March 13, 2023, marks the 265th anniversary of one of the most desperate — and bloodiest — firefights in Frontier Partisan history. It is a tale of Rangers and Partisans, of ambush and counter-ambush — all conducted in heavy snow on the dark and bloody ground around Lake George on the New York Frontier during the French & Indian War.
In February 1758, Lt. Col. William Haviland, commandant at Fort Edward, where Rogers Rangers were headquartered, ordered Captain Robert Rogers to take 400 men to scout toward the French bastion of Fort Carillon (later Ticonderoga), which commanded the narrows where Lake Champlain met Lake George. Through the French & Indian War and the American Revolution, the Champlain corridor was a warpath down which enemies could sweep to fall upon New York and split it off from the New England colonies. Reconnaissance in force kept the highly mobile French and their Canadian partisans and Indian allies at bay.
For reasons that remain obscure, Haviland cut Rogers’ force in half by the time it was ready to depart. Haviland and Rogers clashed constantly, including over the amount of ammunition the Rangers expended in target practice. There are those, including Rogers himself, who believe that, with breaches in operational security, and a depleted force, leaving him “not with a party of 400 men, as at first given out, but of 180 men only, officers included,” Haviland was setting Rogers up to fail.
In his Journal, Rogers wrote:
I acknowledged I entered upon this service, and viewed this small detachment of brave men march out, with no little concern and uneasiness of mind; for as there was the greatest reason to suspect, that the French were, by the prisoner and deserter, fully informed of the design of sending me out upon Putnam’s return; what could I think, to see my party, instead of being strengthened and augmented, reduced to less than one-half of the number first proposed. I must confess it appeared to me (ignorant and unskilled as I then was in the politics and arts of war) incomprehensible; but my commander doubtless had his reasons, and is able to vindicate his own conduct.
In the depths of the Little Ice Age, the winter of 1757-58 was brutally cold. Lake George was frozen solid, and snow lay four feet deep in the forest around it. The Rangers’ patrol moved for the better part of two days on the frozen lake, using ice creepers, but as they closed in on Fort Carillon, they needed cover. The Rangers crossed the lake and plunged into the snowclad forest. In snow that deep, the going was tough, even with snowshoes.
Rogers ordered his men to move toward the fort along the course of Trout Brook, “thinking to lay an Ambush on Some of their roads in ye Night, & meet with them in the morning without being discovered.” But the Rangers had been discovered. Breaches in operational security weren’t to blame; Indians had cut their trail. As Dr. Joseph F. Meany Jr. of the New York Military Museum and Veterans Research Center reports:
Unknown to Robert Rogers and his men, the French at Ticonderoga had been reinforced by Sieur La Durantaye of the Companies Franche de la Marine with thirty French marines and 200 Iroquois and Nipissing Indians from Sault Saint Louis and the Lake of the Two Mountains who had arrived at Fort Carillon the previous evening, 12 March 1758. According to legend, the Indians held council that night and their medicine man prophesied that an English war party was out. Thus, when the news reached Captain De Hebecourt, the commander at Fort Carillon, that Indians returning north had crossed the trail of 200 men on snowshoes where the rangers had struck inland from the west shore of Lake George, Sieur La Durantaye’s Indians could hardly be restrained.
About 95 of them headed out on the afternoon of March 13 — and ran head-on into the kill zone of a Ranger ambush. Rogers himself dropped the hammer. He recalled that:
“We waited until their front was nearly opposite to our left wing, when I fired a gun, as a signal for a general discharge upon them; whereupon we gave them the first fire, which killed about forty Indians, the rest retreated. My party pursued them & Scalped about forty Indians in about one quarter of an hour.”
It was a perfect ambush and a devastating assault — and it led almost immediately to disaster for the Rangers. For a quick reaction force more than 200 strong led by one of the finest Partisans in the French service was headed to the sound of the guns. The French Marine JeanBaptiste Levrault de Langis Montegron — Langy to the English — immediately deployed his troops into battle order. The Rangers pursuing the Durantaye’s Indians ran into withering fire. Meaney writes:
The exultant rangers ran straight into Langy’s volley, delivered at close range in total surprise. Captain Bulkeley and all his officers were killed or wounded in the deadly fusillade. Lieutenant Moore and Ensign MacDonald, both mortally wounded, managed to rally the survivors and fall back, hard pressed by Langy and Durantaye, to Rogers’ main body before they died.
Langis’ action led General Montcalm, the French commander in North America, to tell the French Minister of war that the Partisan understood “petty war the best of any man.”
Langis worked to envelop the remnant of Rogers’s force, with fighting sometimes coming down to 20 yards or less, and sometimes devolving into desperate hand-to-hand combat in the snow. Several times, the Rangers repulsed Langis’ assaults — but the force was too badly mauled to press an advantage, and the French, Canadian and Indian force repeatedly reformed and continued their attack. As night fell, the right of the Rangers’ defensive position was threatened with being overwhelmed, and Lt. William Phillips sought to surrender his 18 men. The French offered his men quarter, but when Indians discovered scalps in the Rangers’ possession, they tied the surrendered Rangers to trees and hacked them to death. Phillips was spared and taken as a “live letter” to the French commander. He was later able to escape and returned to Ranger service. Given what he had experienced, getting back into the fight was the act of a very brave man.
Rogers’ left was held by a pair of British Regular Army officers, Captain Henry Pringle and Lt. Boyle Roche, who had been detailed to the Rangers. Pringle recalled that:
“Capt. Rogers with his party came to me, and said (as did all those with him) that a large body of Indians had ascended to our right; he likewise added, what was true, that the combat was very unequal, that I must retire, and he would give Mr. Roche and me a Sergeant to conduct us thru the mountain. No doubt prudence required us to accept his offer; but, besides one of my snowshoes being untied, I knew myself unable to march as fast as was required to avoid becoming a sacrifice to an enemy we could no longer oppose. I therefore begged of him to proceed and then leaned against a rock in the path, determined to submit to a fate I thought unavoidable. Unfortunately for Mr. Roche, his snow-shoes were loosened likewise, which obliged him to determine with me, not to labour in a flight we both were unequal to.”
As it happened, Pringle and Roche did manage to elude capture and escape — for all the good it did them. They endured several days of utter misery wandering, as so many who get lost in the woods do, in a giant circle.
“After marching all night, daylight showed us a place we were unacquainted with. Here we saw a man who was a servant of Capt. Rogers…we thought ourselves fortunate in meeting with a guide to whom we gave entire confidence. We had no blanket or coat…our snowshoes breaking and we sinking to our middle every 50 paces, scrambling up mountains, across fallen timbers, our nights without sleep or covering…our sustenance…the berries and bark of trees. The wind piercing us like a sword together with a freezing rain that encrusted us entirely with ice. In crossing a stream we were plunged entirely into the water…we then made a path around a tree and exercise all night, though scarce able to stand, (to keep from freezing to death)…the 18th brought us to the [lake shore] yet still do I dread the consequence and with reason, for the first light informed us it was the very place we had left 5 days before…our guide staggered from us and sat down and died immediately. (Here I must own that my resolution began to leave me.) We had no resource but to throw ourselves in the enemies hands or perish.”
Pringle would be redeemed in a prisoner exchange and would rise to the rank of Major General in the British Army.
Rogers himself made a rather spectacular escape. Legend has it that he slid down the nearly face of Bald Mountain to the shore of Lake George. More likely, he descended a ravine and made it to the lake, where he rendezvoused with survivors. Another contingent of Rangers came up the lake and got the nearly done-up survivors back to Fort Edward.
For a while, the French and Indians thought they’d killed the notorious English raider Rogers. He’d shed his coat in his flight, and it contained his commission and the orders for the scout from Haviland. But the robust captain would live to fight another day — promoted to major in a vote of confidence from British military officials, in spite of what was a clear defeat.
Part of that is down to Rogers’ talent for spin. His accounts of the battle claimed that the French and Indian force was 600-700 strong — clearly an exaggeration — and he claimed his force had inflicted 60 KIA after the initial 40 killed in the Trout Brook ambush. He estimated enemy wounded at 100. French casualties, according to a report made to Montcalm, listed six killed and 24 wounded. That seems low, for the desperate nature of the fight, but it is surely closer to reality than Rogers’ spin.
Rogers lost some 125 KIA and seven captured out of a force of 184. His force had been utterly shattered.
Robert Rogers had a very uneven career. His current reputation as the father of American special operations forces is legitimate, in that he codified operational principles of spec ops warfare in the 1750s that remain relevant today. Just proving an ability to operate in winter conditions was a significant development in 18th century warfare — at least for the British. The French partisans and their Indian allies had been conducting major winter operations for decades.
His Rangers did have successes in the F&I War, and his influence led to the development of effective light infantry equipment and tactics in the British Army. The Rangers incubated some effective officers like Israel Putnam and John Stark who would serve the new United States well during the American Revolution.
The thing that always strikes me is that Rogers at his best tended to take a LOT of casualties — and he certainly was not an exemplar of the “no man left behind” ethos. In his most famous exploit, the 1759 raid on the Abenaki town of St. Francis, he lost almost 40 percent his force (killed or captured) to harrying by the enemy and starvation in a disastrous march back to British territory. On the other hand, Rogers’ resilience, force of will, and grit and fortitude prevented disasters like the Battle on Snowshoes and the retreat from St. Francis from turning into utter catastrophes.
Rogers was badly treated by British authorities post war, and I am well convinced that the debt, alcoholism and moral disintegration he experienced in later life are the tragic result of that unfair treatment. It pushed him to the wall. His reputation suffered for a long time because he was a Loyalist in the American Revolution (and played a role in the apprehension and execution of Nathan Hale). But, truly, he was at the end of his tether by then. By 1777, he was out of the fight and the Queen’s Rangers he had formed were under another man’s command.
Rogers largely faded from American historical consciousness until Kenneth Roberts revived his reputation with his 1936 novel Northwest Passage, which would be made into a movie in 1940, starring Spencer Tracy. In the context of the looming conflict in Europe, Americans were open to extolling an era when Americans were British, and fought a common enemy. Such was the popularity of Northwest Passage that, when Americans built a force in World War II to match the British Commandos, they called them Rangers.
Robert Rogers remains, for me, a compelling but elusive figure, a giant of Frontier Partisans history, but one I can never quite figure out.
If you are at all interested in this topic, I strongly urge you to pick up this hot-off-the-presses magnificent and absorbing tome, just released by Rogers Rangers experts Tim J. Todish and Gary Zaboly. Order from The Fort Plain Museum and support their programs.
Paul McNamee says
You know I’ve walked on snowshoes I wouldn’t want to fight on them.
It’s interesting that Roger’s record was so uneven. Even competent men make mistakes and he seems to have a problem with alcohol.
Quixotic Mainer says
Archery and gunnery in them is pretty doable! Close combat is another matter. This year I have been on my snowshoes a lot, and actually did try some armed and unarmed techniques with a training partner. They force you to take a very wide stance, and almost nullify any sophisticated footwork. It’s very difficult to backpedal without tripping, so you have to parry or slip to one side. I suspect given clubbed muskets, knives and hawks, the tribes and Rangers barreled right at one another.
That tracks with accounts. And we have to bear in mind that these were not modern bindings — they slipped easily. I suspect that the snowshoes were removed in combat, as in the Zaboly illustration, which meant everybody was just wallowing in a mess of white.
Quixotic Mainer says
I’ll bet you’re right. Even awkwardly moose walking in the snow, it would be worth it for the maneuverability.
Important to note that Rogers’ alcoholism didn’t manifest itself until well after his F&I War career. It did cost him his posting in the Rev War.
Brian H. says
Interesting that Dr. Meany’s report shows another incident of the Iroquois playing both sides. Obviously such in such a large confederacy tribes would at times follow their own best interests. I think maybe one of the reasons why “War on the Run” by John Ross did as well as it did was because it came out in the middle of the GWOT with reports special operations in the news all the time. Great post!
Jean Nave says
That was a terrible war.
Indeed — a conflict of extreme and highly personal brutality.
Ron Thompson says
Another good post Jim! One of my hero’s in my younger day’s.
Thank you Ron.
Roy Lacey says
Thoroughly enjoyed your article. Saw the film with Spencer Tracy, and Robert young, I believe. This article magnifies the terrible conditions at that time. Coincidentaly, my birthday!!. Tom Horn.
Glad it resonated.
A vivid write-up on Rodger’s ice capades. Was Rodgers the one who promoted the popular lore of sliding down Bald Mountain/Rodgers Rock to escape the pursuers, or was it a myth that sprang up after the incident? It sounds like most people think the French and Indians simply gave up, but I do like the image of a desperate Hollywood-style escape maneuver in conditions that might actually have made the attempt possible.
It’s not clear who started the legend, but it was promulgated early. There’s a reference in 1760, and at least by 1766 the face was being called Rgers Rock or Rogers Leap.