In 1775 simmering unrest in the Thirteen Colonies erupted into open revolt, marking the beginning of a bitter eight-year long war for independence from Britain. There are no accurate numbers, but it is estimated that one third of the local population supported the Continental Congress, another third stayed loyal to the Crown, and the remainder was neutral. Robert Rogers was among the Loyalists.
The circumstances of his joining the British side were typical of the major’s daring ways. Having been arrested on suspicions of being a spy in July 1776 by order of George Washington, Rogers managed to escape prison and make his way to a Royal Navy vessel off shore. Sir George Howe, at the head of the British forces, quickly enlisted him in the King’s service. On August 16, 1776, the general handed him a commission to raise a new Ranger regiment from Loyalist volunteers.
Eventually named the Queen’s Rangers, after King George III’s consort Charlotte, the reconstituted unit was based near New York City. Recruits came mostly from the surrounding area, although their ranks were bolstered by the amalgamation with the Queen’s Loyal Virginia Regiment, whose colonel had had fallen into enemy hands. Numbering about 400, the new Regiment’s duties were to support British operations around the City of New York.
The Queen’s Rangers did not get off to a good start. A rebel night attack on October 21, 1776, at Mamaroneck, just north of New York, caught them clumsily off guard. The Regiment did manage to beat back the foe, but not before sustaining heavy losses. In January 1777 a British inspector-general paid a visit and reported that the Regiment was not up to standard. As a result, Howe relieved Rogers of his command and replaced him with Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher French. In truth, the twelve years of peace after the Seven Years War had not been kind to the old hero. Plagued by heavy debts and quarrels with superiors, Rogers had taken to the bottle and the new conflict found him a shadow of his former self.
Over the winter Colonel French subjected the Rangers to rigorous training, soon whipping them into shape. When fighting resumed in spring 1777, the Regiment distinguished itself in two skirmishes, on the Harlem River and at Metuchin, New Jersey. And summer saw its most brilliant victory of the Revolutionary War at Brandywine Creek in Pennsylvania.
Every year around September 11, The Queen’s York Rangers still celebrate their decisive role in the Battle of Brandywine. The engagement came during General Howe’s advance to Philadelphia, which was then in rebel hands. The Brandywine, a creek about 40 kilometres to the west with steep, forested banks, was a major obstacle in the march to retake the city. George Washington had therefore positioned his forces in a defensive line along its waters to block the British drive. He knew that the creek could only be crossed at a few fords, where he naturally concentrated his troops.
Now commanded by Major James Wemyss, the Queen’s Rangers formed the advance guard of a division under Baron Wilhelm von Knyphausen, an able Prussian general in King George’s service. Knyphausen’s plan was to force passage at Chad’s Ford, where the main road to Philadelphia crossed the Brandywine. The fighting began early on the morning of September 11 under cover of dense fog, as the Regiment advanced and beat back a rebel brigade guarding the ford’s approach. But now the Rangers found themselves facing two more brigades, whom Washington had rushed across the creek to stop them.
The fighting was ferocious. Stephen Jarvis, a Ranger ensign, recalled, “the [rebel] Battery [was] playing upon us with grape shot, with much execution. The water took us up to our breasts and was much stained with blood before the battery was carried and the guns turned on the enemy.” By afternoon it was all over, and Howe’s forces were in possession of the Brandywine’s eastern bank.
Ensign Jarvis was fortunate to live to tell the tale, for victory’s cost had been steep. Of the Rangers who took part, 14 of the 21 officers and a third of the other ranks had been killed or wounded. Together they constituted one-fifth of all British casualties that day. These sacrifices had not been in vain, for the Rangers’ gallantry had contributed greatly to the campaign’s success. Two days after the Battle of Brandywine, Knyphausen spared no praise when he wrote Howe, “I must be silent as to the behaviour of the Rangers, for I want even words to express my astonishment to give an idea of it.”
The last major action to secure Philadelphia came three weeks later, when Washington launched a desperate counterattack on October 3 at Germantown just to the north. The assault turned into a humiliating rout for the rebels, and the city was once again safely under British control. However, the battle did claim more Rangers, including Major Wemyss, whose wounds forced him to yield his command.
Within the first year of their rebirth the Queen’s Rangers had already made quite a reputation for themselves among the “provincial,” or Loyalist regiments. One officer who was particularly intrigued was a 25-year-old infantry subaltern serving under Howe against the rebels. Born and raised in England as the son of a Royal Navy captain, John Graves Simcoe had attended Eton and Oxford’s Merton College. Forsaking “the forum for the field,” he left university after a year and eventually purchased an ensign’s commission in the 35thRegiment of Foot. Simcoe was a man of restless ambition, and he had lobbied hard for the posting that had suddenly been opened with Wemyss’ injury. On October 15, 1777, General Howe consented and awarded him command of the Queen’s Rangers.
It proved to be a wise decision. If Simcoe’s patrician background was rather different than Robert Rogers’ more rough-hewn origins, the Ranger’s new commander still shared many of his predecessor’s talents for small war. Like Rogers, Simcoe had sound tactical instincts, great courage, and a natural ability to inspire confidence in men. Endowed with tireless energy, he constantly trained his unit in small unit combat, using cover and concealment, operating with maximum speed and flexibility, proper hygiene, and the other skills required for irregular operations. Like all good partisan leaders, Simcoe also understood the need to keep the local civilian population’s favour. He strictly forbade his Rangers from plundering or mistreating prisoners-of-war.
Under Simcoe’s leadership, the Queen’s Rangers became a mixed unit, eventually combining elements of all three combat arms. When at Philadelphia a superior officer offered Simcoe the use of his cavalry, he set up his own troop of hussars. Meanwhile, a Highland company from North Carolina sporting the MacNab tartan had joined the Regiment as well, and over time there would also be sharpshooters armed with rifles, a grenadier company, and even a trio of gunners firing a “grasshopper” three-pounder cannon. Eventually growing to 11 companies of foot, in addition to the hussar troop, during the Revolutionary War most Rangers remained light infantry outfitted with Brown Bess muskets and bayonets.
In the early years of the American rebellion, the British often looked down on the Loyalists who fought with them. As a mark of their inferior status, officers’ ranks in provincial units were one grade below that of their counterparts in the regulars, while uniforms were green rather than the scarlet worn by the King’s troops. The effectiveness of regiments like the Queen’s Rangers in the Pennsylvania campaign of 1777 forced British generals to revise their opinions. To underscore their growing esteem, in 1778 they consented to kit the provincials in the same red as the regulars. While some gratefully made the change, for Simcoe stealth remained a priority and he successfully petitioned to keep his Rangers in their original hue. As he pointed out:
Green is without comparison the best colour for light troops with dark accoutrements, and if it is put on in the spring, by autumn it nearly fades with the leaves, preserving its characteristic of being scarcely discernible at a distance.
The Queen’s Rangers stayed in Pennsylvania for less than a year. In June 1778 the new British commander-in-chief, Sir Henry Clinton, began to see Philadelphia as a strategic liability and he decided to abandon the city to concentrate his forces in New York. Based on Staten Island, the Rangers would spend the next two years largely patrolling the surrounding area.
One action in October 1779 very nearly ended Simcoe’s career. Now a lieutenant-colonel, he had gotten word that the rebels had concentrated a force of 50 boats at Middlebrook, on New Jersey’s Raritan River. Worried that this flotilla might be used to launch an attack on New York, he proposed a raid to destroy them. Landing with a force of 300 men, Simcoe was dismayed to find that most of the boats were no longer there. Then, on the return his Loyalist guide mistakenly led him into a large party of rebel militia. Trying to break through the lines Simcoe galloped ahead, but his horse was shot under him and the tumble knocked him unconscious.
When Simcoe came to, he found himself a prisoner-of-war of the New Jersey militia. It would take until December 31 for the colonel to be traded for an American officer in British hands. Matters could have been worse. Shortly after his capture one of the rebels expressed his disappointment at being unaware of Simcoe’s rank, for he would surely have shot him had he known otherwise. Ruefully he added, “but I thought all colonels wore lace.”
In 1780, the Queen’s Rangers became more active in the South, which was becoming increasingly pivotal to the campaign. April of that year found them temporarily in the Carolinas to join Lord Cornwallis’ successful siege of Charleston. When in December Cornwallis decided to move north into Virginia, much of the Regiment once again sailed from New York to participate in the operation.
The early months of 1781 saw the Rangers in top form. In one action on January 8, Simcoe dispersed a force of some 800 rebels with only 40 men under his command. Six months later, on June 26, the colonel fought a skirmish he considered to be “the climax of a campaign of five years,” at Spencer’s Ordinary, a tavern on the road between Williamsburg and Jamestown.
Commanding the rear guard of Lord Cornwallis’ main force, Simcoe found himself under attack from the advance guard of an army led by Washington’s French general, the Marquis de Lafayette. In an engagement that proved to be a model of combined arms at the tactical level, Ranger cavalry, supported by artillery, charged the enemy. Before the foe could regroup, the infantry delivered the final blow by musket volley and bayonet, thoroughly routing the rebels. In his public orders of June 28, Cornwallis publicly thanked Simcoe “for his spirited and judicious conduct in the action of the 26thinstant, when he repulsed and defeated so superior a force of the enemy.”
The Rangers did not have much time to rest on their laurels. On August 2, the Regiment was ordered to Yorktown, the site on Virginia’s Gloucester Peninsula where Cornwallis had stationed his 7,400-man army. Little did the lord know that Washington was marching to Virginia and would soon join Lafayette in a combined force of 16,000 French and rebel troops. Cornwallis’ isolation became complete in September, when a French fleet blockaded the surrounding waters, preventing Clinton from sending reinforcements. Outnumbered, with his guns disabled, and running out of food, on October 19, 1781, Cornwallis capitulated to Washington.
Because Simcoe was ailing, he was allowed to sail back to New York along with as many Rangers as his ship could hold. By luck, the regimental colours were also smuggled aboard, saving them from the ignominy of becoming a trophy of war. They survived in England for many years and were eventually reunited with the Regiment in 1973.
Those unfortunate Rangers who had been unable to leave Yorktown by sea were made prisoners-of-war, although many managed to escape and some of these eventually rejoined their unit, which would be stationed on Long Island for the remaining two years of the war. After peace was concluded in 1783, many Rangers set off for Canada, where they settled in New Brunswick’s St. John River Valley as United Empire Loyalists. The Queen’s Rangers were officially disbanded on October 13, 1783.
During the American rebellion, Loyalist volunteers formed some 40 battalions who fought for the King. In 1779, the British Army awarded the five most effective of these units the designation of “American Regiment.” The Queen’s Rangers were recognised as being the best of them by being named “1stAmerican Regiment,” a title they still proudly bear. Three years later, on December 25, 1782, the Commander-in-Chief of all British forces bestowed yet another extraordinary honour on the Rangers by accepting them as an integral part of the British Army.
The recommendation for this act had come from General Clinton, who on another occasion had written of the Regiment and its distinguished colonel, “The history of this corps under [Simcoe’s] command is a series of gallant, skilful and successful enterprises against the enemy without a single reverse.” He added, “The Queen’s Rangers have killed or taken twice their own numbers…” The rebels also had much praise for the Regiment that had given them so many difficulties. According to the head of George Washington’s cavalry, General “Light Horse Harry” Lee, the Rangers were the most efficient single unit on either side.