- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 28, 2009

By John F. Ross
Bantam, $30, 548 pages

If you want to write a great novel, Melville said, pick a great theme. But if you want to publish a great biography, engage an author with a great appreciation of his subject and an intimate understanding of the realm in which his subject lived.

So be it that John F. Ross is the right one to assay Robert Rogers, the hero of the French and Indian Wars whose exploits involved his mastery of the wilderness and his genius at taking risks. Longtime Smithsonian editor, executive editor of the revived American Heritage and author of “Living Dangerously,” a study about modern risk-taking, Mr. Ross won membership in the Explorer’s Club by navigating a virgin river through Canadian tundra to the Bering Sea.

He has “dogsledded with the Polar Inuit in northwestern Greenland, chased scorpions in Baja, and dived 3,000 feet in the Galapagos,” according to his publisher. (Full disclosure: Mr. Ross is a friend of mine, and I’ve written for his magazines. More importantly, he has written a fierce contribution to our colonial history and added a thread to its fabric, that of ferocity itself.)

Robert Rogers bestrode the Adirondacks like a colossus. He was without equal, the Superman of the conflicts in America that Europe knew as the Seven Years War. Rogers’ triumphs on this continent abetted England’s success in Europe, all of which led to the annexation of Canada and redrafting the map of North America.

Lionized in London and received at court by King George III, Rogers wrote two books and became the most famous man in the empire for more than a quarter of a century. But what a man of spectacular parts. Like Don Quixote, Rogers championed an impossible cause in searching for the mythic Northwest Passage. Like Lord Jim, he virtually ruled in the wild after forging alliances with disparate Indian nations in the most effective back-country diplomacy of his time. And when diplomacy was pointless, he waged war on the wilderness’ own terms and by the enemy’s rules.

He invented a new kind of warfare as he crossbred the savagery of native warriors with European military discipline, then added two traits to make his savage beast truly deadly: appreciation for terrain and terror tactics.

Much of this has been told before, notably in John R. Cuneo’s 1988 study “Robert Rogers of the Rangers” and Kenneth Roberts’ 1937 blockbuster novel “Northwest Passage” and its Hollywood version starring Spencer Tracy.

But Mr. Ross brings new understanding through his own wilderness experience, and illuminates Rogers’ exploits in the light of modern science. The small bands of Rangers he led through hundreds of miles of wilderness in deep snow without food (and without the comfort of campfires) knew their bellies cramped and mental capacities failed; Mr. Ross explains the physiology involved, thus confirming the peril of their physical condition.

When he explicates the mechanics of hypothermia, Rogers’ winter march from Lake George into Ontario appears all the more superhuman. He argues that Rogers accomplished these feats through the genius of pure leadership, that his arsenal of technical skills, heightened by charisma and an intuitive understanding of men, forged his Joe Colonial volunteers into a unique fighting force.

In fact, his legacy inspires our special forces today, especially the U.S. Army’s Rangers, who honor Rogers by training in the deadly use of one of his favorite weapons, the tomahawk. The field manual he wrote of 23 rules is required reading at Fort Benning, a bible for small-unit combat that was heretical if not revolutionary.

Where English armies marched into battle wearing scarlet and honored almost all chivalric codes, Rogers wrote “If you are obliged to receive the enemy’s fire, fall, or squat down, till it is over, then rise and discharge at them.”

Torching villages, he contrived hit-and-run pillage deep in enemy territory for no tactical gain, only for the purpose of terrorizing the populace and keeping defenders on edge by proving he could strike anywhere that he had the will to reach. Which leads even a friendly reviewer to deter some readers: those with weak stomachs. Rogers himself scalps adversaries faster than I can turn a page, as do the English, French and Indian combatants, and they all keep bloody souvenirs as trophies of war. Nor are those the worst actions committed by starving soldiers in buckskin who encounter human corpses.

Herein lies another lesson that sanitized histories ignore: While this nation was founded on high-sounding principles voiced by Enlightenment savants, the woods rang out with tortured screams. Long before Africans’ slavery became common and Indians’ genocide government policy, our forefathers practiced violence with extreme prejudice and sang froid. America was born in brutality many times over, a fact that we moderns would do better to study than ignore if we are ever to defang the blacker angels of our nature.

His derring-do aside, Rogers championed westward expansion and believed in manifest destiny before its time. He blazed new paths, negotiated with Indians in good faith and, inevitably, made political enemies in high places. He faced bankruptcy, largely because his superiors failed to pay his troops’ wages, and by the time his countrymen were choosing sides in the Revolution, he was caught in the middle. British brass, such as Gen. Gage, suspected him of leading Indians against the crown; Continentals called him traitor for retaining his English officer’s commission because he needed the half-pay.

Hoping to join the American cause, he had an encounter with the one man who matched his larger-than-life reputation and persona. George Washington won the faceoff, and Rogers was jailed (not for the first time). Breaking out of prison, he offered his services to Gen. Howe, who welcomed him. His last great deed was to unmask a spy gathering intelligence for the rebels, arrest him and see him hang: Nathan Hale.

Suffice it to say that Robert Rogers, backwoods child of a nascent nation, was heroic, admirable, brutal, canny, ambitious, duplicitous, visionary and much more — like America itself. In this exhaustive book, variously scholarly and white-knuckle-exciting, John Ross has done the great man justice.

Philip Kopper, who writes about history, the arts and the natural world, is publisher of Posterity Press.

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