Knowlton's Rangers was an elite reconnaissance and espionage detachment of the Continental Army established by George Washington. Named after its commander, Thomas Knowlton, the unit was formed in 1776.
On August 12, 1776, General of the Army George Washington promoted Knowlton to lieutenant colonel. He was ordered to select an elite group of 130 men and 20 officers from Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts regiments to carry out reconnaissance missions. The famous American spy, Captain Nathan Hale, of Coventry, Connecticut, was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton. Besides providing tactical intelligence, Knowlton's Rangers, outfitted as a regiment of light infantry, took part in several battles of the American Revolutionary War. That is why Knowlton's Rangers are considered the first organized American elite force, a predecessor to modern special forces units such as Army Rangers, Delta Force, and other special operations units.
Battle of Harlem Heights
On September 16, 1776, Knowlton's Rangers were scouting in advance of Washington's Army at Harlem Heights, New York. While reconnoitering the British outposts they were engaged by elements of the light infantry brigade commanded by Major General Alexander Leslie. The rangers managed a successful retreat and later mounted a counter attack with the support of three companies of Weedon's Regiment led by Major Andrew Leitch. General Washington ordered Knowlton to fall on the enemy's rear, while a feint in front engaged the British troops' attention. The attacking force turned prematurely and made contact with the British right flank instead, losing the element of surprise. In the face of heavy enemy fire, Knowlton rallied his troops to carry on the attack. He fell mortally wounded in front of his men; Leitch was also wounded and died in a few days. 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...". Captain Stephen Brown succeed Knowlton in command of the unit.
Battle of Fort Washington
Knowlton's Rangers were a part of Fort Washington's garrison, defending the last stronghold of the Continental Army in Manhattan. On November 16, 1776, yielding to prevailing force, American troops surrendered and were taken as prisoners of war.
Knowlton's Rangers are considered the United States of America's first organized intelligence service organization, as well as the first American Ranger unit formed after America declared its independence from the United Kingdom. The date "1776" on the modern U.S. Army's intelligence service seal refers to the formation of Knowlton's Rangers.
- Knowlton’s Rangers: “But one life to give”, Defense Intelligence Agency
- Tonsetic, Robert. Special Operations During the American Revolution. Philadelphia: Casemate, 2013.
- P. K. Rose. The Founding Fathers of American Intelligence, CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, March 16, 2007.
- Larsen, Erik, and Jack Murphy. Ranger Knowledge: The All-Inclusive Study Guide for Rangers. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 2013.
- Johnson, Henry P. (1897). The Battle of Harlem Heights. Columbia University Press. p. 56ff.
- Humphreys, David. An Essay of the Life of the Honorable Major-General Israel Putnam Addressed to the State Society of the Cincinnati in Connecticut. Brattleboro, Vt.: William Fessenden, 1812.
- General Orders, 17 September 1776, Founders Online
- Thomas Knowlton and His Rangers: The Taproot of U.S. Army Intelligence Archived
- Spies and Scouts, Secret Writing, and Sympathetic Citizens from History.org
- Knowlton’s Rangers at Penn State University
- George Washington's Commandos: Special Ops During the American Revolution, The National Interest