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This Day in History: Connecticut’s Forgotten Hero

On this day in 1740, little-known Revolutionary War hero Thomas Knowlton is born. He’s been called “Connecticut’s Forgotten Hero” and a “father of American military intelligence.”


The effort he led during the Revolution is generally acknowledged as a forerunner of our Army’s military intelligence services.


Knowlton began his military career early, during the French and Indian War, but after that war, he returned to farming and raising a family. When the Revolution started, he was serving as a selectman in his home town of Ashford, Connecticut.

"Death of General Warren at Bunker Hill," by John Trumbull. Knowlton is pictured in the white shirt, standing and holding a musket.

Nevertheless, the “shot heard ‘round the world” at Lexington and Concord immediately pushed him into action.


“When the tidings of the conflict at Lexington reached Ashford,” his biographer writes, “Knowlton held no military command. But a spirit like his required no urging to a scene of action where the cause of liberty had been baptized in the blood of his countrymen.”


A company of militia quickly formed at Ashford, but it had no captain. Ballots were taken on the spot, and Knowlton was chosen for the role. The Connecticut company proved to be the first out-of-state militia to join the Patriot effort outside Boston.


Knowlton proved his worth early, leading a contingent of about 200 men at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He used rails and posts from nearby fields to create a strong breastwork, protecting his men from the British onslaught. It was enough to ensure that all but three of his men survived that bloody battle.


He was soon promoted to major and put in charge of one regiment of the Continental Army. A January 1776 raid earned him even more praise, and Knowlton was soon marching to meet Washington in New York. Once there, he gained a promotion and a new assignment: He would be leading “Knowlton’s Rangers,” charged with obtaining intelligence for Washington’s Army.


You may remember the story of Nathan Hale, executed by the British even as he reportedly declared his “regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”?


Hale was one of Knowlton’s men.


The September 16, 1776, Battle of Harlem Heights brought an early end to Knowlton’s efforts on behalf of the Patriot cause.


Washington had received word that the British were advancing on the American position in Harlem.  He sent Knowlton with 150 of his Rangers to investigate.  They ran into some British redcoats and, after a brief skirmish, were forced to flee back towards Washington’s army.


The British were playing bugle calls, as if they were hunting foxes. “I never felt such a sensation before,” wrote one officer, “It seemed to crown our disgrace.”


Naturally, Washington wasn’t so easily unnerved. He ordered a counterattack. One American brigade engaged the British head-on while Knowlton and his rangers worked their way around the British right flank.  They were to open fire behind the British, entrapping them.


Unfortunately, the attack did not work as well as it should have, and a “pretty Sharp Skirmish” ensued and lasted for hours.  During this skirmish, Knowlton was hit. The mortally wounded Knowlton knew that his injury was serious, but told the officer assisting him that “I do not value my Life if we do but get the Day.”


Knowlton got his wish. The Americans held their own, and the British were forced to retreat. “[We] drove the dogs near three miles,” one of Knowlton’s men wrote.


Washington soon extolled his lost officer, “the gallant and brave Colonel Knowlton, who would have been an honor to any country.”


Today, Knowlton’s efforts are recognized by the Military Intelligence Corps Association, but few others know his name.


A nearly forgotten hero, sacrificing everything for our freedom.

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