Most people with a passing familiarity with the Queen’s York Rangers know that the first Commanding Officer was Robert Rogers. The next most famous commander of the Regiment is John Graves Simcoe. And while both men commanded the Regiment during the American Revolution, Simcoe did not succeed Rogers directly – there were two other Commanding Officers between their tenures. These two men, Christopher French and James Wemyss, are little known officers whose history deserves to be shared. Much of the history of these two men is confused with that of Simcoe, which denies them credit for their achievements. While French, Wemyss and Simcoe all fought at the Battle of Brandywine, only one did so as the commander of the Queen’s Rangers.
Rogers had received a provincial commission as a Lieutenant Colonel on the 6th of August, 1776. He quickly filled the ranks of the Queen’s American Rangers from amongst Loyalist refugees and others in New York City, bringing his command to full strength by the end of September.
Although nearly all of the recruits had no military experience, Rogers put little effort into training them. This is perhaps a reflection of his own rugged individualism, and his sense that formal military training was less important than experience and sound leadership. Without training, the Regiment did not fare particularly well – for example, losing a company of men during a Rebel attack on their encampment in Mamaroneck, NY on the 22nd of October, 1776.
The Rangers’ reputation for ill-discipline was exacerbated by the tasks in which they were employed, primarily the destruction or seizure of any goods of value in rebel held Westchester County. The people of Westchester complained bitterly to the Continental Congress of the wanton looting and destruction waged by the Rangers on their farmsteads.
On the 20th of January, 1777, Lieutenant Colonel Rogers was relieved of command of the Queen’s American Rangers by the Inspector General of Provincial Forces, LCol Alexander Innes. While there was no specific incident for which Rogers was relieved, his methods over the preceding few months had irked many in the military establishment. Innes was described by a contemporary as “"a man, whose haughty and supercilious conduct has estranged more minds from His Majesty and the British Govt. than perhaps all the other blunders in the conduct of the American war put together.” His assignment to review the state of the Provincial Regiment did not bode well for Rogers.
Innes wrote a letter to Major General Clinton outlining his concerns with the Queen’s Rangers, in which he stated that he found them to be in “very great confusion and disorder.” In particular, he found that many of the officers recruited by Rogers were not gentlemen – they included tradesmen, a police constable, tavern keepers and at least two brothel owners.
A regular British Army officer, Major Christopher French of the 22nd Regiment of Foot, was appointed to temporarily command the Regiment in his stead. French was an Irishman, and about 50 years old when he took command of the Rangers. He was described as “small in stature with a hard-favoured visage.” He had joined the British Army as an ensign in 1744, and served with the 22nd Regiment of Foot in North America during the French and Indian War, ending that conflict as a Captain commanding a company. He fought at the capture of Louisburg and Quebec. In 1776 he was promoted to Major and ordered to proceed from England to rejoin his Regiment in the Thirteen Colonies. The colonies rebelled while he was en route, and he was captured by the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety as his transport travelled up the Delaware River. After consideration by the Committee, which included Benjamin Franklin amongst its members, French, an ensign and several soldiers who were also on board were held prisoner by the rebels. French vigorously contested his capture as illegal and unfair.
French wrote at least eight separate letters to George Washington outlining his case and demanding to be freed (a scan of one of which is attached below). He also complained strenuously to Washington that despite giving his parole, he was being denied the right to continue to wear a sword, as befitted a gentleman! His efforts at convincing Washington and the Continental Congress (to which he also wrote) to release him producing no good results, he decided instead to escape. On his second attempt (on the 27th of December, 1776) he managed to reach British lines and region his Regiment, only a month later being given command of the Rangers.
It took Major French nearly two months to resolve all of the unit’s financial issues, as officers were withholding the pay and bounties of their men, amongst other irregularities. Once that was complete, he then turned his attention to his officers – summarily dismissing 26 of them and retaining only 7 of Rogers’ original leaders. This group of dismissed officers would continue to petition the British military for many years, complaining that they had been unjustly dismissed and demanding both reinstatement and back pay.
French also worked hard to train the Rangers as a regiment of the line, instilling regular army discipline and continuing to recruit to build its strength. He also managed to supply the Regiment with uniforms for the first time, as up to this point the men continued to wear civilian clothes. It was under French, not Simcoe, that the Regiment began to wear the green jackets for which they are known to this day. Under his command the Rangers continued actively patrolling, and engaged in a number of small skirmishes at the company level with rebel forces.
After having completed these initial reforms, French requested reassignment back to his Regiment, which was granted at the end of April, 1777. Later in the war, he commanded the 52nd Regiment of Foot (including at the Battle of Brandywine), retiring from the army in 1778 and dying at his home in Ireland in 1791.