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U.S. Army Rangers

Leading the Way for 70 Years

Back in the Age of Muskets (1600-1850), every military commander knew that peasants made the best infantry: stolid, inured to hardship, and conditioned to obey their social superiors. But armies also needed soldiers of a different kind – agile, aggressive men, able to think fast and act with little supervision – for raids, night fighting, and other “special” missions. The best of these soldiers were recruited from professional hunters, gamekeepers, foresters, and frontiersmen. In German, they were called Jäger; in French, Chasseurs; in English, Light Infantry; or in Britain’s American colonies, Rangers.

The best of these soldiers were recruited from professional hunters, gamekeepers, foresters, and frontiersmen. In German, they were called Jäger; in French, Chasseurs; in English, Light Infantry; or in Britain’s American colonies, Rangers.

During the North American Colonial Wars, English colonists slowly learned to combine the superior lethality of their firearms with the irregular tactics of their Native American adversaries. Col. Benjamin Church of the Plymouth Colony in New England formed the first American Ranger company during King Philip’s War (1675-1678), later leading it on expeditions against the French and their native allies in Maine and New Brunswick.

Benjamin Church

Benjamin Church who is considered the First American Ranger. Engraving courtesy of the New York Public Library

As the global conflict between French and British empires escalated in the 18th century, Maj. Robert Rogers of New Hampshire organized a militia regiment of nine companies (about 600 men) on the New England frontier. It became renowned as “Rogers’ Rangers,” America’s first real special operations forces (SOF) unit.

Today’s U.S. Army Rangers trace their historic lineage to this unit, which was active during the French and Indian Wars. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress authorized eight companies of sharpshooting riflemen, commanded by Dan Morgan and known as the Corps of Rangers.

Francis Marion built and led another famous Revolutionary War Ranger element known as Marion’s Partisans, continuing the fight against the British long after the Continental Army had been driven from South Carolina. Marion became known as “the Swamp Fox” for his ability to melt away into the Carolina swamps after attacks on the British.

Interestingly, the Queen’s York Rangers, a reservist unit of the Canadian Forces, raised by Rogers himself to fight the American rebels in 1776, also claims descent from Rogers’ Rangers. Rogers’ Rangers specialized in winter raiding, fighting several skirmishes on snowshoes. In 1759, Rogers codified his system of irregular warfare in “28 Rules of Ranging,” still preserved in the standing orders given to soldiers in U.S. Army Ranger School.

Highlights of Rogers’ rules include:

2. … if your number be small, march in a single file, keeping at such a distance from each other as to prevent one shot from killing two men …

3. … encamp … on a piece of ground that may afford your sentries the advantage of seeing or hearing the enemy some considerable distance, keeping one half of your whole party awake alternately through the night.

10. If the enemy is so superior that you are in danger of being surrounded …, let the whole body disperse, and every one take a different road to the place of rendezvous appointed for that evening …

21. If the enemy pursue your rear, take a circle till you come to your own tracks, and there form an ambush to receive them …

Veterans of Rogers’ Rangers fought on both sides in the American Revolution and the War of 1812.

In the American Civil War, the most famous irregular unit was Virginia’s 43rd Battalion of “Partisan Rangers,” led by “the Gray Ghost,” Col. John Singleton Mosby. Although he opposed secession, Mosby volunteered as a private in the Confederate Army at the outbreak of hostilities. Impressed with his ability as a scout, Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee’s cavalry commander, promoted him to lieutenant, and in 1863 sent him to organize a mounted unit operating behind Union lines in northern Virginia, which became known as “Mosby’s Rangers,” “Mosby’s Raiders,” and ultimately “Mosby’s Confederacy.”

John S. Mosby

John S. Mosby during the Civil War. Library of Congress photo

In the decades after the Civil War, the U.S. Army saw little need for specialist Rangers. “Small wars” were left to the U.S. Marine Corps, while the Army prepared for the next “big war.” There simply was no interest within the U.S. military for unconventional warfare and units from 1865 until the start of World War II. However, World War II would provide a fertile venue for unconventional soldiers with their own ways of fighting, especially the Rangers.

In 1940, after the heroic evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk, Winston Churchill ordered the creation of volunteer raiding units that could strike back at the edges of Nazi-occupied Europe. He chose the name “Commando” for these units, recalling the Afrikaner mounted riflemen of the Boer War. When the first U.S. troops were sent to England in 1942, volunteer units were formed to train and fight alongside the Commandos, and the historic title of “Ranger” was revived for these battalions.

In 1940, after the heroic evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk, Winston Churchill ordered the creation of volunteer raiding units that could strike back at the edges of Nazi-occupied Europe. He chose the name “Commando” for these units, recalling the Afrikaner mounted riflemen of the Boer War. When the first U.S. troops were sent to England in 1942, volunteer units were formed to train and fight alongside the Commandos, and the historic title of “Ranger” was revived for these battalions. William Orlando Darby, a young lieutenant colonel of artillery, was chosen to lead the first of the Ranger battalions, which stood up in May 1942 in Northern Ireland. The Operation Torch landings in North Africa, on Nov. 8, 1942, were the first major U.S. operations in the European theater; the 1st Ranger Battalion was part of the landing force. Darby’s Rangers led the way at Arzew, a port on the Algerian coast, conducting a difficult night assault to seize Vichy French gun batteries.

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