Major Robert Rogers knew a bad mission when he saw it. By the late winter of 1758, the 26-year-old colonial American had been fighting France off and on for more than a decade as Britain continued its long struggle for control of North America. As a teenager, he had served with two colonial scouting companies in the 1740s during King George’s War. In 1755, a year after an intercolonial boundary dispute in the upper Ohio valley erupted into the French and Indian War, he reenlisted and took command of some 20 militiamen in New Hampshire, where he came to the attention of William Johnson, a senior British officer. “I believe him to be as brave and honest a man as any I have equal knowledge of,” Johnson wrote, declaring him “superior to most, inferior to none of his rank in these troops.”
The famous forerunners of American special-ops forces made their mark in a snowy 1758 battle against the French
Since then Rogers had patrolled and raided in the region around Lake George and Lake Champlain with his own unit of Rangers—highly paid provincial troops, accompanied by regular volunteers, who scouted and harried the French and Indians. Rogers’ Rangers were soon to earn fame as some of America’s earliest and finest partisans, though in a snowy battle that belied their rapid rise to legend.
The mission that did not sit well with Rogers had been ordered in March 1758 by Lieutenant Colonel William Haviland, commander of the British forces in the Lake George area. He and his men were to make a reconnaissance in force to the French-held Fort Carillon (later Ticonderoga), perched near the southern end of Lake Champlain, just beyond the north end of Lake George. There appeared to be no clear objective other than to harass Carillon’s daily patrols, and Rogers, inexplicably, was given fewer than half the 400 men he had been promised. Worse, news of the proposed raid had spread through the camp, and Rogers had good reason to fear that word had reached the enemy. Of Haviland’s order, he later wrote, “I must confess it appeared to me (ignorant and unskilled as I then was in politics and the art of war) incomprehensible.”
The 40-year-old Haviland, a highly competent but very much by-the-book regular in the British Army, had clashed with Rogers several times. He had recently ordered two Rangers flogged for stealing rum from the redcoats. Rogers’s men had rioted and cut down the whipping post. Haviland was furious, sneering at Rogers’s warning that his men would desert if flogged: “I answered it would be better they were all gone than have such a riotous sort of people, but if he would catch me one that attempted it, I would endeavour to have him hanged as an example.” The two men detested each other.
A soldier Rogers was, however, so on March 10, 1758, he dutifully led about 180 men from his small island base on the Hudson River adjacent to Fort Edward, Haviland’s command post just south of Lake George. His men included British volunteers as well as provincials, all wrapped in layers of linen and woolen clothing to stay warm; they could not light fires for fear of giving their position away to the enemy.
After a day’s march from Fort Edward to the southern end of Lake George, Rogers camped. On the 12th his band spotted a dog on the frozen lake. Suspecting an ambush by Indians, the dog’s likely masters, he directed his men to Sabbath Day Point, a peninsula protruding into the lake on the western side, and waited until nightfall. Following Rogers’s rules of ranging, scouts equipped with small spyglasses reconnoitered, and the rest of the force moved forward after dark, 15 men picking their way as an advance guard, some moving on the frozen lake itself using the skates they habitually carried, others flanking on the left, the western shore of the lake, lugging packs and pulling sleighs.
Eight miles before reaching the French forward outpost at the northern end of Lake George, one of Rogers’s scouts on skates returned with a report of campfires on the eastern shore. Shifting his force into the shelter of the woods on the western side of the lake, he deposited the sleds and gear and deployed his troops for an attack, only to discover that the supposed campfires were the phosphorescent glow of rotten wood. The tension of impending action eased. “We returned to our packs, and there lay the remainder of the night without fire,” he wrote.
Following a council of war the next morning, March 13, Rogers decided to continue to move on the western shore on snowshoes, avoiding the lake and bypassing a French camp on Lake George that served as a listening post for Fort Carillon. Halting at noon to rest, the Rangers planned to set their ambushes by night for the next day. They were looking for a position between Carillon and the listening outpost where they could intercept small groups of Frenchmen moving between the two.
Rogers did not know, however, that half a dozen Abenaki Indian scouts had come across his tracks and his campsite and hastened to Carillon to raise the alarm. In response, a band of nearly 100 impulsive Indians swarmed out of the fort, led by a Canadian officer hoping to control them; half an hour later, a more formidable group of 200 left the fort, bolstered by a few dozen Canadians and Frenchmen.
In the afternoon’s failing light, Rogers’s scouts saw only the first party of Indians from Carillon loping toward them. The Rangers immediately dropped their packs and prepared for battle. Rogers divided his men into two groups and deployed them lengthwise across a narrow depression between a mountain on the right and a rivulet on the left. They set a hasty ambush, and at 4 p.m. the Indians walked into it. Sensing something was wrong, the Indians hesitated at the last moment. A Ranger fired his musket a few seconds too early. But the trap worked. With a single blast of gunfire, the French and Indians were routed. Most of Rogers’s small force pursued the fleeing enemy; the rest began scalping and plundering the dead.
As they charged with knife and tomahawk (many had not had time to reload), the Rangers noticed the Indians pause in their retreat and return fire. And then the second, much stronger French force of 200 Indians and Canadians hit the Rangers. Losing some 50 men in the initial shock of this encounter, Rogers and his troops withdrew to the east, up the mountain face, hoping to work their way back to the northern end of Lake George. By Rogers’s account they repulsed the enemy several times until their position was in danger of being turned by what he estimated as several hundred Indians on their right. “I now thought it most prudent to retreat, and bring off with me as many of my party as I possibly could,” Rogers recalled later.
To avoid being surrounded, Rogers sent out two flanking parties of 18 and 15 men. The fight was close, within 20 yards, and went on for an hour and a half. As the Rangers conducted their retreat, clumping awkwardly uphill on their wood-and-sinew snowshoes, they could hear the screams of their wounded comrades being tortured to death by the Indians. The men had to reload their muskets carefully as tomahawk-wielding Indians bore down on them; if their gunpowder became damp their firearms would become no more than metal-shafted clubs. Even when in good order with dry powder these weapons could fire only a single shot every 20 seconds. The party on the right, 18 men under Lieutenant William Hendrick Phillips, became detached from the main group and was surrounded. After a shouted conversation with Rogers, Phillips himself surrendered. The other 15 men fought with the determination of those who could expect no quarter from an enemy who scalped the wounded before killing them.
As the day’s long shadows fell under the trees, Rogers’s men followed the guidance he had always given in the event of disaster—disperse and rendezvous at a fixed point, in this case the spot on Lake George where they had cached their sleds. Some made it back with their leader, reaching Lake George at nightfall and retreating the next day toward Fort Edward. Others became detached and disoriented; exhausted and starving, two English officers and five Rangers stumbled into Fort Carillon four days after the battle.
The lore of the North Country suggests that Rogers escaped the pursuing French and Indians by sliding down a rock face several hundred feet high—Rogers Rock, as it is still known. The more prosaic truth appears to be that the Fort Carillon party simply gave up the chase. As Major General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, commander of the French forces in North America, reported to Paris: “[Rogers] has been utterly defeated; our Indians would not give any quarter; they have brought back one hundred and forty-six scalps; they retained only three prisoners.” Having suffered much from Rogers and his men, the Indians had no inclination to preserve many lives. The captives—what the Indians called “live letters”—would provide as much intelligence as needed to their “father,” Pierre François Rigaud Vaudreuil de Cavagnial, the French governor-general who had made allies of many Indian tribes.
On March 14, Rogers and the remnants of his party marched back down Lake George and rendezvoused with Captain John Stark, six miles north of the southern end of the lake. The next day they staggered back into Fort Edward. Rogers put the best possible face on the defeat: The enemy, instead of numbering 300, became in his account a force two or three times that size; he reported the enemy’s losses at a comforting 150 dead and as many wounded. In reality, the French saw 2 Europeans seriously wounded, 4 Indians killed, and 16 Indians wounded.
The elite scouts of the British army had lost 125 men, by Rogers’s count, almost two-thirds of a considerable raiding party in one fight. The battle had been, purely and simply, a debacle. Yet “The Battle on Snowshoes” became part of the legend of Rogers and his men—a defeat, perhaps, but somehow the story of Rogers’s slide down the rock, war whoops ringing in the air, atoned in the popular imagination for the catastrophe.
Excerpted from Conquered into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles Along the Great Warpath That Made the American Way of War, by Eliot A. Cohen, to be published by Simon & Schuster, November 15, 2011.