Thomas W. Knowlton (22 November 1740 – 16 September 1776) was an American patriot who served in the French and Indian War and was a Colonel during the American Revolution. Knowlton is considered America's first Intelligence professional, and his unit, Knowlton's Rangers, made a significant contribution to intelligence gathering during the early Revolutionary War. Knowlton was killed in action at the Battle of Harlem Heights.
Knowlton was born into a military family on November 22, 1740 in West Boxford, Massachusetts. When he was eight, his family relocated to a farm in Ashford, Connecticut (current property of the June Norcross Webster Scout Reservation). In 1755, at fifteen, Knowlton served in the French and Indian War with his older brother Daniel. He enlisted in Captain John Durkee's company, and is known to have joined Daniel on scouting missions into enemy territory. He later served in Captain John Slapp's 8th Company, where he served with Throope Chapman. He served during six campaigns in the war and was promoted to Lieutenant in 1760. He also fought in Israel Putnam's company against the Spanish during the British expedition against Cuba in 1762.
By August 1762, Knowlton had returned home and married Anna Keyes. He and his wife raised nine children. At the age of thirty-three, Knowlton was appointed a Selectman of Ashford, Connecticut.
Battle of Bunker Hill
On April 18, 1775, General Thomas Gage dispatched a contingent of British troops to Lexington and Concord, about fifteen miles from Boston, Massachusetts. This action led to the outbreak of hostilities that became the American Revolution. On learning of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the militias of Massachusetts and Connecticut communities mobilized their members. Thomas Knowlton joined his militia, the Ashford Company, which became part of the 5th Connecticut Regiment, along with the men from Windham, Mansfield and Coventry, Connecticut. Knowlton was chosen unanimously as Captain and led 200 men into Massachusetts. His force consisted of farmers, without uniforms, primarily armed with shotguns.
Knowlton was ordered to Charlestown to join Colonel William Prescott. Knowlton’s troops were sent by Colonel Prescott to oppose the advancing British grenadiers, and took their posts on the side of Breed's hill. Using a rail fence as a base, the men threw up a parallel fence and, filling the space between with new-mown grass, formed an effective breastwork. There they held their ground until the general retreat, and were among those providing cover as the troops retreated. Only three men from Knowlton’s company died in the battle.
Years later, Colonel Aaron Burr said: "I had a full account of the Battle from Knowlton's own lips, and I believe if the chief command had been entrusted to him, the issue would have proved more fortunate. It was impossible to promote such a man too rapidly." In June 1775, for his bravery at Bunker Hill, Knowlton was promoted by Congress to Major. One of his men later remembered that Knowlton was courageous to a fault, never crying, Go on, boys! but always, Come on, boys!. On January 8, 1776, he led a troop in a successful incursion into Charlestown to burn housing used by British officers.
On August 12, 1776, General of the Army George Washington promoted Knowlton to Lieutenant Colonel. He was ordered to select an elite group of men from Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts to carry out reconnaissance missions. America's first official spies, "Knowlton's Rangers" were also the first organized American elite troops, analogous to a modern special forces unit. The famous American spy, Captain Nathan Hale, was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton. The date "1776" on the modern U.S. Army's intelligence service seal refers to the formation of Knowlton's Rangers.
On September 16, 1776, Knowlton's Rangers, outfitted as a regiment of light infantry, were scouting in advance of Washington's Army at the Battle of Harlem Heights. They stumbled upon the Black Watch, an elite Highlander British unit with an attachment of Hessians. They managed a successful retreat but re-engaged the enemy with the support of a unit led by Major Andrew Leitch of Virginia. General Washington ordered the units to fall on the enemy's rear, while a feint in front engaged the British troops’ attention. An American premature shot into the right flank of the British ruined Washington's element of surprise, and placed Knowlton's Rangers and the Virginians at risk. Once the premature shot had been fired, Knowlton rallied his troops to carry on the attack. Both commanding officers were killed in front of their men. Knowlton's loss was lamented by Washington in his general orders for September 17, 1776 with the statement "The gallant and brave Col Knowlton, ... would have been an Honor to any Country, having fallen yesterday, while gloriously fighting ...".
The Knowlton Award
In 1995 the Military Intelligence Corps Association established the LTC Thomas W. Knowlton Award. The Knowlton Award recognizes individuals who have contributed significantly to the promotion of Army Military Intelligence in ways that stand out in the eyes of the recipients, their superiors, subordinates and peers. These individuals must also demonstrate the highest standards of integrity and moral character, display an outstanding degree of professional competence, and serve the MI Corps with distinction.
A 1 August 2012 posthumous recipient of the Knowlton Award was Marian Rejewski, the mathematician-cryptologist at the Polish General Staff's Cipher Bureau who in late 1932 reconstructed the German military Enigma cipher machine and for at least the next seven and a half years, into the German invasion of France in 1940, with his mathematician colleagues Henryk Zygalski and Jerzy Różycki, invented techniques and devices to facilitate recovery of the Germans' keys. A month before the outbreak of World War II, in late July 1939, Rejewski and his Cipher Bureau colleagues and superiors, at an official Warsaw conference, initiated French and British military cryptologists into their techniques and technology and gave each of their western allies a German Enigma machine that they had reconstructed. This enabled the British, who had made no headway in breaking the German Enigma ciphers, to develop industrial-scale Enigma decryption. Without the work consequently done at England's Bletchley Park, Germany's aerial and submarine warfare might well have bombed and starved Britain into submission; and without Britain as a forward base, the United States would have been locked out of the European and North African military theaters. Marian Rejewski's posthumous Knowlton Award was accepted at his home town, Bydgoszcz, Poland, on 4 September 2012 by his mathematician daughter, Janina Sylwestrzak.
- Alexander Rose (2006). "Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring". Page 16. Random House.
- "Military Intelligence Corps Association". Retrieved June 29, 2008.
- "Military Intelligence Corps Association Awards". Retrieved June 2, 2012.
- Military Intelligence Association. "Awards Aphabetically". Retrieved September 16, 2012.
- "Najwyższe odznaczenie amerykańskiego wywiadu za złamanie kodów Enigmy" ("Highest American Intelligence Award for Breaking Enigma Ciphers"), Gwiazda Polarna (The Pole Star), vol. 103, no. 20 (22 September 2012), p. 6.