March Madness

by Alan Wechsler | History

Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In 2000, Alan Wechsler tagged along for a reenactment of Robert Rogers’s winter trek during the Battle on Snowshoes.

When I arrived at the Hot Biscuit Din­er
in Ticonderoga to meet Bob Bearor, he was nowhere to be seen. Then the waitress saw me looking around.

“There’s some guys from the fort in the back room,” she said, which, I found out a moment later, is a pretty cavalier way to describe a man wearing the eighteenth-cen­tury uniform of a French-Canadian soldier. Specifically, it was the uni­form of French partisan leader Langis, complete with knee-length wool coat, heavy leather moccasin boots, a leather belt with a bayonet and a gold-rimmed tricorne hat.

Bearor’s wife, Holly, was there too, dressed more plainly as a French officer.

Before I could fully take in this anachronism, the waitress came by and—completely ignoring the fact she was about to serve a French com­mander who had been dead for more than two hundred years—asked what we wanted for breakfast.

Langis, for the record, ordered pancakes.

One thing that can be said about Bob Bearor, historian, outdoorsman and former Troy firefighter, is that he throws himself into his research. Ever since his parents began bringing him to the Adirondacks, he’s been fascinated with French and Indian War battles. “It’s just one of those things I fell in love with,” he said.

Now a full-time Newcomb resident, Bearor has taken his hobby to new heights. Since 1991 he’s been dressing up in 1700s battle regalia to research one very specific­—and in the mind of Bearor, one very misunderstood— ­battle. The fight in question is called the Battle on Snow­shoes, and Bearor proclaims himself one of the world’s experts on this skirmish.

The reason he knows so much about it is because he’s relived it.

Bearor has walked nearly every inch of the battleground where Captain Robert Rogers and his Rangers were decimated by a French am­bush. He’s also tried to re-create the route Rogers took as he and a few survivors fled the French and made their way down to Lake George and eventually Fort Edward. Striving for historical accuracy, Bearor made the trek dressed only in materials that were available at the time.

When he’s clad in full regalia, people seem to take him for granted. In a place like Ticonderoga, it’s quite ordinary to see people in period clothing wandering through town, although rare in the off-season. But there was one woman from Manhattan who drove up to Bearor as he walked down the road, rolled down her window and asked, “Do all the locals dress like you?”

Bearor is also not afraid of the cold. In March 1995 he slept out at night with nothing but blankets, and deliberately refused to build a fire. He was trying to prove that Rogers, a legendary outdoorsman brought alive in the 1940 movie Northwest Passage, was not quite as hardy as history might suggest.

History says Rogers and his men didn’t always build fires when they camped at night. Bearor’s skeptical mind figured that, two hundred years before down sleeping bags became de rigueur, it was doubtful anybody could get a comfortable night’s sleep that way in the winter.

So one March he tried it. The snow was three feet deep, the tem­perature just below freezing.

“I shivered a lot,” he recalled. And proved, to himself at least, that the men must have built fires every night in order to get the rest they needed.

All this research has resulted in a ninety-four-page book, The Battle on Snowshoes. It’s been through nine printings and sold more than three thousand copies, mostly at Fort Ti­conderoga. The book celebrates the cunning of the French and pulls no punches about how Rogers all but led his troops into an ambush, which may not be surprising, given Bearor’s French-Canadian roots. Bearor also uses the opportunity to take historians to task for forgetting the great French commander Langis while celebrating the decidedly less-honorable Rogers.

“Bearor offers a brand-new per­spective,” said Susan Johnson, asso­ciate director of Fort Ticonderoga, “from having walked every single inch of that ground, living on it and sleeping on it.”

The book was published three years ago, but the fifty-three-year-old Bearor continues to go on his yearly walks to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle on Snowshoes—some­times by himself, other times with his wife or others interested in histo­ry. Always it’s in costume.

Last March I went with him.

The seven-year war that pitted the British against the French and their Indian allies ranged from New England to as far west as Michigan. The fight was about territory, re­sources and who controlled valuable water passages like Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes.

Most soldiers of those days preferred to do battle in the warmer months. With Adirondack winters averaging only a few degrees above zero back then, men on both sides generally chose the boredom of hun­kering down in a fort to the consid­erable discomfort of mucking about in the frigid wilderness.

Not Robert Rogers. A Massachu­setts man who narrowly missed being arrested for passing counterfeit notes, he joined the army at a young age and quickly made a name for him­self. After the war started, Rogers organized a band of rugged men he called “Rangers.” The team excelled at wilderness living, spending win­ters patrolling up and down Lakes George and Champlain, trying to ambush the enemy when they were away from French-controlled Caril­lon, now Fort Ticonderoga.

Rogers had rules, which the army still teaches today: “Don’t forget any­thing.” “Don’t ever take a chance you don’t have to.” “Don’t sit down to eat without posting sentries.”

On March 13, 1758, while on patrol, Rogers ignored one of his own rules. His team followed their tracks back home.

This time the French, led by Ensign Jean-Baptiste Levreault de Langis, were waiting for them. It was the Abenaki Indians who spotted the tracks of Rogers’s men on snow-cov­ered Lake George. The Abenakis warned the French, who immediate­ly sent out a troop.

At four p.m., as the Rangers passed, a group of Indians attacked. The Rangers fired back, the Indians fled and the Rangers ran after them.

The French were waiting, two hundred men on high ground, their weapons loaded. When the shooting started, fifty Rangers were torn apart by marble-size musket balls.

Rogers immediately ordered his men to fall back. But for many it was too late. Indians and bayonet-wield­ing Frenchmen charged after them, dispatching the wounded. French marksmen took out many of the re­maining Colonials as they returned fire from behind trees.

Less than two hours after the bat­tle began, more than 120 Rangers were dead. As dusk fell, the French attacked again. Rogers yelled to his men to run for it, to head back to the lake and from there south to British­controlled territory. In twos and threes, they fled into the woods.

The French camped, and went after the remaining Rangers the next morning. They found Rogers’s jack­et, which contained his commission signed by a British general. Their adversary, they thought, was dead:

He wasn’t. Rogers and a handful of men walked all night. Making their way down the length of Lake George, they reached Fort Edward a day later.

But Rogers would never be the same again. He later became an alco­holic and left his wife and family. When the revolutionary war began, the British rejected him. He died, raving, in prison.

The place where hundreds of men lost their lives is now the Ticondero­ga Golf Course, our first stop on the trip. Bearor and his wife are in his truck. In another vehicle is Fred La­Pann, sixty-one, a retired guidance counselor and fellow historian.

They get out and, standing at a vantage point off Route 9N, imme­diately begin to argue about which direction Rogers took his men after the ambush. Thanks to finding mus­ket balls and other evidence, histori­ans have been able to estimate the general area where the fight took place. But which route Rogers used to get to the lake no one really knows. Granted, it’s not a riddle most peo­ple lose sleep over. But Bearor is not most people.

A few minutes later, we’re driving along a dirt road, a logging track real­ly, that brings us to the western side of Rogers Rock. Our plan for the day is to hike to the top of the mountain.

Bearor readily concedes that some of his writings about Rogers’s march are intuitive rather than factual. But there’s one thing he’s adamant about: While escaping the French, Rogers never climbed the mountain that bears his name, Bearor insists.

Of course, that goes completely against the Rogers legend, which says he headed up to the top of what was then called Bald Peak while being chased by Indians. At the top, Rogers either slid down the seventy­-degree, six-hundred-foot cliff or hurled his backpack down the slide to make it look as though he de­scended that way and then walked around. Supposedly, when the Indi­ans arrived on top and saw his appar­ent, death-defying route off the cliff, they respectfully gave up the chase.

Bearor says Rogers would have no reason to go up Rogers Rock at all, since he was trying to get to the lake as fast as possible. Moreover, he says, the steep, icy route to the summit would have been far too difficult with the footgear Rogers was wearing.

It’s easy to see his point. On our hike, about six inches of new snow covered a layer of ice. Bearor/Langis, wearing leather moccasins wrapped with rope, slipped constantly. Once it took him five minutes to climb a five­-foot embankment, using the busi­ness end of his rifle for support.

By the time we summited, the mountain was bathed in cool after­noon light. Lake George was frozen, its white surface marred by pressure ridges and cracks. Bearor immedi­ately lit a fire with flint and steel and began to boil water. The period food was filling enough: dried peas made into porridge, hardtack, plus bitter coffee flavored with cream and rum mixed together in the flask, which prevented it from freezing. Then he packed his muzzle-loader and fired a few shots into the air.

As the rifle thunder cleared, the world was silent. Bearor stood at the rock’s edge, a twentieth-century man in an eighteenth-century uniform, solving centuries-old riddles no one will ever know the real answer to. But that didn’t stop Bearor and LaPann from arguing again on the way down.

“That’s the magical thing,” Bearor said. “Nobody knows.”

And that’s fine with LaPann. If they did, he said, “it wouldn’t be any fun.”

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