When Congress established the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, the original 10 rifle companies were composed heavily of frontiersmen-turned-Soldiers, 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, and were well versed in conventional military tactics. The Soldiers adapted these tactics to operate in terrain where traditional militias were ineffective.
The American ranger tradition actually began back in the 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 and 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 Continental militia units were led by veterans of Rogers Rangers — John Stark was one of them.
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, Tories 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, the Continental Congress gathered to discuss a unified effort. On June 14, they resolved to establish 10 rifle companies: six from Pennsylvania, two from Virginia and two from Maryland – the states agreed.
“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 for hunting in the frontier districts of the Middle Colonies, according to Williams, who explained that the rifle could hit game from greater distances than the musket. Even still, many fighting men from the frontier used muskets over rifles — 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 Continental troops “didn’t fight fair.”
In effect, the rifle companies functioned much like the Army Ranger units of 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 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 advised William Prescott to tell his troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill (which was fought mostly on Breed’s 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 Gen. George Washington reorganized the New England Army at Boston in July 1775, Putnam was commissioned a colonel and given command of the 3rd Connecticut Regiment.
When 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, a general in the Continental Army by then, commanded the preparation of defenses there until Washington led the bulk of the main forces to the city.