September 16: Lt. Col. Thomas Knowlton Killed at the Battle of Harlem Heights


On this day in 1776, one of Connecticut’s most valiant heroes of the Revolutionary War, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton, died while commanding his men at the Battle of Harlem Heights in New York City.  Born in Massachusetts but raised in Ashford, Connecticut since early childhood, Knowlton was a seasoned veteran who had served under fellow Connectican Israel Putnam in both the French and Indian War (where he had enlisted at the age of 15) and more recently at the Battle of Bunker Hill.  He had a reputation as a competent and brave officer who would never hesitate to lead — instead of follow — his men into battle (always shouting “Come on, boys!” instead of “Go on, boys!” as one of his fellow soldiers later recalled).

John Trumbull’s famous painting, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, prominently features Thomas Knowlton, who is shown in a white shirt, standing and holding a musket at left. (Yale University Art Gallery)

Knowlton’s bravery at the Battle of Bunker Hill attracted the attention of the American Commander-in-Chief himself.  In August 1776, George Washington authorized the creation of “Knowlton’s Rangers,” a small, elite army unit commanded by Knowlton whose main purpose was to gather military intelligence via scouting and undertaking tactical raids and other covert operations.  Nathan Hale, the patriot spy, was a member of Knowlton’s Rangers for a brief time before embarking on his failed espionage mission in New York.  After Hale departed on his mission in early September, Knowlton’s Rangers was called upon to assist the Continental Army’s slow, strategic retreat from New York City.  There, they executed a successful — but costly — repulse of British forces, as Lt. Colonel Knowlton was mortally wounded by a British musket ball near the end of the battle.  After hearing of Knowlton’s death at Harlem Heights, Washington lamented the loss of one of his best field commanders, describing him in the following day’s General Orders as “the gallant and brave Colonel Knowlton who would have been an honor to any country.”

United States Army Intelligence seal.

Since Knowlton’s Rangers was the Continental Army’s first military unit created for intelligence-gathering purposes, the modern-day U.S. Army Intelligence department includes the date “1776” on their official seal.  (The dragoon helmet featured on the same seal also refers to the intelligence actions of the Second Continental Light Dragoons, also a largely Connecticut-based Revolutionary War unit.)  In addition to being recognized as one of the fathers of American military intelligence, he is also honored with a statue on the grounds of the State Capitol in Hartford.

Further Reading

Lt. Col. Thomas Knowlton, Connecticut’s Forgotten Hero,” Connecticut Sons of the American Revolution

Thomas Knowlton: A Small Town’s National Hero,”

Joshua Shepherd, “‘Cursedly Thrashed’: The Battle of Harlem Heights,” Journal of the American Revolution