The Death of Intelligence - Thomas Knowlton's Rangers
Thomas Knowlton was the first man charged with gathering intelligence in an official capacity for the Continental Army.
Knowlton’s Rangers, who are often also considered the first ‘elite’ unit of soldiers, performed dangerous secret missions for General Washington.
Additionally, Knowlton was the man who instructed America’s most famous (though least successful) spy…Nathan Hale.
“The gallant and brave Col. Knowlton, who would have been an Honor to any Country, having fallen yesterday, while gloriously fighting…”
-Washington’s General Orders from Harlem Heights, 9/17/1776
Thomas Knowlton was just a teenager when he went to war.
Following his older brother into the French and Indian War, Knowlton learned at a young age what it took to be a soldier.
When news of Lexington and Concord reached his hometown of Connecticut, Thomas was prepared to set off. His fellow militiamen elected him as their Captain, and they preceded to join the Siege of Boston.
Knowlton preformed valiantly in during the Battle of Bunker Hill, leading a team through the reinforcement of several fortifications before covering the Patriot’s retreat.
For his efforts, Thomas was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel by the Continental Congress. He was then approached with a special task by none other than George Washington…to form a special detachment of elite troops for reconnaissance.
The result of this endeavor was ‘Knowlton’s Rangers,’ who were both an elite fighting force as well as the first American spies. This is reflected in the current Seal of the United States Army Intelligence Service.
Knowlton’s Rangers carried out several sensitive espionage missions while stationed outside of Boston. When the Continental Army relocated to New York City the Rangers came along.
Hale to the Wolves
The famous (soon to be) martyred spy Nathan Hale was recruited and commanded by Thomas Knowlton.
Hale left for his unsuccessful mission about the same time Knowlton brought the Rangers out to scout the British who had just begun occupying Manhattan.
Little did anyone know they both had less than a week to live.
Knowlton’s Rangers were preforming reconnaissance on the British when they were spotted.
Thomas ordered a retreat back to Headquarters when the Redcoats gave chase. His men made it back safely, but the engagement exploded into the Battle of Harlem Heights.
During these hostilities the Rangers were sent back out and, though the day was won, Thomas Knowlton was killed in action.
Interestingly, Nathan Hale, who was sent on a spy mission within days of Knowlton’s death, would be captured and hung less than a week after his commander.
America’s first spymaster and America’s first spy both perished within days of each other.
Want to read about more of them?
Here you go:
Thomas Knowlton doesn’t have a biography, but Nathan Hale sure does!
‘America’s First Spy’ discusses the life of this not-so-fortunate American Patriot. It has more about Knowlton’s life than any other book I’ve come across.
Pick up a copy through the Amazon affiliate link below (you’ll support this site, but don’t worry, Amazon pays me while your price stays the same).