Birth of the Army Rangers

A tradition older than the nation

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Modern artist’s rendition of Robert Rogers (left) and his rangers skirmishing with pursuers during the retreat from St. Francis (Painting: Pamela White)

We have recently celebrated the 79th birthday of the U.S. Army Rangers. On October 3, 1943, the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) was organized in the China-Burma-India Theater to conduct long-range special operations in the jungle. The unit, better known as Merrill’s Marauders after their commander, General Frank Merrill, later became the 75th Infantry Regiment, and later still the 75th Ranger Regiment, the present-day Ranger force in the U.S. Army.  The cultural, spiritual and military roots of the Rangers, however, reach far deeper into American history. In fact, the story of the U.S. Army Rangers began not only before there was an Army, but before there was a U.S.

Brigadier General Frank Merrill from Merrill’s Marauders with two Japanese-American interpreters
Brigadier General Frank Merrill from Merrill’s Marauders with two Japanese-American interpreters
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

North America was rife with colonial conflict in the 17th and 18th centuries. The British Empire (and thus the Thirteen Colonies) have clashed with the French and Spanish Empires as well as the Netherlands on various occasions. The great European powers were constantly jockeying for power and resources all over the world. Sometimes, war between empires sparked up elsewhere and dragged the colonies into the conflict; on other occasions, local hostilities began in the colonies and forced the imperial overlords to intervene. Native American nations also participated in local wars, either as allies to one European nation or another, or in an attempt to protect their own independence and way of life.
European colonists were still new to the continent and had much to learn from the First Nations. This was especially true of warfare. European warfare at the time was dominated by large armies maneuvering in formation and engaging each other in open fields with musket volleys and artillery. The vast expanses of North American wilderness and the low population, however, did not readily allow for such tactics. Long-distance raids and wilderness warfare were necessary skills for colonists to learn, and they picked them up from their Native American allies.

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Early “Rangers” in American history (Image:

The Jamestown Massacre of 1622 was a moment of particular military note. After killing 347 English settlers, the local Powhattan people expected the survivors to do what they themselves would have done: pack up and leave. Instead, the English decided to consolidate themselves in fewer but more defensible settlements, and strike back with force. The words “to range” and “Ranger” started to be used to describe the sort of small-scale warfare that blended European and Native American methods.

Artist’s depiction of the Jamestown Massacre (Woodcut: Matthäus Merian)
Artist’s depiction of the Jamestown Massacre (Woodcut: Matthäus Merian)

Benjamin Church (1639-17189) is considered to be the captain of the first proper Ranger force. Church was commissioned as a captain in 1675, during King Philip’s War. (Rather than a European ruler, King Philip was actually a Wampanoag chief called Metacomet, who adopted a Christian name during an earlier period of peace between his father and the Mayflower pilgrims.) Recognizing that European tactics work poorly on the frontier, Church formed a mixed unit of Englishmen and Native Americans, some of the latter being surrendered enemies whom he persuaded to switch sides. By building alliances with the locals, employing Native American methods of stealth and surprise, and understanding how local actions fit into a wider strategy, Church’s men became the first colonial force to fight successfully against Native Americans. The war came to an end when King Phillip was shot and fatally wounded by one of Church’s Native American soldiers.

Colonel Benjamin Church (Drawing: unknown artist)
Colonel Benjamin Church (Drawing: unknown artist)

Church went on to serve in other colonial wars. His memoirs, Entertaining Passages relating to Philip’s War, was not strictly written as a journal of his military exploits, but contains many details on his campaigns, and is sometimes considered to be the first American military manual.

Another famous early Ranger company was Gorham’s Rangers. John Gorham’s great-grandfather and grandfather both served in Benjamin Church’s company, the former dying in battle. John Gorhan III (1709-1751) himself was a former whaling captain and merchant, politically well-connected but having no military experience besides basic militia training. He nevertheless acquired a commission early in King George’s War (1744-1748), one of the numerous Anglo-French conflicts in North America.
Gorham’s Rangers was originally a 60-man outfit: 48 Native American soldiers commanded by 12 British officers and non-commissioned officers, many of whom were Gorham’s relatives. Having no ranger experience, Gorham himself became a student of his subordinates to learn the style of warfare he needed to carry out. The unit’s success earned it an honor that was rare among Ranger companies: it was adopted into the regular British Army. This gave the unit the resources to expand to an average strength of 90-95 people, with more and more Europeans trained in Ranger-style tactics among the rank-and-file.

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Historical reenactors of Gorham’s Rangers firing a volley (Photo: Gorham’s Rangers Facebook group)

Gorham’s Rangers went on to serve in two other colonial wars, Father Le Loutre’s War and the French and Indian War. During the latter, in late July 1757, they took part in a planned assault on the French fortress of Louisbourg. The company captured a fishing vessel and dressed up as French fishermen, sailing into the harbor at night. They were eventually discovered and fired on by a French ship, but not before they gathered important information on the stronger-than-anticipated French forces. Their report convinced the British commander to call off what might have ended up as a disastrous assault. In 1761, the company was sent with other British units on an expedition to Cuba. Tropical diseases killed almost half of the men; Gorham’s Rangers was disbanded in 1963, and its surviving members were transferred to other British units.

Artist’s depiction of the Siege of Louisbourg (Painting: Richard Paton)
Artist’s depiction of the Siege of Louisbourg (Painting: Richard Paton)

The most famous colonial Ranger unit was Rogers’ Rangers, established by Robert Rogers (1731-1795). Rogers was a frontiersman born in Massachusetts and had already served as a militia private at the age of 15. He founded his Ranger company as a provincial unit fighting for the British in 1755, using it to raid French towns and military emplacements during the French and Indian War. While his company was far from the first Ranger unit, it was Rogers who truly codified Ranger-style tactics. Recruiting from locals gave him a cadre already familiar with wilderness skills, and he used plentiful live fire practice, which was considered a frivolous expense among British regulars, to hone their marksmanship with rifled carbines. Native Americans and freed black men were also welcome among the Rogers’ Rangers.

Contemporary depiction of Robert Rogers (not made from life) (Painting: Johann Martin Will)
Contemporary depiction of Robert Rogers (not made from life) (Painting: Johann Martin Will)

Rangers in general eschewed the standard Provincial blue uniform in favor of camouflage colors. Green was the staple color for Rogers's men, but other similar units also used brown, gray or black. Proper uniforms were often unavailable, and the company made do with whatever warm clothes they could find in the right color, trimming them to make them lighter and to give themselves a fierce, "Indian-like" appearance. Their style of irregular warfare meant that the Rangers continued operating during the winter, using snowshoes, sleds and ice skates to move around while regular army units dug in and waited for spring.

Artist’s depiction of two members of Rogers Rangers with a British regular (Painting: U.S. Army Center of Military History)
Artist’s depiction of two members of Rogers Rangers with a British regular (Painting: U.S. Army Center of Military History)

Rogers wrote his 28 Rules of Ranging, a set of guidelines for his troops outlining proper tactics, effectively laying down the principles of guerilla-style warfare. A slightly modernized version is still taught in the U.S. Army Ranger School in Fort Benning. Additionally, a fictionalized version of Rogers’s Standing Orders, originally written by Kenneth Roberts in his historical novel Northwest Passage, is featured right after the Ranger Creed in the Ranger Handbook. If you’re interested, you can read the 28 Rules of Ranging here to and the Ranger Handbook here.
Rogers founded a single company of over 60 men, but British officers were so impressed with his exploits and ability to gather intelligence in the New York region that an unofficial corps of a dozen loosely affiliated companies was eventually established, with a total of 1,200-1,400 men at its height.
The high point of Rogers's career was the raid on St. Francis in September-October 1759. St. Francis was Christianized Indian village, inhabited by Native Americans of several tribes, many of them from the Abenaki people. The village was aligned with the French and was the launching point for many bloody raids against English colonists. Earlier in 1759, two British officers were captured by the locals and turned over to the French. News of the capture, mistreatment and possible torture of the two officers prompted Lord Jeffery Amherst, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in North America, to order a punitive raid by Rogers against the village.

Jeffery Amherst, Rogers’s superior and supporter (Painting: Joshua Reynolds, Mead Art Museum)
Jeffery Amherst, Rogers’s superior and supporter (Painting: Joshua Reynolds, Mead Art Museum)

Rogers’s force of 220 departed Fort Crown Point on September 13, travelling first by boat then on foot. The boats left behind for the return trip were discovered by French forces who embarked on a pursuit of the British force, which they correctly guessed to be heading toward St. Francis. The planned way home denied to him, Rogers decided to press on with the expedition. He sent a handful of men back to Crown Point with instructions to send a food cache to a rendezvous point along a different route back home, since he knew the company wouldn’t have enough supplies to march all the way back.

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Fort at Number 4 in New Hampshire, a station on the Rangers’ route back to Crown Point (Photo: John Phelan, Wikipedia)

The Rangers crossed over 100 miles (160 km) over extremely difficult wilderness terrain in nine days, arriving to St. Francis late on October 3 with exhausted food stores and a strength reduced to 142 men. Rogers donned Native American clothing and sneaked into the village at night, observing what he figured was a war dance in preparation of a scouting party.
Rogers led his men to the outskirts of the village at 3 a.m. the next morning. A part of his force worked its way from house to house, killing inhabitants before they could mount a defense; the best shooters stayed outside the village and shot anyone trying to flee. Once the village was wiped out, the buildings were burned down. The company took corn from the local stores for the return trip and prepared for the way home.

Artist’s depiction of Rogers’ Rangers and their Native American allies practicing marksmanship (Painting: Gary Zaboly)
Artist’s depiction of Rogers’ Rangers and their Native American allies practicing marksmanship (Painting: Gary Zaboly)

Several large French and French-allied Native American forces were already within marching distance of the Ranger force, forcing them to retreat toward British-held lands. Rogers’s men ran out of food again on the way back, and broke up into small groups that traveled independently. This made it easier for each group to forage and hunt, but also rendered them much more vulnerable to the enemy forces on their heels. Several groups were captured or killed, but the starving survivors (some of whom were rumored to resort to cannibalism) reached the appointed rendezvous spot on October 20 – only to find no food or friendly forces there. The men who were supposed to wait for them with supplies either gave up and departed for Crown Point, or mistook the arriving men for enemy forces and fled. At either rate, Rogers missed them by so little that the campfire was still warm. Left with no other choice, Rogers and three of his men took a raft down the river to a nearby fort, arriving there barely able to walk. Once he reached safety, he had a new supply of food sent upriver for his men, who were too weak to make the final leg of the journey on their own feet.  

Artist’s depiction of Rogers arriving at the rendezvous site to find nobody and no food. (Image: unknown artist)
Artist’s depiction of Rogers arriving at the rendezvous site to find nobody and no food. (Image: unknown artist)

Robert Rogers became the hero of the hour, and his exploits helped solidify the renown of Ranger companies. After the war, he briefly served as the governor of Michillimackinac and had sent expeditions to find the Northwest Passage, the navigable route between the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, but his star was already fading thanks to financial troubles, alcoholism and the scheming of a superior who hated him.

Fort Michillimackinac today (Photo: Eli Duke, Wikipedia)
Fort Michillimackinac today (Photo: Eli Duke, Wikipedia)

Rogers was living in England in the mid-1770s, but he returned to America when he heard that revolution was stirring. The former hero found no warm welcome. He was arrested under unclear circumstances and charged with espionage. Once the charge was cleared up, Continental Congress offered him an army commission he felt he had to refuse as he was formally a British officer. He later seems to have changed his mind and wrote to George Washington directly, asking for a command, but Washington rejected the request and had Rogers arrested again. It has been suggested by some historians that Washington, who was both less popular and a less talented combat leader, felt his position threatened by Rogers.
Rogers escaped from captivity and, embittered by the events, offered his services to the British. He raised two Ranger units, the Queen’s Rangers and the King’s Rangers, though he was eventually dismissed due to his alcoholism. According to one historical account, he was also responsible for the capture of Nathan Hale, the famous American spy who was executed by the British.

A rifleman of the Queen’s Rangers (Image: from the military journal of British General John Graves Simcoe)
A rifleman of the Queen’s Rangers (Image: from the military journal of British General John Graves Simcoe)

Some of Rogers’ former Rangers took the opposite side in the war and served with the Patriots. General Israel Putnam, who became famous during the Battle of Bunker Hill, and John Stark, the “Hero of Bennington,” were both veterans of Rogers Rangers.

Major General Israel Putnam during the Revolutionary War (Image: Library of Congress)
Major General Israel Putnam during the Revolutionary War (Image: Library of Congress)

Other Ranger units were also created and led by other Patriots. Thomas Knowlton and Knowlton’s Rangers were a Ranger unit in name, but they actually carried out intelligence activities rather than fight in combat. As such, they are not considered to be part of the modern Ranger lineage, but they were one of the ancestors of U.S. Military Intelligence. Nevertheless, they hold the honor of being the first military unit officially named “Rangers” and serving the United States of America. The Green Mountain Boys, later the Green Mountain Rangers, were a more traditional Ranger unit fighting on the Patriot side. The French officer Francis Marion, also known as the Swamp Fox, also developed methods of irregular warfare while fighting for the Patriot cause, and is considered one of the forefathers of the U.S. Army Rangers.

Artist’s depiction of the uniform of the Green Mountain Rangers (Painting: Charles M. Lefferts)
Artist’s depiction of the uniform of the Green Mountain Rangers (Painting: Charles M. Lefferts)

With the birth of the United States of America, the United States Rangers were also born. Ranger companies served in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, and the Civil War. When we talk about the U.S. Army Ranger today, we’re thinking of a special operations force whose organizational lineage goes back to World War II, and to such exploits as climbing Pointe du Hoc in Normandy on D-Day (Read our earlier article – Pointe du Hoc). But the traditions and mentality of the Rangers reach far deeper, into a period preceding even the existence of the United States, rooted in the spirit of the frontiersmen who traveled to the New World in search of a new life.

Modern-day U.S. Army Rangers practicing fast-roping at Fort Bragg (Photo: USASOC Public Affairs Office)
Modern-day U.S. Army Rangers practicing fast-roping at Fort Bragg (Photo: USASOC Public Affairs Office)

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