LTC Thomas Knowlton
Lieutenant
Colonel
Thomas
Knowlton
 
 

A short biography
by  2LT Lila Faint

Volunteers from Nixon’s brigade, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Crary, boldly charged down Hollow Way viciously tempting the British troops on the Claremont Slope to meet them head-on in a salt marsh called Martje David’s Fly. The British rushed down into the marsh salivating over the sweetness of the coming victory. Suddenly musket shots were fired into their right flank. Startled, the British quickly re-grouped and attacked the encircling force on their right. By the end of the day, the exhausted colonists claimed victory at what would be called the Battle of Harlem Heights. But something had gone terribly wrong. The flanking troops had fired too soon, probably from the enthusiasm of an excited officer. Once this occurred, they could not reach the rear of the British as intended, but met the British force straight on. Over one hundred of General George Washington’s soldiers had died in the battle. Among them, was Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton the hero of Breed’s Hill (Bunker Hill).

Descending from a long line of honorable military men, Thomas Knowlton was destined to serve and become a hero. Born in November, 1740, he accompanied his brother Daniel, a famous scout and revered military officer himself, on several scouting missions during the French and Indian War. A sure ancestor of Achilles, Knowlton’s aura of a military hero was as much physical as it was tactical. Over six feet tall and quite handsome, his presence demanded attention and respect. His care for soldiers and military knowledge earned him that attention and respect from all.

Settling down to a quiet farm life after the French and Indian War, Knowlton became prominent in civil affairs. His peaceful life, however, turned to the military once again in the fall of 1774. Chosen by acclamation, Knowlton assumed command of a company of the Ashford, Connecticut, Volunteers, and by June 1775, Knowlton commanded two hundred men. On the 16th of that month, his soldiers followed him onto Breed’s Hill where they were assigned to defend a seemingly impossible position. Exposed to the enemy and vulnerable from both land and sea, Knowlton quickly assessed the situation and began to improve the odds.

Calculating that the British Commander, General Howe, would attack the inexperienced, under-equipped Americans, Knowlton formulated a plan which used a series of fences and other obstacles to slow the British advance and give the Americans a chance to survive the oncoming slaughter.

By the day’s end, British casualties were over 1000, compared to the total American casualties of 449. Only three men from Knowlton’s company died in the battle.Gaining the trust and admiration of General George Washington, Knowlton was soon given a group of select men from Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts who were known as "Knowlton’s Rangers." Under the direct control of Washington, Knowlton’s Rangers performed tasks similar to those of Roger’s Rangers in the French and Indian War and the United States Army Rangers of today. Unlike Roger’s Rangers, however, Knowlton’s Rangers were the first of their kind to be formally organized.

On the morning of the fateful battle of Harlem Heights, Knowlton’s Rangers patrolled a small field near the British camp. Spotted by a British outpost, the Rangers soon found themselves in a firefight with the Black Watch. A hand picked unit for height and composed mostly of Highlanders, the Black Watch carried an assortment of weapons and was known for its unusual dress. To the ragtag group of Americans, even Knowlton’s Rangers, this uniquely dressed, physically impressive unit instilled fear in all who fought against them. Lightly armed for the ease of conducting reconnaissance, Knowlton’s Rangers fought valiantly and were able to stall the Black Watch assault. When the attackers began to try to encircle Knowlton, he ordered a retreat and brought his troops back to safety with few casualties.

Eager for a victory over the British, Washington concocted the plan to cut off a section of the British troops’ rear with Knowlton’s Rangers. Once the premature shots had been fired into the right flank of the British, Knowlton quickly tried to rally his troops to carry on the attack. Shot in the small of his back, Knowlton fell, mortally wounded, within minutes of the failed attack. The following day, General Reed wrote, "All his inquiry was whether we had driven in the enemy."

In 1995, Colonel Thomas Knowlton became the hero of the Military Intelligence Corps and the Military Intelligence Corps Association (MICA) created an award for Military Intelligence Corps’ soldiers and civilians named after him.

Knowlton’s Rangers were the first of their kind.  Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton was a one of a kind. He epitomizes the Military Intelligence Corps’ Motto: "Always Out Front!" In every engagement with the enemy, Knowlton was on the front line encouraging, leading, and showing his troops where to go. The admiration he earned from his peers and superiors, the military genius displayed at Breed’s Hill and Harlem Heights, the love and respect he gained from his soldiers, and the honor with which he served should be a model for all Military Intelligence Corps’ soldiers to emulate.