The Original Lone Ranger


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By Robert Bateman
Sunday, October 18, 2009

WAR ON

THE RUN

The Epic Story of Robert Rogers and the Conquest of America's First Frontier

By John F. Ross

Bantam. 548 pp. $30

The Ranger Handbook is one of the very first items handed out in the U.S. Army's Ranger School. Right there, in black and white, the new American Ranger is tied to a heritage more than 250 years old. The Ranger Handbook teaches all sorts of useful military mayhem, but significantly it also contains a bastardized version of the first American treatise on tactics, written by the original American Ranger, Maj. Robert Rogers. If, however, you know only the U.S. Army's version of his history, or that depicted by Spencer Tracy in the movie "Northwest Passage," you may be in for a surprise with John F. Ross's "War on the Run."

Rogers, born in New England in 1732 to immigrant Scottish parents, was raised on the frontier and became famous as America's premier soldier in the French and Indian War.

Despite his young age -- 21 -- at the outset of the war, Rogers raised whole companies of fellow colonials for the British and conducted audacious raids deep into what was then French territory, ranging (as the activity was called) to gain intelligence and sow chaos in the enemy's backyard. Rogers brought his skills to the British, who were struggling on almost all fronts, and became the darling of the press. That his raids often occurred in winter made them all the more unusual. Moving by snowshoe, sled, ice skates and bateau, he took his men on round trips of 50, 150, even 350 miles through barren terrain. His deep assaults had only moderate military impact but surprised and alarmed the French and their Indian allies, upsetting plans and forcing them into a more defensive position.

To grasp the essence of Rogers as a military leader, imagine James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo (a.k.a. "Hawkeye") from the Leatherstocking Tales with a few additional traits. Rogers was able to train raw Englishmen in the ways of the forest and had an apparently innate sense of military possibilities. He could write cogent dispatches. Were they not well-documented history, many of the elements of Rogers's life story would be considered too fantastic to be true.

John Ross, former executive editor of American Heritage magazine, knows how to tell a story. At times he overwrites, but overall he has produced a thorough chronicle that is also the first serious full-length biography of Rogers in half a century.

While several other works detail the exploits of Rogers and his Rangers, most of them gloss over the unsavory aspects of his life. Ross does not shy away from the whole: We learn that when war with the French broke out in full in 1754, the heroic Rogers had just been convicted of counterfeiting and was about to be branded and imprisoned. But the war kept him from incarceration. Similarly, although others rarely mention it, Ross tells how Rogers was essentially accused of treason by no less a figure than George Washington. We also learn that Rogers uncovered and turned in the hapless American spy Nathan Hale.

In the end one gets the feeling that Rogers was something of a tragic figure. He volunteered, fought and put his name, livelihood, personal fortune and very life on the line for the Colonies and the British. In compensation, he was court-martialed by the British for treason, accused by his fellow Americans of the same and forced into bankruptcy; served multiple terms in debtors prisons; and ultimately was rejected by both his wife and his people.

Robert Bateman teaches graduate courses in strategy and military history at Georgetown University.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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