Monday, May 18, 2020

This Day in Military History (Robert Rogers, Special Ops Pioneer, Dies)

May 18, 1795—Major Robert Rogers, a New Hampshire soldier whose tactics and leadership of an elite unit of unconventional warriors in the French and Indian War foreshadowed the modern “Special Forces,” died alone and impoverished at age 63 in London, far removed from the brilliant exploits in the North American wilderness that made him famous throughout the 13 American colonies.

If you are wondering what a picture of buckskin-clad Spencer Tracy is doing in a post about an 18th-century military commander, it is because the great actor spurred my interest in this legendary but flawed soldier by playing him, with his usual intensity and conviction, in Northwest Passage, King Vidor’s 1940 adaptation of the bestselling novel by Kenneth Roberts. 

I can still remember being enthralled as a child by numerous scenes in this epic Technicolor tale of daring and survival—notably, a “human chain” that enables “Rogers’ Rangers” to cross a torrential river.

With America more than a year away from entering World War II, Rogers’ exploits showed how America, with little of the intense training that characterized Continental soldiers, could still revolutionize warfare by teaching a motley force unconventional new tactics. 

“Rogers’ Rangers” represented a sharp break with the English tradition of military service, where commissions were bought and common soldiers were drilled to march in strict formation. In contrast, the soldiers that Rogers molded were woodsmen, provincials, farmers, and Indian scouts, all ready to follow their charismatic leader in asymmetrical warfare where traditional methods could not find traction.

The film ended in triumph for Rogers and his soldiers. MGM had originally subtitled their feature “Book One: Rogers’ Rangers,” in the hope that its success would convince the studio’s most acclaimed male star that he should come back for the second half of the Roberts novel. 

But Tracy, exhausted by its arduous on-location filming, saw the downbeat second half of the book as a reason why it should not be filmed. “I’ll play him [Rogers] up to the point where he has achieved his objective, but I’ll be damned if I’ll play him when he becomes a drunkard. Audiences won’t want to see him in that stage of life.”

Offhand, I can think of only two epic films that challenged audiences with second halves that saw their real-life heroes suffer the kind of shattering disillusionment and death that Tracy saw as box-office poison: Lawrence of Arabia and Reds, about the American journalist who served as an eyewitness-participant in the Russian Revolution, John Reed. Northwest Passage, about an American further removed in time, would have been an even harder sell in tracing how its hero subsequently failed at politics, business, and marriage. 

The great 19th-century historian of the colonial conflict between England and France, Francis Parkman, summed up Rogers’ opposing tendencies in Montcalm and Wolfe

“He had passed his boyhood in the rough surroundings of a frontier village. Growing to manhood, he engaged in some occupation which, he says, led him to frequent journeyings in the wilderness between the French and English settlements...He does not disclose the nature of this mysterious employment; but there can be little doubt that it was a smuggling trade with Canada. His character leaves much to be desired. He had been charged with forgery, or complicity in it, seems to have had no scruple in matters of business, and after the war was accused of treasonable dealings with the French and Spaniards in the west. He was ambitious and violent, yet able in more ways than one, by no means uneducated, and so skilled in woodcraft, so energetic and resolute, that his services were invaluable.”

A few of Rogers’ exploits were especially noteworthy, not only for the way he employed speed and surprise against the French and their Native American allies but also for the hardships endured by him and his men:

*The St. Francois Raid, the climax of a 150-mile march, much of it through marshy bog, that ended in the destruction of an Indian village that had served as the launching pad for several deadly raids into the northern colonies; 

*The Second Battle of the Snowshoes, in which, after attempting to ambush the French, Rogers’ men had the tables turned on them—surviving by the skin of their teeth (including, a possibly apocryphal tale claims, by sliding 400 feet down a sheer cliff to a frozen Lake George; and 

*The 1760 capture of Fort Detroit and other French outposts, secured after Rogers and the Rangers marched west—through enemy forests not even charted by the English.

Rogers’ career after the end of the French and Indian Wars marked a tragic fall from grace. He had made an enemy of General Thomas Gage, a rival of Rogers’ commander and mentor, British General Jeffrey Amherst. Gage, as Parkman indicated in the passage I quoted earlier, brought charges of treason against Rogers and had him hauled to Detroit in chains.

Rogers was acquitted following a trial. But, at the start of the American Revolution, he made a worse enemy in George Washington, who, because of the major’s extensive travels in the colonies as unrest spread against English rule, suspected that Rogers was a Loyalist spy. 

Forced to choose side, Rogers elected to fight against the New Englanders he grew up with, even playing a role in one of the earliest English intelligence coups of the war: the capture of Nathan Hale. But he was removed from a leadership role of “The Queen’s Rangers,” and his drinking and indebtedness mounted until he faded into obscurity far from home. 

Nevertheless, his contribution to American warfare remains. It not only was maintained through his aide John Stark, who would win the Battle of Bennington for the colonials in the American Revolution, but through his “Rules of Ranging,” a set of guidelines for guerrilla warfare that is still distributed by the U.S. Army Ranger School.

No comments: