“Whitcomb was a presumptuous fellow, entirely devoid of fear, of more than common strength, equal to an Indian for enduring hardship or privation, drank to excess even when in the greatest peril, balls whistling around his head.”
This contemporary description of Revolutionary War Ranger Major Benjamin Whitcomb could be a template for the classic Frontier Partisan: bold, strong, skilled, drunk. Whitcomb was, indeed, one hell of a badass Frontier Partisan — and till this weekend, I’d never heard of him.
My work on the second volume of Warriors of the Wild Lands has led me deep into the lakes and forests of the upper New York Frontier circa 1755-1780. The chain of lakes that formed an 18th Century highway between Canada and New York/New England was the great warpath and battleground of the French & Indian War and the American Revolution. In these forests I made the acquaintance of the most dangerous Major Whitcomb.
Whitcomb was a Massachusetts man, born in 1737. He fought in the French & Indian War, and then settled on the New Hampshire-Vermont Frontier. He was a hardy son of a hardy race of Yankee frontiersmen. And he was a Rebel from the start. He recruited men to reinforce the attempt to invade Canada and returned from that disastrous failure to Fort Ticonderoga in the spring of 1776.
The American Patriot forces required scouts to keep an eye out for British invaders or Loyalist/Iroquois raiders coming down from Montreal. Whitcomb knew the territory, and he had the perfect temperament for such dangerous work.
On July 14, 1776, just 10 days after independence was declared (a development of which he was probably unaware), he set off for Canada with four companions. Two of his comrades, both Frenchmen, got cold feet and turned back. Another “got sick” and returned to Fort Ticonderoga. The fourth deserted to the British.
On his own — and with his mission possibly compromised — Whitcomb penetrated deep into British territory. He scouted the roads that formed a triangle of land between Montreal and the fortified villages of St. Johns and Chamblee.
The American scout spied a lone British officer riding on the road and, being “a presumptuous fellow,” he fired on him. Then he took to the woods and hid out to avoid pursuit. He wouldn’t find out just what he’d done until he made his way back to Fort Ticonderoga on August 6, 1776.
Whitcomb had shot and mortally wounded Brigadier General Patrick Gordon of the 29th Regiment of Foot. The general, who had apprehended no danger so deep in British territory, was took by two balls in the shoulder. He stayed in the saddle and made it back to the fort at La Prairie, but he succumbed to the wounds two days later.
My surmise is that Whitcomb had charged his musket with buck-and-ball and two balls from the charge caught the general.
The British military establishment was outraged by this ambush killing, which, under 18th Century protocols, was tantamount to murder.
Governor General of Canada Gen. Sir Guy Carleton took a dim view of American woodsrunners. In his general orders he noted:
“B.G. Gordon was dangerously wounded yesterday by one of these infamous Skulkers. … Should he, or any of his party, or any other party of the same Nature come within reach of our Men, it is hoped they will not honor them with a Soldier’s Death, if they can possibly avoid it, but reserve them for a due punishment, which can only be inflicted by the Hangman.”
He put his money where his mouth was, putting up a 50 guinea reward for Whitcomb’s capture. The Governor-General knew exactly who the killer was; he’d been ratted out by the deserter.
Another British Officer wrote:
“[t]he Rascal Whitcomb escaped but time perhaps may bring him to the End, which his murder of B. General Gordon deserves.”
Bear in mind that in the 18th Century, “rascal” was very strong opprobrium.
The American officer class took a dim view of Whticomb’s action, too, considering it an “assassination.” However, they also recognized a big set of balls and an impressive skill set when they saw it.
Whitcomb and his fellow Frontier Partisans were entirely Zero Foxtrot about the whole affair: The Indians whom they used as their forest warfare examples weren’t troubled by inane rules; why should they be?
Whitcomb returned to the scene of the crime scarcely a month after shooting General Gordon, and this time captured the Quartermaster of the 29th, along with an aide. He dragged them across a hundred miles of rugged wilderness and presented them as intelligence assets to General Horatio Gates.
That earned Whitcomb a promotion to the rank of Captain and command of two companies of independent Rangers.
Men of Whitcomb’s Independent Corps of Rangers fought the first engagement of the pivotal Saratoga Campaign in 1777, when scouts ran afoul of the Indians screening General Johnny Burgoyne’s advance out of Canada. They fought in numerous engagements, including Saratoga, where they were attached to Henry Dearborn’s Light Infantry.
Eventually earning the rank of Major, Whitcomb led this irregular force — made up largely of teenaged woodsrunners — in small unit patrol, scouting and spying missions on the New York frontier through the rest of the war until they were mustered out in 1781.
How the hell can a lifelong student of frontier history miss this tale? Beats me. My main interest in this period has been the Ohio Valley Frontier, but you’d think I’d have run across Whitcomb somewhere before this. Nope.
History is capricious. Some men become famous, while equally impressive characters fade into obscurity. I’m mighty glad to have made the acquaintance of this presumptuous fellow out there on the bloody and dangerous borderland of the American Revolution.