.