If he had fought with the patriots instead of against them in the American Revolution, I have small doubt that today Robert Rogers would still be remembered as one of America’s great heroes. Instead, he wavered at the beginning of the Revolution before eventually supporting the British. Now he is largely forgotten except by Army Rangers. The movie Northwest Passage (1940), based on the novel of the same name by Kenneth Roberts, is one of the few times since his death that the figure of Robert Rogers has emerged briefly from obscurity.
Rogers developed during the French and Indian war the concept of long-range attacks behind enemy lines that has remained an element of American military operations since. He and the rangers he led specialized in daring raids through trackless wilderness against enemy positions. The film Northwest Passage depicted the immensely successful raid on Saint Francis in 1759 that broke the power of the Abenaki who, under French guidance, had been raiding New England and upstate New York for four generations.
Several members of the Rangers played prominent roles fighting for American independence, most notably John Stark of New Hampshire, the victor at the battle of Bennington, and the originator of the New Hampshire state motto Live Free or Die.
To guide his Rangers Rogers wrote out 28 rules. In the novel Northwest Passage Kenneth Roberts has one of his characters condense the rules, and I have always appreciated the military wisdom contained in them.
1. Don’t forget nothing.
2. Have your musket clean as a whistle, hatchet scoured, sixty rounds powder and ball, and be ready to march at a minute’s warning.
3. When you’re on the march, act the way you would if you was sneaking up on a deer. See the enemy first.
4. Tell the truth about what you see and what you do. There is an army depending on us for correct information. You can lie all you please when you tell other folks about the Rangers, but don’t never lie to a Ranger or officer.
5. Don’t never take a chance you don’t have to.
6. When we’re on the march we march single file, far enough apart so one shot can’t go through two men.
7. If we strike swamps, or soft ground, we spread out abreast, so it’s hard to track us.
8. When we march, we keep moving till dark, so as to give the enemy the least possible chance at us.
9. When we camp, half the party stays awake while the other half sleeps.
10. If we take prisoners, we keep ’em separate till we have had time to examine them, so they can’t cook up a story between ’em.
11. Don’t ever march home the same way. Take a different route so you won’t be ambushed.
12. No matter whether we travel in big parties or little ones, each party has to keep a scout 20 yards ahead, 20 yards on each flank, and 20 yards in the rear so the main body can’t be surprised and wiped out.
13. Every night you’ll be told where to meet if surrounded by a superior force.
14. Don’t sit down to eat without posting sentries.
15. Don’t sleep beyond dawn. Dawn’s when the French and Indians attack.
16. Don’t cross a river by a regular ford.
17. If somebody’s trailing you, make a circle, come back onto your own tracks, and ambush the folks that aim to ambush you.
18. Don’t stand up when the enemy’s coming against you. Kneel down, lie down, hide behind a tree.
19. Let the enemy come till he’s almost close enough to touch, then let him have it and jump out and finish him up with your hatchet.