Summer, 1776, New York City, and the first intelligence and Special Forces of the newly claimed republic of America was formed. Special Forces members were called Rangers and were chosen from the best of the best of the New England regiments from Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One hundred and fifty men answered their supreme commander’s call; their weapon, the Kentucky Rifle, and stealth tactics were based on Rogers’ Rangers of the previous French and Indian war. A close knit unit of veterans and intellectuals, they were literally formed just days after the Declaration of Independence was read on the New York City Commons for the Continental Army .
This special force, soon to be called Knowlton’s Rangers, was named for its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton. This imposing Connecticut farmer, six feet tall, “erect and elegant in figure”, was a born leader. Formed more for activity than strength, Knowlton “had a light complexion, dark hair, and eyes of a deep and spiritual beauty.” A veteran from the age of fifteen, stalwart and firm in battle, “…ready to lead where any could be found to follow and he knew no fear of danger.” Aaron Burr said of him, “it is impossible to promote such a man too rapidly.” Affable in manners, and “…wholly free from ostentation and egotism, [he was] the favorite of superior officers and the idol of his soldiers…”
Thomas Knowlton was just the officer that Washington was looking for – the officer he so desperately needed for this new and still relatively untested army. Like Greene and Putnam, His Excellency George Washington learned early on he could depend on such men in a crisis. Knowlton was gifted and destined to become one of the most valiant leaders in a fledgling nation. Most certain to have attained the highest ranking in the army, he would have been given a firm placement among history’s founding fathers had not death taken him so early in the war. Though others would rise to take his place, no doubt many a day and night, Washington must have thought “if he had only lived.”
Knowlton was born November 22, 1740, in West Boxford, Essex County, Massachusetts to William Knowlton (1705-1753) and Martha Pinder Dean (1709-1775). His family left Massachusetts when he was eight, moving to a four hundred acre farm in Ashford, Connecticut. At age fifteen, tall and strong for his age, he and his older brother Daniel enlisted in Captain John Durkee’s company of Windham County militia as privates. He also served under Major John Slapp, Captain Jebediah Fay, and Captain Hugh Ledlie the last having risen in rank to Lieutenant. During the war he joined his brother on scouting missions into enemy territory, fought in the battle of Wood Creek (where he was nearly captured), and took part in the 1759 capture Fort Carillon which the British renamed Fort Ticonderoga. While serving under Israel Putnam in 1762, he was one of twenty out of one hundred and seven to return alive from a British expedition to Havana, Cuba where they fought the Spanish.
Thomas married Anna Keyes in 1759 and they settled on the family farm in Ashford, CT where they raised nine children. In 1773 he was elected selectman of Ashford, which was considered unusual for someone so young at age 33. Active in his local militia, Knowlton was elected the Ashford Company Commander and thus became Captain Knowlton. The Ashford Company was part of the Fifth Regiment Connecticut Militia, which included the towns of Windham, Mansfield, and Coventry. His company was the first from an outside colony to march to Massachusetts after Lexington and Concord.
Upon arriving in Boston, the company was reorganized into the Fifth Company of General Israel Putnam’s Connecticut Regiment of 1775. The night of June 16th, 1775, Captain Knowlton and his company of Connecticut farmers found themselves on Bunker Hill. Fear that the British might move on their left along the beach and lower portion of Breeds Hill so as to flank the fortification being built on Breed’s Hill, Knowlton was ordered by Colonel Prescott to form a barrier to thwart any such move. Knowlton’s men lined the lower portion of Breeds hill and using a rail fence and crude dirt wall as a base, threw up additional rails and stones, including hay to achieve a breastwork. As the tide subsided, they were joined by the first and third New Hampshire under Colonels Stark and Reed who extended the line to the water.
Grenadier and Light Infantry under the direct command of General Howe made repeated attempts to force the barrier and each time were beaten back. Only when the general retreat was sounded did Knowlton’s men and the New Hampshire troops pull back. But they did so stubbornly, keeping a constant fire that protected the rest of the American forces who were rapidly retreating over the causeway. Knowlton’s company lost only three men in this battle. Afterward, Congress promoted Knowlton to rank of major and a wealthy Bostonian presented him with a gold-laced hat, sash, and a golden breastplate.
In 1776, during the reorganization of the army, Knowlton was assigned to the 20th Continental Regiment commanded by Colonel John Durkee, his old commander during the French Wars. It was not long before Washington recognized Knowlton’s traits as a leader. During the siege of Boston, he sent Knowlton to burn the remaining buildings at the base of Bunker Hill that were housing officers and to capture British guards. Knowlton accomplished this without firing a shot or losing a man.
During the New York campaign, Washington, who was constantly searching for information on enemy movement, organized the Rangers on Aug. 12th comprised of volunteers from New England Regiments. Their purpose was to scout enemy troop strength and when possible, infiltrate enemy lines to gather information and prisoners. During the Battle of Long Island, Knowlton was sent to Flatbush Pass to hold that segment of line. His experience in battle averted disaster when, during the general retreat, he pulled his men back in an orderly fashion.
When Washington sought an officer to infiltrate the British lines on Long Island to learn of information that may indicate the invasion of York Island, he looked to Knowlton’s Rangers. A young captain from Connecticut stepped forward and volunteered. His name was Captain Nathanial Hale. A graduate of Yale, and admired for his intellect and dedication to duty, the young school teacher agreed to be landed by boat on Long Island just days before the British invasion of New York City and York Island. Once the British invaded, he found passage to New York City where it is assumed he continued his amateur spying tactics. Escaping the city after the fire the night of Sept. 21st that engulfed a quarter of the town, he was captured, ironically through the treachery of Robert Rogers of former Rogers’ Rangers, who convinced the impressionable youth he too was a spy. Hale was taken back to New York where he was hanged the next day, uttering the famous line from Cato: “I regret I have but one life to lose for my country.”
After the evacuation of New York City consequent to the British invasion at Kip’s Bay on September 15th, Washington pulled all his forces up from York Island to Harlem Heights. The morning of the 16th, Knowlton’s Rangers were ordered to probe the enemy lines and strength. They came up against two battalions of Light Infantry supported by the Black Watch, famed 42nd regiment of Scotts Highlanders. Outnumbered three to one, they held their ground and poured seven volleys into the attacking Highlanders before Knowlton’s forces pulled back. When the Americans were pursued, Washington saw an opportunity to entrap the oncoming forces. Ordering Knowlton and three companies of riflemen from Colonel George Weedon’s Third Virginia Regiment led by Major Andrew Leitch to circle the attacking British, Washington sent one hundred and fifty volunteers from Nixon’s brigade of Greene’s division to attack the front as a decoy. They were commanded by Lt. Colonel Crary of Hitchcock’s Rhode Island Regiment. Unfortunately, before the trap could be affected, Crary’s troops began pushing back the Scotts and Light Infantry, and instead of coming in from behind, the Rangers and Virginians came up on their flanks. In the ensuing firefight, both Major Leich and Colonel Knowlton were killed.
Colonel Joseph Reed, Adjunct to General Washington, was present when Knowlton was carried from the field. He wrote afterwards, “Our greatest loss was a brave officer from Connecticut, whose name and spirit ought to be immortalized, one Colonel Knowlton….when gasping in the agonies of death, all his inquiry was if we had drove the enemy.” Washington, upon hearing the news said in his General Orders, “The gallant and brave Colonel Knowlton, who would have been an honor to any country…”
The creation of the award entitled, “The Lt. Col. Thomas Knowlton Award for Excellence in the Field of Military Intelligence; a collaboration between the Military Intelligence Corps and the Military Intelligence Corps Association at For Huachuca, acknowledges Knowlton’s place in U.S. Army history. The award recognizes individuals who have contributed significantly to the promotion of Army Military Intelligence.
Instead of crying “onward boys,” Knowlton is known to have shouted in battle, “follow me boys.” He was one who truly gave his all to his men and to his country. Knowlton was buried with military honors in an unmarked grave at what is now presently 143rd St. and St. Nicholas Ave in Harlem, New York City.
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Emmet, Thomas Addis. The Battle of Harlem Heights. 1906 Reprinted from the Magazine of History, Library of the Univ. of Virginia.
Johnston, Henry Phelps. The Battle of Harlem Heights, September 16th 1776. 1897 The Macmillan Company, London.
Johnston, John The Record of Connecticut Men in the Military and Naval Service During the Revolutionary War… Connecticut Historical Society vol. 121 & 122.
Web site: Connecticut Society of the “Sons of the American Revolution” The Educational Outreach of the General Israel Putnam Branch No. 4. Historical Series, No. 3, Sept. 1997.
Woodward, Ashbel. Memoir of Colonel Thomas Knowlton, of Ashford Connecticut. c. 1870. Reprint by BiblioBazaar 2010.