Woods Warfare

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Woods Warfare

After too many years of watching reenactors trying to reenact woods warfare from the French war period, I thought a little perspective on woods warfare may be instructive. The purpose of this little article is to draw on references from the earlier conflicts in New England to show that Robert Rogers did not invent woods tactics and that the last French War was actually the culmination of an evolutionary process for English colonists to learn how to operate in the woods. In a second article I hope to show that reenactors do not catch the experience of true woods warfare. Essentially, we fire our muskets way too much and we lose the real drama of that combat.

With all due respect to my comrades in the various ranger units, it seems sometimes that God made Robert Rogers and he begat woods warfare for the English. He even had his own scripture and commandments.

Commandment 2: Thou shalt “act the way you would if you were sneaking up on a deer.”
Commandment 6: “When we’re on the march we march single file, far enough apart so one shot can’t go through two men.”
Commandment 7: “if you are obliged to receive the enemy’s fire, fall, or squat down, till it is over, then rise and discharge at them.”
Commandment 12: “No matter whether we travel in big parties or little ones, each party has to keep a scout 20 yards ahead, 20 yards on each flank and 20 yards in the rear, so the main body won’t be ambushed.”
Commandment 18: “Don’t stand up when the enemy’s coming against you. Kneel down. Hide behind a tree.”
Commandment 19: “Let the enemy come till he’s almost close enough to touch, then let him have it and jump out and finish him with your hatchet.”

However, while tipping my hat to Rogers and his accomplishments, he did not make this up. First, let me emphasize that the only true masters of woods warfare in the colonial period were natives. It is interesting to see how the Indians developed this. According to Francis Jennings (Invasion of America), before the coming of Europeans native warfare was more ceremonial. They stood in the open, loosed a few arrows at each other and when a few were injured they broke off the engagement. The firearms of the Europeans changed this. Patrick Malone, in The Skulking Way of War, indicates that in the 17th century New England Indians adapted their hunting techniques to adjust to the new technology. They took on the European firearms and they were good shots. They were used to hunting, firing at a moving target, and they often used multiple shot to increase the chance of hitting the target. The English had no experience with this. Only the upper class in England could hunt, the lower class people who came to America had no experience with this. Archaeologists have found few wild animal bones around 17th century English settlements, indicating they consumed domestic animals almost exclusively (and probably traded with the Indians for the few wild animals they did consume). It would take a long time for the English to learn the native way of war.

The man most credited with bringing enlightenment to the English was Benjamin Church. Some historians dispute the claim, saying that his influence was not so widespread, but at the very least Church understood the native way of war and left us descriptions and advice that sound remarkably like Robert Rogers commandments, and yet were written long before Rogers was born. Church was born in Duxbury, Massachusetts in 1635 and later moved to the Narragansett frontier in Little Compton, Rhode Island. There he came to admire and understand native culture.

Unlike his fellow Englishmen, Church seemed to have an ability to grasp the nature of woods warfare. When King Philip’s War broke out in 1675 Church became a vocal proponent of adopting Indian warfare. He raised a mixed force of Indians and whites (one company of Indians, one of whites) and encouraged his white soldiers to watch the Indians and follow their lead. However, they found European culture difficult to overcome. The essential tactic of woods warfare was the ambush, the psychological shock of it. Church set up his white soldiers in an ambush, but the men “being troubled with the epidemical plague of lust after tobacco, must needs strike fire to smoke it, and thereby discover themselves to a party of the enemy” who promptly ran off.

Church asked his Indians “how they got such advantage, often, of the English in their marches through the woods. They told him that Indians gained great advantage of the English by two things; they always took care in their marches and fights not to come too thick together; so that it was as easy to hit them as to hit a house. The other was, that if at any time they discovered a company of English in the woods, they that they were all, for the English never scattered, but the Indians always divided and scattered.” This would become an important maxim for Church – scatter, spread out, and don’t bunch (See Rogers Commandment 6). English tradition was to stand up and face the enemy using the pike or firearms. This was the manly or honorable way of war. Church had to change this cultural reference.

Church learned other lessons as well, such as concealment and taking cover. “Two Indians were soon discovered coming out of the peas field towards them, when Mr. Church and those that were with him, concealed themselves by falling flat on the ground.” (See Rogers Commandment 18). Church also made sure that not everyone fired at once. If all the weapons were emptied the enemy could charge. Once when ambushed Church “called to his men not to discharge all their guns at once, lest the enemy should take advantage of such an opportunity to run upon them with their hatchets.” He understood the need for intelligence. He told his men “if they came across any of the enemy, not to kill them if they could possibly take them alive, that they might gain intelligence.” Church also learned the importance of guarding the knapsacks when dropped before an action. As they approached an Indian village, he ordered “the Captains to draw out … several of their meanest men, to be a guard for the doctor, and knapsacks.”

He continued this learning process during four raids along the Maine coast in King William’s War and one in Queen Anne’s war (at the age of 65). Samuel Penhallow writing in the 1720’s said it was the custom of the men under Church’s command “to rest in the Day, and row in the night; and never fire at an Indian if they could reach him with a hatchet.” (See Rogers’ Commandment 19).

Church always told his men to “run very thin, to preserve themselves and be better able to make discovery of the enemy.” On his fifth raid into Maine he was infuriated during one action to find “so many of the army in a crowd together, acting so contrary to my command and direction, exposing themselves and the whole army to utter ruin, by their so disorderly crowding thick together. Had an enemy come upon them in that interim, and fired a volley amongst them, they could not have missed a shot.” Note the change that has happened to European ways. Before if they were not in ranks they would have been considered “disorderly,” here Church believes that not being scattered was “disorderly.”

Church also ordered that when confronted with an enemy to “clap down and cock their guns.” (See Rogers’ Commandment 7). Soldiers involved in woods warfare could not be mindless automatons, they should be inspected by “men of known judgment [to] see if their arms be good and they know how to use them in shooting right, at a mark, and that they be men of good reason and sense to know how to manage themselves in so difficult a piece of service as this Indian hunting is.” (Note reference to hunting in Rogers’ Commandment 2).

Others would continue Church’s education and evolution. Men on the frontier of New England continued to adapt. The governments of Massachusetts and New Hampshire would increase the number of men involved in raids, patrols and probes throughout Queen Anne’s War. During that war the English learned the value of winter raids, marching deep into the woods on snowshoes pulling sleds for supplies. The first such raid occurred in 1704. Acts passed in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts ordered frontier communities to provide snowshoes for use by provincial soldiers. Eventually the provincial government provided for companies of snowshoemen, men who lived on the frontier, not raised and dispatched from communities farther south. They would be paid only when out on a scout, the officers had provincial commissions, and the men were the best and most active able to perform scouts at any time of the year.

Dummer’s War in the 1720s saw that all the lessons were learned. There were constant scouts and patrols, the raid on Norridgewock by Johnson Harmon and Jeremiah Moulton out of York, Maine, and the exploits of John Lovewell (who did and did not learn lessons … on his second raid he left a guard over the packs, on his third raid he did not and he was ambushed). By King George’s War the men living along the New England frontier were tuned to woods war. A young Robert Rogers accompanied a scout on the New Hampshire frontier during that war. Indeed, so ingrained was the concept of woods warfare that in 1756 at Fort William Henry when English regulars were drilling provincial soldiers in European linear tactics, one New England private indicated he couldn’t see any sense in standing up in the open to be shot at.

It is obvious that woods warfare was like a long thread of experience culminating in Robert Rogers in the last French war, but spun through decades of previous warfare. And as far as the English were concerned, the first spinner, the man who started them on the path, was Benjamin Church.

Steven C. Eames