It’s my pleasure to present the following guest post on the real Robert Rogers and Queen’s American Rangers of 1776 written by Todd Braisted, a foremost scholar of American Loyalists during the Revolutionary War. If you’ve seen TURN and haven’t yet cracked open a history book to find out more about Rogers, you might be surprised at some of the facts that follow! -RS
Robert Rogers of 1776
One of the main characters in the premiere episodes of TURN has been Robert Rogers, leader of the Queen’s Rangers. Rogers is a fascinating and colorful figure of America’s military past. Born in Massachusetts in 1731 and raised in New Hampshire, his exploits in leading a corps of rangers for British military service during the French & Indian War (1754-1763) became the stuff of legend. Rogers’ “Rules of Ranging,” a manual of (then) unconventional military tactics for guerrilla warfare on the colonial frontier, are still used today (in an updated form, of course) by the modern United States Army Rangers.
But the Robert Rogers who joined the British on Staten Island in the summer of 1776 was a very different person from the famous ranger of ten or twenty years earlier. In 1767, he had been arrested by British Commander in Chief Thomas Gage and tried for a supposedly treasonous plot with the French. After being acquitted, he eventually went to England, returning to America only in 1775, after the breaking out of hostilities at Lexington and Concord.
As an eminently famous (or perhaps infamous) British officer upon half-pay, Rogers was mistrusted by the Americans. When found at Perth Amboy in New Jersey, he was placed under arrest and sent to George Washington in New York City. Rogers claimed he was simply heading to Congress in Philadelphia with recommendations for him to offer his services. Washington eventually sent Rogers on his way, under escort of an officer bearing a letter from Washington recommending that Rogers was not to be trusted.
Washington’s concern was well founded. Rogers gave his escort the slip and joined the British Army under Lieutenant General William Howe on Staten Island, where he made a tender of his services. Howe immediately accepted Rogers’ offer, authorizing him in early August 1776 to raise a battalion of rangers, believing they “may be very usefully employed in obtaining intelligence and otherwise Facilitating the operations now carrying on in America,” and making the American-born officer a lieutenant colonel. (Why the show calls him a major and he himself has a Scottish accent can only be answered by the producers…)
Rogers immediately set about issuing warrants to would-be officers who were expected to raise the men for the corps in order to receive their commissions. The gentlemen he issued warrants to were an interesting set of characters, which is putting it mildly. Normally, officers were indeed “gentlemen,” drawn from at least the middle class of society. Those of other Provincial (i.e. Loyalist) units were most often farmers, meaning they owned land, typically worked by others. Rogers’ crew was different. The officers of the new Queen’s American Rangers (as the corps was officially known) were not well received by either the British or the Inspector General of Provincial Forces, Alexander Innes, who later wrote of them: “Mr. Rogers had introduced into this Corps a number of persons very improper to hold any Commission, and their Conduct in a Thousand instances was so flagrant, that I could not hesitate to tell the General [Howe,] that until a thorough reformation took place, he could expect no service from that battalion…”
So what sort of men were these that had so riled up the Inspector? Again, in Innes’ words: “…many of these Officers recommended by Lieut. Colo. Rogers had been bred Mechanecks [mechanics] others had kept Publick Houses [inn keepers,] and One or Two had even kept Bawdy Houses in the City of New York.” (Yes, that means what you think it means.) One Captain Daniel Frazer, formerly a private soldier and tailor in the British 46th Regiment, was “an illiterate, low-bred fellow. Another, Captain John Eagles of Westchester County, New York, was “still more illiterate and low bred than Frazer…”
Despite this, the new corps recruited hundreds of men, many of them Loyalists from New York and Connecticut, but others amongst deserters and prisoners of the Continental Army. Contrary to their portrayal in TURN, however, the new corps looked nothing in appearance to the Ranger corps of the previous war (meaning: no bonnets). Indeed, the Queen’s Rangers of 1776 had no uniforms whatsoever, serving in the clothes they had on their backs when they enlisted. The British had been slow to realize they would need clothing, arms and accoutrements for thousands of American recruits once the war shifted to New York. With the first shipments of uniforms not arriving until the end of March 1777, the Rangers, as all other Loyalists raised in the area at the time, pretty much looked like the troops they were fighting.
Rogers only led his men in one battle, and it was not against Benjamin Tallmadge and his dragoons. On 20 October 1776, Rogers led his corps into Mamaroneck, Westchester County, New York, where they immediately became the target of 750 Continental and militia troops led by Colonel John Haslet of Delaware. The next night, the Continentals overwhelmed Captain Eagles’ Company of the Rangers, but the rest of the corps under Rogers managed to repulse the attack. Unknown to anyone at the time, Rogers had pretty much fought his one and only battle of the American Revolution.
Dismayed by Rogers and his officers, Inspector General Innes, with the consent of Sir William Howe, removed the old ranger officer from his corps in January 1777 and put it under the command of Major Christopher French of the British 22nd Regiment. Of the 33 officers under Rogers’ command, Innes and Howe on 30 March 1777 summarily removed all but 6 of them without benefit of trial. They would be replaced by proper gentlemen. Meanwhile, Robert Rogers would crawl into a bottle, at times taking leave of reality, and sinking into a financial abyss. In 1779, he would convince a new British commander in chief, Sir Henry Clinton, to allow him to raise a new corps, the King’s American Rangers, but that is a story for another time.
Interestingly, Rogers’ one historical anecdote of 1776 that involved spies has been conspicuously absent from TURN – his alleged involvement in the capture of that most famous of Rebel spies, Nathan Hale. Since the show does not appear to be keeping to any particular historical timeline, perhaps that will be discussed in a future episode.
And no, Robert Rogers did not have a beard.
Todd W. Braisted is an author and researcher of Loyalist military studies. His primary focus is on Loyalist military personnel, infrastructure and campaigns throughout North America. Since 1979, Braisted has amassed and transcribed over 40,000 pages of Loyalist and related material from archives and private collections around the world. He has authored numerous journal articles and books, as well as appearing as a guest historian on episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? (CBC) and History Detectives (PBS). He is the creator of the Online Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies (royalprovincial.com), the largest website dedicated to the subject. Braisted is a Fellow in the Company of Military Historians, Honorary Vice President of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, and a past-president of the Bergen County Historical Society.