September 16: A Heroic Death at the Battle of Harlem Heights

 

Today 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 brave officer who would never hesitate to lead — not follow — his men into battle. As one of his fellow soldiers said, Knowlton always shouted “Come on, boys!” instead of “Go on, boys!”

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 under Thomas’s command. It’s main purpose was to gather military intelligence via scouting, tactical raids and other covert operations. For a brief time before embarking on his own mission, Nathan Hale, the patriot spy, was a member of Knowlton’s Rangers. After Hale’s departure in early September, Knowlton’s Rangers was called upon to assist the Continental Army’s slow, strategic retreat from New York City. While doing so, they executed a successful — but costly — repulse of British forces at Harlem Heights. Lt. Colonel Knowlton was mortally wounded by a British musket ball near the end of the battle. On hearing of Knowlton’s death, Washington lamented the loss of the officer he considered 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

As Knowlton’s Rangers was the Continental Army’s first military unit created for intelligence-gathering, 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, a largely Connecticut-based Revolutionary War unit.) In addition to being recognized as one of the fathers of American military intelligence, Thomas Knowlton is honored with a statue on the grounds of the State Capitol in Hartford, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

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

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

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