Archiver > AMERICAN-REVOLUTION > 2002-02 > 1013921460

From: "Rhonda Houston" <>
Subject: [A-REV] Rank of Ensign - American Rev War Soldier
Date: Sat, 16 Feb 2002 22:53:27 -0600
U. S. Army

Institute of Heraldry
The mission of the Institute of Heraldry is to furnish heraldic services to
the armed forces and other United States government organizations, including
the Executive Office of the President (has excellent info on the history of
Army rank structure)



The origin of the ranger tradition lies in the seventeenth century wars
between colonists and Native American tribes. In the original concept
rangers were full-time soldiers employed by the colonial governments to
"range" between fixed frontier fortifications as a reconnaissance system to
provide early warning of hostile raids. In offensive operations they became
scouts and guides, locating targets (such as villages) for task forces drawn
from the militia or other colonial troops.

By 1675-1676 a new element appeared in the ranger concept. Benjamin Church
(1639-1718) of Massachusetts developed a special full-time unit mixing white
colonists selected for frontier skills with friendly Indians to carry out
offensive strikes against hostile Indians in terrain where normal militia
units were ineffective. In fact, his memoirs published in 1716 by a son are
the first American military manual.

The traditional ranger usage reached its peak during the French and Indian
War. Robert Rogers of New Hampshire organized a corps of New England
woodsmen as full-time Provincials directly under British military auspices
and paid out of British funds. The companies supported British operations
against French Canada on the New York and St. Lawrence River fronts. They
occasionally operated with friendly Indians, but more commonly served the
British as a substitute for traditional allies. Astute British commanders
assigned regular British officers to Rogers' Rangers for training in
wilderness warfare which they could then pass on to their normal regiments.

Veterans of this corps played a major role in the Continental Army during
the Revolution, including Major General Israel Putnam and Brigadier Generals
John Stark and Moses Hazen. The tranditional ranger usage had only limited
application during that later war. Various state governments did employ such
units for local frontier security, but the Continental Army formed very few,
in part because George Washington considered frontier security to be a local
responsibility and focused national military forces on opposing regular
British and German units in a formal battlefield context.

Other than the regiments and separate companies of riflemen from
Pennsylvania and the states to the south, who really functioned as light
infantry rather than rangers, the Continental Army only formed two
functional ranger units. Knowlton's Rangers, a provisional three-company
unit of volunteers from Connecticut and Massachusetts line regiments under
Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton, came into being during the late summer
of 1776 at New York City. It performed excellently in a light infantry role
at the battle of Harlem Heights on 16 September 1776, but Knowlton suffered
a mortal wound. Two months later the remnants of the corps fell into British
hands when Fort Washington surrendered. Captain Nathan Hale of this corps
gained immortality as a brave but singularly inept spy.

Whitcomb's Rangers started as a similar provisional unit on the Lake
Champlain front in 1776. It gained permanent status as a two-company force
on 15 October of that year and provided reconnaissance capability to the
Northern Department until 1 January 1781 when it disbanded at Coos, New
Hampshire, as part of a general reorganization of the Continental Army. Most
of Whitcomb's men came from New Hampshire and the Hampshire Grants (now

Other units in the Continental Army either used the term ranger in their
designation or were commonly called rangers, but did not serve in that
capacity in the traditional sense. South Carolina and Georgia each raised
mounted ranger units in 1775-1776, but when they became part of the
Continental Army during the summer of 1776 they transformed into mounted
infantry. In fact over the period of several years the 3d South Carolina
Regiment gradually evolved into a line infantry regiment. When Washington
authorized Gist's Additional Continental Regiment in 1777 he intended to man
it with a mixture of Caucasian southern frontiersmen and members of the
Cherokee and related tribes. Washington wanted to use it as a vehicle for
insuring tribal support--its Native American members would become hostages
for the good behavior of the rest of the tribe--as well as a combat element.
The regiment never recruited the Indian component, and changes in British
operations led to the transformation of the white elements into normal

Contrary to myth, the light troops in the Continental Army overwhelmingly
followed European doctrinal concepts. The four regiments of light dragoons
raised in 1777 as a reconnaissance force derived from European developments
in light cavalry during the eighteenth century. Only during a brief period
in the winter of 1777-1778 did the Continental Army experiment with the idea
of employing them as a shock force.

Light infantry companies added to the regimental organization of each
Continental Army infantry regiment in 1778 also had European roots. The
American leadership stressed the ideas of Maurice, comte de Saxe and the
comte de Guibert, two leading French military theorists, which advocated
cross-training every soldier to perform both line or light infantry roles to
allow mission flexibility. Light companies normally assembled into
provisional battalions at the start of each year's campaign and acted as a
special strike force in traditional battlefield roles, not as a
reconnaissance element.

The Continental Army's other light troops sprang from a relatively new
European concept not the native American ranger tradition. During the Seven
Years' War most European armies developed partisan corps (also called frei
korps). Originally fielded by the French to counter Austrian irregulars
recruited in the Balkans, they filled a unique niche by providing deep
security around an army in the field or carried out raids behind enemy
lines. The Continental Army authorized several of these formations in 1777
and 1778, primarily as a vehicle to employ European volunteers who could not
be inserted into existing regiments without provoking major arguments over
rank, or because of language barriers. "Light Horse Harry" Lee of Virginia
(the father of Robert E. Lee) raised the only American-born unit under this
concept. Each partisan unit in the Continental Army, however, had a unique
organizational structure.

The 1781 reorganization of the Continental resolved the issue of light
troops by bringing greater centralized control. The light infantry companies
continued under their existing practice of forming provisional battalions
for each campaign season. The four regiments of light dragoons transformed
into combined arms Legionary Corps composed of four mounted and two
dismounted troops; the various partisan elements consolidated into two
Partisan Corps, each with three mounted and three dismounted troops. The
structure of the legionary corps focused on providing close reconnaissance
and security patrols for a field army although various operational and
manpower problems hampered most of the regiments from achieving complete

Only Elisha Sheldon's 2d Legionary Corps (a Connecticut unit serving in 1781
in the West Point-Westchester County zone) fully exploited the possibilities
of the combined arms structure. The two dismounted troops armed and equipped
as light infantry provided a defensive element to protect the camp from
enemy surprise attack, and also provided a base of fire around which the
mounted elements could maneuver. They also became very adept at employing
the mounted troops in a raid designed to provoke a British pursuit which
would end with a classic "L-shaped" ambush.

The 1st Partisan Corps under the Frenchman "Colonel Armand" (the marquis de
la Rouerie) and the 2d under Lee both drew assignments in Major General
Nathanael Greene's Southern Department. Armand's remained a shell during
1781, but Lee had great success in the Carolinas carrying out those specific
missions for which the 3-3 mix of mounted and dismounted troops had been
designed. In formal battles it provided unblemished flank security, but it
was even better in rear battle by conducting deep raids against British
logistical bases. Lee particularly shined when his regulars stiffened the
irregular local forces of leaders like Francis ("Swamp Fox") Marion. The mix
of mounted and dismounted men gave it somewhat greater staying power in
independent firefights while also allowing rapid forced marches (each light
infantryman held on to a dragoon's stirrups).

None of the light units employed by the Continental Army carried out a
training role as Rogers' Rangers had during the French and Indian War. In
fact, Major General Friedrich von Steuben wrote a separate drill manual for
them in late 1780. He and Washington intended it to be the companion to the
famous "Blue Book", but operational factors prevented its publication and

Rhonda Houston

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