Today’s post will cover some interesting notes about how the Ranger’s operated. I will share specific questions I had and the responses I found while reading materials written by Mike Barbieri, historian for Whitcomb’s Rangers Reenacting Group.
What sort of fellow was Maj. Whitcomb?
Major Whitcomb was described by another officer as:
a presumptuous fellow, entirely devoid of fear, of more than common strength, equal to an Indian for enduring hardship or privation, drank to excess even when in the greatest peril, balls whistling around his head.
What kind of man enlisted in a Ranger Company and how were they recruited?
In the Ranger Manual authored by Mike, he writes
Because Whitcomb‘s Rangers often operated in small groups far behind enemy lines, trust in their partners held a great deal of value. Early in the war, Whitcomb had been betrayed when one of his companions deserted him within a few miles of Montreal. He did not want to see the same happen to the men under his command. Taking only men known to a member of the unit provided a quick way to gather a trustworthy group of men and that appears to be what Benjamin Whitcomb did. Not only had he lived in Westmoreland (the source for a third of his men) before the war, he had also lived in the Co-os region where several other Rangers came from. It would seem familiarity may have been a strong consideration in recruiting Whitcomb‘s Rangers.
In another document, Mike added that recruits needed to be a “hardy & trustworthy lot“.
The average age of a private in Whitcomb’s Company was 24.3 years, for sergeants it was 27.5 years, and for officers it was 35.7 years. There was one private 45 years old and several in their 30s. A significant number of the men were hardly men, but boys of only 15 to 18 years of age.
In the case of Edward Marden, it appears he was in the region of Maidstone and Northumberland prior to enlistment and very likely knew Benjamin Whitcomb personally. There was another man at Northumberland who had served as a Ranger in the French & Indian War, who may have inspired Edward to enlist as a Ranger instead of in the regular army.
In the book “Saratoga”, author Patrick Gordon says of Whitcomb’s Rangers
. . . He and others like him were progenitors of a new breed of American known as the Long Hunters for the length of their stays in the wilderness: loners, with the unmistakable mark of the frontier forever on them, they were always on the move, insistent on their own way of life, which might be described as total, unfettered freedom. They endured hardship and disease, prolonged periods without food, and encounters with Indians and wild animals, and even in a strange country-side their instincts were such that they were seldom lost.
… Mr. Ketchum‘s description may seem a bit melodramatic, it nonetheless does make the point that Whitcomb and his Rangers were something of a breed unto themselves. It was that distinctiveness that made them remarkable in their day.
I wondered what the life of a Ranger entailed?
Whitcomb’s Rangers did occasionally operate in large groups, however their primary function required going out in small groups of two to twenty. Often only two or three men would go on a mission. Small groups allowed for greater maneuverability and secrecy.
The Rangers did operate in parties larger than two or three. Groups of eight to twelve also went on missions, generally under the command of one of the sergeants (Pension, 144:534-5). Somewhat larger parties of a dozen to eighteen men, such as the one under the command of Nathan Taylor ambushed by Indians near Ticonderoga, also saw service, usually under the command of a lieutenant. Because they tended to be less secretive, these parties generally did not travel behind enemy lines as did the smaller groups but rather scouted the no-man’s land between the opposing armies.
When on spying missions in Canada, the men often dressed as local Canadians or as Indians. Although we have no proof, it is likely at least some on the men needed to speak French in order to blend-in with the local Canadian population.
Rangers might be required to travel 100 miles or more (one way) on a mission. They traveled light, on foot, by canoe, and during winter they used snowshoes. This suggests they needed the skills to build and repair equipment generally considered to be “Indian” in nature.
During the early period of the war, the Rangers operated almost exclusively around Lake Champlain. They often encountered and engaged enemy Indian scouts in the region. Many of those Indian groups were Iroquois, but there were some Abenaki among them.
After being headquartered in Haverhill, the route north for spying missions is described as
… they traveled northwest from Newbury to the head of the Wells River, then to the great falls on the LaMoille River, to the Mississquoi River, and on to Rushmore (also known as Belisle) Mountain. Near to the mountain lived Pierre Lecouin whose farm served as a place of rendezvous (Huden 1959, 88).
Spying was dangerous business. Getting caught was certain death. In addition, the British had placed a price on Whitcomb’s head very early in the war after he shot and killed a British officer. Any man found with Whitcomb was also ordered to be executed. So even when they were not spying in enemy territory they were targets.
When most army regiments were enduring the boredom and inactivity of Winter Quarters or receiving furloughs, Rangers were active in the field. Spying and scouting where year round activities. However, documents do suggest some Rangers were given leave to return home during the winter months. Perhaps it was the young men without families of their own who remained in service during the winter.
Major Whitcomb penned a number of complaints to his superiors about supply problems. As a result of the supply problems and being an Independent Company, they probably didn’t have much in the way of regular uniforms and fending for themselves was probably an every day occurrence, or at least so when on scouting and spying missions in the wilderness. Documentation suggests they established friendly contacts or safe houses where they could resupply when passing through enemy territory.
Many of Whitcomb’s men followed him to Concord (Lisbon), NH when their service was up, suggesting they maintained a great deal of respect for their leader even after the war.
Did Whitcomb’s Rangers interact with local Native People?
Mike provided the following answer
Whitcomb and the Americans in the Co-os region had constant contact with Indians out of Canada–many looking for food, clothing, and shelter. Quite a bit on these doings in the Haldimand Papers and in the Johnson Papers at the VT Hist. Soc.
Major Whitcomb was personally acquainted with Joseph Louis Gill, an Englishman by blood, but an Abenaki by upbringing. Gill’s parents were both taken captive as children and adopted by the Abenaki at St. Francis (Odanak). Joseph Louis was a chief at St. Francis and believed to have been a double agent during the war, working for whichever side would be of most benefit to his people.
In addition, Whitcomb’s men were in the same region as the Indian Ranger Company under Capt. Vincent. It is very likely they had some overlapping duties and territories. but the documentation is lacking to prove it.
In summary, at a minimum, being a Ranger in Whitcomb’s Corp required serious wilderness survival skills, lots of travel, frequent danger, and the ability to think for oneself. It also placed the men in close proximity with local Native populations (both enemy and friendly) on both sides of the US-Canadian border. It’s also possible this type of service gave the men a special appreciation for Native culture and lifestyle.
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