At long last, a major biography of Robert Rogers. If your response to that is "Who?", you've probably never been an Army Ranger.
If you're a movie buff, here is a hint: Think Spencer Tracy. Next to the glaring and baffling lack of a major DVD release of The African Queen, the unavailability of King Vidor's great 1940 film Northwest Passage, which tells the story of Rogers' most famous mission, leaves the greatest hole in my personal movie collection.
But the absence of a definitive biography of Rogers -- the most compelling figure of the French and Indian War (or, as Winston Churchill called it, the colonial front of World War I) -- is even more mysterious.
Until now, the best book about Rogers, the frontier warrior who invented special forces warfare and was the most celebrated warrior of pre-Revolution America, was Kenneth Roberts' classic historical novel, Northwest Passage, although only the first half of it is the basis for the film.
Now comes John F. Ross's wonderful War on the Run: The Epic Story of Robert Rogers and the Conquest of America's First Frontier, which compellingly tells the amazing story of this ironman action hero with feet of clay.
Robert Rogers was a man ahead of his time and behind his times. He is revered by the U.S. Army Rangers as their godfather, and his Rogers' Rules of Ranging are prominently quoted in today's Ranger manual.
Rogers greatly influenced the early course of American fighting tactics of lighter, more nimble forces. And while these doctrines were resurrected in the Vietnam war, it could be argued that Rogers' Rules were not fully employed until the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Decades before Lewis and Clark's expedition, Rogers mapped out a path to the Pacific and urged a westward looking direction on any authority that would give him the time of day.
On the other hand, Rogers in the 1770s (possibly due to his clashes with superiors in the British Army, which took him out of the colonies and into a London debtors' prison Ross posits) failed to grasp the importance and the issues of the American Revolution, and went from being the most celebrated warrior of his time to a man essentially without a country.
Born on the New England frontier to Scotch-Irish settlers, Rogers learned scouting and woodsmanship as a matter of survival. By the age of 15, he was accompanying his town's militia in defending their community from Indian raids.
When England's war with France enflamed the American frontier, Rogers joined the British Army as a scout. Building on the tactics of Benjamin Church -- the original frontier Range and a hero rescued from obscurity in Nathan Philbrick's sensational bestseller Mayflower, Rogers wreaked havoc among the French and Indian forces who had been terrorizing settlers in the regions near lakes Champlain and George.
Rogers was disliked and often slandered by his direct commanders, of whom Ross writes they "could not get their imagination around the man, this master of nature and humans who could lead unimpressionable New Englanders to the edge of death over and over."
But Rogers' force of will and amazing exploits with his company of New England frontiersmen and Stockbridge Indians, led to his receiving a commission from the Brits —something that eluded even the far better connected George Washington.
As an officer, Rogers codified Ranger tactics for the first time. He pioneered the concept of highly trained, highly motivated and intelligent soldiers who interacted with indigenous people and, most importantly, could think for themselves.Thus, they out-fought their opponents even with inferior numbers. Rogers' Rangers eventually became the true "point of the spear" that Special Forces today long to be.
The culmination of this was the famed raid on the Abanaki tribal village at St. Francis, in which Rogers led 200 Rangers deeper into French territory than anyone thought possible, taking the battle to the enemy homefront for the first time. While casualty figures vary greatly, the psychological effect of the raid was undeniable. Abanaki raids on colonial settlements ceased, and the pioneers felt empowered for the first time.
Ross then details the extreme hardships of the trek, from marching for days though swamp to the troops' near starvation on the trip home. This is a gripping tale of not just of war but also of survival against nature.
War on the Run is equally effective in the big picture and the small. Ross makes the strategy of the French and British forces and the importance of the forts on the Lakes Champlain and George waterways understandable for non-military buffs. But of course, it's the smaller moments that give the book its intensity-- such as the time Rogers and a scouting team are discovered too close to a French fort, and Rogers pauses to scalp the Frenchman who stumbled over them in plain sight of the enraged enemy.
Without Rogers' Rangers, the colonies possibly could have not been in any shape to declare independence from England in the Revolution. The war with France on the continent might have played out very differently.
After the War, Rogers turned his imagination and energies westward. As commander of Fort Michilimackinac in what is now northern Michigan, Rogers, the ultimate Indian fighter, was able to keep the peace and foster trade alliances. However, his expansionist vision brought him into conflict with the Indian agent William Johnson and other British authorities more concerned with tightening their control over their eastern fiefdoms than expanding the frontier.
And while Rogers' dealings with the Indian tribes are presented as a model that should have been followed by future generations, don't look for any dancing with wolves in War on the Run.
While Ross is frank about the savagery of the war from all sides -- with the British, not the colonials, committing the worst offenses against tribes like the Cherokee -- the depredations of several tribes fighting for the French are notable, including a scene where Ottawa warriors roast and eat a still living captive.
Like Germans fleeing to the West from the Red Army, English and colonial soldiers with no other choice ran to give themselves up to the French — though sometimes even that did not save them, as was accurately depicted in Michael Mann's filmed remake of Last of the Mohicans.
Rogers strived in vain to have an expedition funded to find the "Northwest Passage," which too many history books dismiss as a fanciful hope, like seeking the lost cities of gold or the Fountain of Youth. Rogers submitted a practical plan that would decades later be very similar to the one followed by Lewis and Clark.
But Rogers' brilliance on the battlefield ultimately would be eclipsed by personal failings—though many were the result of admirable traits, such as a sense of honor and a grand vision for the American pioneers.
Like George Washington, Rogers personally paid his troops when the government did not come through. Unlike Washington, Rogers did not have the business or political acumen to take care of that debt later. When it came to trusting the wrong people in business and political matters, Rogers was more like Ulysses S. Grant — a soldier who was great on the battlefield but not so great on the domestic front. And, unlike in Grant's case, the stories about Rogers' drunkenness were not merely politically motivated slander.
Rogers' undoing ultimately lay in the fact that he was too prototypically American for the caste-bound British establishment, and he was too loyal to King George III for his American counterparts.
Ironically, most of Rogers' Rangers joined the Revolution and many, including Israel Putnam, achieved great things in the Revolutionary War. Rogers, however, while trying to remain neutral, ran afoul of General Washington and was jailed. He escaped and accepted a role in the British Army in New York, where he was personally responsible for unmasking Nathan Hale as an American spy.
War on the Run is a masterful, entertaining and sometimes poignant historical narrative. It belongs on the shelf of anyone who enjoyed Philbrick's Mayflower, Hampton Sides's Blood and Thunder or Allan Eckert's great Narratives of America series (Volume 3, Wilderness Empire, covers the French and Indian War and features Rogers prominently).
Ross deserves enormous credit for restoring an authentic American hero to his rightful place. He successfully treads the line between hagiography and revisionist over-emphasis on his subject's flaws.
Now if Turner and Co. would get on that Northwest Passage DVD release. While Spencer Tracy may have been miscast as Robert Rogers (John Wayne would have been ideal) the film is surprisingly gritty and does a terrific job of chronicling one of the greatest feats of American warfare.