30. Know Knowlton?

The story of Thomas Knowlton in the Revolution is a brief but inspirational one. This ardent Patriot was only thirty-five years of age when he fell in battle, a legitimate hero in the quest for American independence albeit one who remains largely obscure in our collective historical consciousness. He is, however, recognized by Rev War buffs for the role he played in the early stages of the Revolutionary enterprise.

Leading from the Front

Knowlton was born in Massachusetts in November 1740 but grew up in Ashford, Connecticut, taking up arms as a strapping, fifteen-year-old in the French and Indian War. He married at age eighteen, had nine children who lived to adulthood, made his living as a prosperous farmer, and was chosen a selectman—what we call a local council member today—in his hometown. At six feet tall and with a bright mind, he cut an impressive figure and exuded charisma.

Active in his community and the Ashford militia company, Knowlton became engaged in the rebellion against Britain early on. He played a notable leadership role at the Battle of Bunker Hill (really Breed’s Hill) on the Charlestown peninsula outside Boston in 1775 as a captain in Israel Putnam’s Connecticut Regiment, and his figure makes a prominent appearance in John Trumbull’s renowned painting, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775. The daring Knowlton subsequently led a successful raid against the British in Charlestown in January 1776, and was promoted to major for his exploits at the Bunker Hill engagement and then to lieutenant colonel in August 1776. He formed “Knowlton’s Rangers” as the first intelligence and reconnaissance unit in Washington’s army and created a hero of legendary proportions by selecting young Captain Nathan Hale, one of his officers, to conduct a spy mission in British-occupied New York in accordance with Washington’s orders. (Hale was the only one among the Rangers to volunteer for that assignment but unfortunately was ill-equipped for such a task and paid for that deficiency with his life.)

On September 16, 1776, Knowlton suffered a fatal wound while leading his men at the Battle of Harlem Heights on upper Manhattan Island during what proved to be a rare triumph in an otherwise dismal New York campaign for the American side. In the throes of death’s agony, the stricken officer is reported to have told his eldest son, who was serving under his command, “I am mortally wounded; you can do me no good; go fight for your country.” The fallen colonel was lauded by the army’s adjutant general, Col. Joseph Reed, who in reporting on the engagement to his wife observed that “our greatest loss is poor Knowlton, whose name and spirit ought to be immortal.”

An Intelligent Remembrance

In 1995, the U.S. Military Intelligence Corps Association created the “Knowlton Award” in the colonel’s honor to provide a form of tangible recognition for those determined to have made significant contributions to the Military Intelligence Corps (the Army’s intelligence branch). To qualify, an individual must demonstrate the highest standards of integrity and moral character, and display outstanding professional competence as well.

No greater praise of this unsung Revolutionary stalwart has been adduced than that of his commander-in-chief, who referred to him in death as “the gallant and brave Colonel Knowlton who would have been an honor to any Country.” And we all know Washington never told a lie.

Want More?

If you’d like to dig a little deeper into Knowlton’s story, see my recent Journal of the American Revolution article here.