“Like Durer’s knight, a ghastly death stalked ever at their side. There were those among them for whom this stern life had a fascination that made all other existence tame.” ~ Francis Parkman
Falcons of the Lakes
“Like all northern New York winters, the winter of 1755-56 was fierce, and was not fit for “man nor beast” to be out in . But Colonel Benjamin Gleasier’s scouting Company at Fort William Henry were neither man nor beast, but “Rogers Rangers.” Consequently they did not remain phelegmatic at their winter station instead they stepped out of the fort into the forbidding weather and executed three daring excursions against the enemy.
Their prime objective was the taking of prisoners as they were the most valuable source of information in discovering what re-enforcements Crown Point and Ticonderoga had received and what improvements had been made on their fortifications.
On January 14, Rogers marched out of the fort with seventeen of his men. At the lake’s edge they put on ice skates and skimmed swiftly down Lake George. Arriving at the waterfall at the end of the lake on the second day, they remained in the bushes and ate a cold meal washed down with rum. As night descended they marched over the snow across the narrow neck that separated Lake George and Lake Champlian. Putting on their skates, the Ranger skated quietly by the lights of Ticonderoga and out over the fozen surface of Lake Champlain. Rogers’ plan was to waylay any small parties of the enemy that might be passing on the lake between Ticonderoga and Crown Point. Strategically picking a point of land on the east shore of the lake which would bring any passing parties within musket-shot, Rogers Rangers lay quietly in ambush — and waited.
“Nine days after his return, Rogers set out again for Crown Point, with orders from commandant Gleasier to “take a view of that fortress.” “If you meet Indians or any enemy in your way you are to take them prisoners or kill them, or distress them any other ways or means your prudence shall direct you.” Roger’s party consisted of his Company of Rangers and six volunteers. This was the first expedition of his complete company and proved the most successful excursion of Rogers’ own winter campaign.
Arriving within sight of the fort, they climbed a steep mountain and Rogers made a map of the fortifications. In the evening they descended and formed an ambuscade on each side of the road that led from the fort to a village half a mile away. One prisoner was captured and two more were almost taken but managed to out-run the Rangers to the fort, although some of Rogers Rangers pursued them to within musket-fire of the gate. The whole garrison was aroused, drums were rolling the call to arms and a strong party was sent out. In the meantime Rogers had hurriedly ordered his party to set fire to the houses and barns of the village, which contained large quantities of grain. They also managed to slaughter fifty cattle and retire safely, leaving most of the village in flames. The next morning one of Rogers’ party was taken sick and Rogers dropped behind with seven Rangers to cover his slow retreat. The bulk of the party he sent on ahead. The next day, on February 6, he arrived at Fort William Henry with his rear-guard to find all of his party safe.
” … On the evening of March 16, Stark overhead that his Rangers were planning a celebration of St. Patrick’s day, which was on the 17th. Knowing that the greater portion of British Regulars stationed at the fort (William Henry) were Irish and would be indulging in paying homage to their patron Saint in excessive quantities of rum and spruce beer; Stark foresaw the danger to which the fort would be exposed if both the Rangers and Regulars were in their cups. He knew that a large proportion of Rogers’ Rangers were Irish or Scotch-Irish, like himself, and though they were not Catholic, they were all intending to celebrate, as this was to good an opportunity to break the monotony of garrison life not to be taken advantage of . Stark accordingly gave orders to the Rangers’ Sutler, Levi, who had his storehouse among the Rangers’ hut, that no spirituous liquors should be issued, except by authority of written orders from himself; and when he was swamped for these orders he laconically pleaded the lameness of this wrist, from a sprain, as an excuse for not giving them. In this way he kept the greater part of the Rangers sober; though they protested loud and clear their grievance, and at the time actually hated their commander. The Irish Regulars were, for the most part, in a mellow stupor, at the close of the day, when the French appeared.
Governor-General Vaudreuil had sent a strong force of 1,600 men, under the command of his brother, Rigaud, to make an unexpected attack on Fort William Henry. The total force at William Henry under the able Major Eyre consisted of 346 Irish Regulars and Rogers’ Rangers. Of these, Stark’s effective command consisted of sixty non-coms and men. Stark’s officers were his colleague Ensign Jonathan Brewer, and his good friend and home-neighbor, Ensign James Rogers, the “Major’s” elder brother, who commanded the late Hobbs’ Company during Lieutenant Bulkeley’s absence.
The Irish Regulars had their celebration after evening mess on the 17th and staggered heavily through the routine duties of the following day and that night fell into their beds in a deep sleep. The Rangers in their picketed fort on the east side of William Henry fumed and quietly cursed Startk as the sounds of the “Regulars” ribald celebration drifted down to them. As the night and following day passed without any visit from the enemy, Stark grew uncomfortable and began to wonder if he had done the right thing, for all the inhabitants of the little hut-village gave him black looks whenever he encountered them. But his emotions were soon quieted when that night one of his alert Ranger sentry on the east side of their picketed hut-fort discovered a light moving on the lake. Stark immediately informed the Commandant, Major Eyre, who ordered the Rangers in William Henry. The Regulars were routed from their heavy sleep and hushed into silence as they took their places along the ramparts with Rogers Rangers who had reluctantly abandoned their picketed village.
“Soon after the enemy endeavored to approach the Fort, but met with such a warm and unexpecte4d reception as (to) soon oblige them to retire.” At daylight and throughout the day “there was not the face of a Frenchman to be seen, but at night they returned … intending to scale the walls of the fort… but the defenders (kept) so good a look-out and constant fire on them as they approached that their design was frustrated.”
The following morning, which was Sunday, the enemy’s camp was discovered about a mile from the fort by their camp-fire smoke. Major Eyre immediately ordered Start to send a reconnaissance party of Rangers out to view the strength of their encampment. They returned before noon and reported the French very numerous and about ready to make another attack. About twelve o’clock noon they marched their whole army in sight of the fort, two men deep, which extended more than a mile-and-a-half on the ice, in order to intimidate the garrison. Rigaud now sent Chevalier Mercer under a flag of truce to Major Eyre asking him to surrender. In spite of the sight of Rigaud’s numerous force before his fort, the valiant Eyre flatly refused to surrender even on good terms. a general assault was now expected and when the news reached the sick Rangers and Regulars below the ramparts, who were suffering mostly from scurvy, those that could walk or crawl bravely made their way to a firing position on the ramparts.
Rigaud now devoted his attention to the British flotilla and managed to destroy most of it in spite of a vigourous sortie of Regulars and Rangers who could not save them. But they did manage to save a considerable portionof the provisions, particularly rum, from the Rangers’ storehouse and other sheds in the hut village, which had been fired by the enemy.
On the morning of March 23, Rigaud’s army could be seen filing down Lake George back to Canada. His initial attempt a failure, Rigaud excused himself by saying that the thaw rendered it impossible to take the fort. ….Rigaud lost fourteen men killed and three wounded, who were captured, being to wounded to make the return march. English losses were four Regulars; John Stark and two Rangers slightly wounded. “
Edited excerpts from “The History of Rogers’ Rangers – Volume I – The Beginnings” by Burt Garfield Loescher. In addition to the Rogers’ Rangers collection, the Loescher archives includes: miniatures, maps, European and American uniform history, paintings, illustrated art and un-published manuscripts.
The research library from January through mid-May is open by appointment only.
1/3/2016 – wgd