FORT MEADE, MD – When Congress established the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, the original 10 Rifle Companies were composed heavily of frontiersmen and some of the militia leaders already fighting were veterans of a unit known as Roger’s Rangers.
Roger’s Rangers were skilled woodsmen who fought for the British during the French and Indian War. They frequently undertook winter raids against French outposts, blended native-American techniques with pioneering skills and operated in terrain where traditional militias were ineffective.
The American ranger tradition actually began back in the early 17th century on the frontier, according to historian Glenn Williams at the U.S. Army Center of Military History.
“They would ‘range’ between one post and another,” said Williams, explaining that the rangers were usually full-time Soldiers drawn from the militia and paid by colonial governments to patrol between frontier posts and “look for Indian signs” to provide early warning of hostile Indian intent.
In 1675, Benjamin Church of Massachusetts established a unit that mixed frontiersmen with friendly Indians to carry out raids against hostile native Americans. Some consider his memoirs –published in 1716 by his son — the first American military manual.
When the French and Indian War began, Capt. Robert Rogers of New Hampshire recruited frontiersmen in 1755 for companies that could support the British Army by conducting long-range patrols through the wilderness in all weather and difficult terrain to gather intelligence, take prisoners, or conduct raids.
The Rangers also attacked the villages of hostile Indians such as the Abenakis, in retribution for raids against settlements. Later Rogers moved the Rangers west to capture Fort Detroit for the British, along with a number of other French posts on the Great Lakes.
When the American Revolution broke out in 1775, some colonial militia units were led by veterans of Rogers Rangers. One of these was John Stark.
John Stark commanded the 1st New Hampshire Militia at the outbreak of the American Revolution. His unit was involved in the Battle of Bunker Hill before it became part of the Continental Army.
Stark gained fame during the Battle of Bennington, in 1777, by enveloping a British infantry force that included Indians, Torries and Hessians. The American victory across the New York border from Bennington, Vt., was one of the most strategic in the early years of the Revolution, according to CMH historians.
The British were marching toward Bennington to acquire horses for their cavalry and supplies for their main Army, Williams said. Their defeat in Bennington kept the main force from receiving much-needed supplies and contributed to the eventual surrender of the British Northern Army following the Battles of Saratoga.
Stark went on to become a major general and commander of the Northern Department of the Continental Army. He later coined the phrase “live free or die,” which became the New Hampshire state motto.
When the New England militias found themselves battling the British at Lexington and Concord in the spring of 1775, Continental Congress gathered to discuss a unified effort. On June 14, they authorized the establishment of 10 Rifle Companies: six from Pennsylvania, two from Virginia and two from Maryland.
“They figured (the rifle) was a weapon that would strike terror into the British defending Boston,” Williams said.
Rifles, at that time, were used primarily by frontiersmen in the middle colonies of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, according to Williams. The New England militias strictly used muskets, he said. Muskets were more effective for massed volley fire, he explained, and could be reloaded three times as fast. The sturdier, stouter muskets could also mount bayonets.
Rifles, though, had three times the range and could be effective up to 300 yards away. The sharpshooters in the Continental Army companies often picked British officers off from a distance, Williams said, bringing complaints that the colonials “didn’t fight fair.”
In effect, the Rifle Companies functioned much like the Army Ranger units today, he said.
“They were specialized light infantry,” Williams said, that conducted independent long-range scouting missions, because they were accustomed to operating that way on the frontier.
Legend has it that as a young lad, Israel Putnam killed the last wolf in Connecticut and made the area safe for sheep farming. He reportedly crawled into the den with a torch in one hand and a musket in the other.
As a member of Roger’s Rangers, he was captured by the Caughnawaga Indians during a campaign in northern New York and was reportedly saved from being roasted alive only by a torrential thunderstorm. In 1759, he led a regiment in the attack of Fort Carillon near Lake Champlain, which was eventually captured and renamed Fort Ticonderoga.
In 1762, Putnam survived a shipwreck in the British invasion of Cuba that led to the capture of Havana. Legend has him bringing tobacco seeds back that were planted near Hartford and eventually became the famous “Connecticut wrapper.”
In the late 1760s, as a member of the Connecticut General Assembly, Putnam often spoke out against British taxation and he was one of the founders of the Sons of Liberty. When conflict broke out in 1775, Putnam offered his services and was made a major general in the militia, second in rank only to Artemas Ward. He was one of the leading figures at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Tradition has it that Putnam ordered William Prescott to tell his troops at Bunker Hill: “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” This was important because the militia were short of ammunition at the time and untrained troops often fired high when shooting downhill, Williams said.
After Bunker Hill, when the Continental Army was formed in July 1775, Putnam was commissioned a colonel and given command of the 3rd Connecticut Regiment. He was soon placed in charge of the defense of New York.
After the British evacuated Boston in March 1776, the Continental Army was not sure where the eventual British invasion would come. One likely target was New York, and Putnam commanded the preparation of defenses there until Gen. George Washington led the bulk of the main Continental Army to the city.