Benjamin Whitcomb's Independent Corps of Rangers

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A Short History of the Original Corps

Once back at Ticonderoga following the disastrous Canadian campaign of 1775-76, the American army needed to gather information on British activities in Canada. The scouts who took on this task needed to traverse over one-hundred miles of wilderness between the American positions at Ticonderoga and Mount Independence and those of the British along the Richelieu River and around Montreal. A lieutenant from New Hampshire, Benjamin Whitcomb, quickly demonstrated his willingness and ability to perform these hazardous activities. On one such mission, while watching British movements near St. Johns on July 24, 1776, Whitcomb mortally wounded the commander of the British First Brigade, Brigadier General Patrick Gordon. Calling Whitcomb and the men with him “infamous Skulkers,” Canada’s Governor-General Carleton offered a reward of fifty guineas (£55) for the capture of the scout and promised "due punishment, which can only be inflicted by the Hangman." Less than a month later, Whitcomb went back to the same place and captured a corporal and the quartermaster of the 29th Regiment (Gordon’s regiment). As a result of his prowess, General Horatio Gates recommended that Whitcomb be given a command, and on October 15, 1776, Congress promoted Whitcomb to captain and ordered him to form two companies of rangers. With that order, Benjamin Whitcomb’s Independent Corps of Rangers became part of the Northern Department of the Continental Army.  Click here for details on the men who made up Benjamin Whitcomb's Independent Corps of Rangers.

Whitcomb's Rangers functioned primarily as scouts and spies. Small groups of up to six men traveled behind British lines for days or weeks at a time. Several times, British intelligence reported them going into Canada dressed as Canadians or Indians. The unit, augmented by another ranger company under Captain Thomas Lee and volunteers from other companies, also went out in pursuit of Indian and Loyalist raiding and scouting parties. On June 17, 1777, men of Whitcomb's Corps fought the first action of Burgoyne's campaign when Indians functioning as a screen for the advancing British army ambushed fourteen Rangers on a scouting mission. Subsequently, some of the Rangers took part in the actions at Hubbardton, Fort Anne, Bennington, and Saratoga (where they fought as part of Dearborne’s light infantry). Several of the Rangers also took part in Brown’s raid on the British and Germans garrisoning the Ticonderoga/Mount Independence complex in the fall of 1777.

After the surrender of Burgoyne, Whitcomb received orders to serve as major in a regiment organized for an incursion into Canada under Lafayette. In early 1778, as part of those plans, the corps moved to Rutland, Vermont, where they built Fort Ranger which ultimately became the military headquarters for the Republic of Vermont. That fall, Whitcomb’s Rangers played a significant role in detecting and limiting the success of a "secret" British expedition to burn mills and sources of supplies in the Champlain valley. The Rangers had known of the pending raid for several weeks.

During the winter of 1778-79, Whitcomb’s Rangers moved to the upper Connecticut River valley, then known as “Co’os,” and set up headquarters in Haverhill, NH. As well as continuing to scout into Canada, the corps guarded the men working on the Bayley-Hazen Road which had been started with the intention of serving as the route for the second invasion of Canada. Much of the responsibility of protecting the region fell to Whitcomb Rangers and companies of men raised just for the summer months. In October of 1780, the British and their allied Indians attempted a raid on Co’os in order to destroy any war-making capabilities of the region. A few miles before they reached Co’os, a spy reported that Whitcomb had 500 men with him and the raiders decided to turn south and attack the White River valley instead. The area around Royalton, Vermont, suffered severely and the raid became a legendary piece of Vermont’s history.

Whitcomb’s Rangers carried on their service until the army’s reorganization in early 1781. At that time, the officers retired and the enlisted men joined the light infantry companies of the three New Hampshire regiments with the main army.

The Rangers had no specific uniform but rather utilized a wide variety of civilian and military clothing and equipment including brown French contract coats with red facings. At no time did the Rangers receive enough clothing and equipment for all the men so they must have presented a truly mixed appearance. For armament, the army issued smooth-bore muskets and bayonets to the Rangers but no reference to rifles has been encountered.

Less than eighty men, many in their teens, served as Whitcomb's Rangers and nearly all of them came from New Hampshire and “the Grants” (a common term for Vermont). The entire unit seldom found itself together because individuals and small groups continually went out on scouting missions or received orders to serve in various areas or with other officers. Many others in the army knew about the corps. Whitcomb even went to Morristown, New Jersey, to confer with Washington, himself. Benjamin Whitcomb’s Independent Corps of Rangers had a reputation that belied its small size but time has nearly erased the memory of these men. They deserve better.

Bringing to light the exploits of the original Whitcomb’s Rangers is one of the major objectives of the re-created Whitcomb’s Rangers. Formed in 1975, the members of this non-profit organization continue to conduct extensive research into the original Rangers and the period of the American Revolution. Using that information, the men, women, and children of the modern-day Whitcomb’s Rangers attempt to re-create the original Rangers and the 18th century to the best of their abilities. Like the original Rangers, the re-created unit utilizes a wide variety of civilian and military clothing and equipment. Members often forsake tents for a lean-to or simply blankets, and are issued period rations for some events. Research is being done so that some members can appear dressed “in the Canadian manner.” As a result of their efforts, these volunteers have achieved a high level of authenticity and have acquired an excellent reputation within the living history hobby. We hope our efforts result in a public more knowledgeable in the period of the American Revolution and, of course, in Whitcomb’s Rangers. We also hope our efforts have made the original Whitcomb’s Rangers proud of us.

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