Thomas Knowlton was born into a military family on November 22, 1740 in West Boxford, Massachusetts. When he was eight, his family moved to a four hundred acre farm in Ashford, Connecticut. Like all American boys in those days, he grew up with an enormous knowledge of and respect for the wilderness. Fate and circumstance would determine that the forests and fields of his childhood would become the battlefields and cemeteries of his country's war for independence.
At the start of the French and Indian War in 1755, at the tender age of fifteen, Thomas Knowlton enlisted in Captain John Durkee's company, and by all accounts served admirably. On several occasions he accompanied his famous older brother Daniel on scouting missions into enemy territory. It was on these missions that he must have honed his youthful senses and problem-solving abilities. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1760.
By 1762 he was one of only twenty men out of 107 in Israel Putnam's Company to return home from the Battle of Havana, Cuba. Knowlton married Anna Keyes and settled down happily, virtually for all the world like Mel Gibson's character in The Patriot. He and his wife raised nine children.
At the comparatively young age of 33, Knowlton was appointed a Selectman of Ashford Connecticut. Life was good.
And then came April 18, 1775. General Thomas Gage dispatched a contingent of British troops to Lexington and Concord, about fifteen miles from Boston. His intention was to destroy the military stores there, and to seize the Rebel American leaders, Samuel Adams and John Hancock. A third rebel, Paul Revere reached Lexington at midnight, in an effort to warn Adams and Hancock.
Units under the command of Major John Pitcairn arrived at Lexington at dawn on the 19th. A group of seventy armed townsmen, led by John Parker, were gathered on the commons, and they were ordered to disperse. As they did, shots rang out. Eight colonials were killed, and Hancock and Adams escaped as the colonial militia took to the forests and fields. The British pressed forward to the town of Concord.
Dr. Samuel Prescott rode ahead of the British column, and the townsmen of Concord were better-prepared to counter the wrath of the redcoats. They killed nearly 300 British soldiers, and the American Revolution had begun.
On perceiving "the shot heard run the world," Thomas Knowlton grabbed musket and powder horn and rushed to join his militia. The Ashford Company was part of the Fifth Regiment, along with the towns of Windham, Mansfield, and Coventry, Connecticut. They had no leader, and it was with a hearty vote of confidence that Knowlton was chosen unanimously.
Captain Thomas Knowlton led his men to Massachusetts, the first unit from a neighboring colony to enter the brand new war.
In June of 1775, for his bravery at the Battle of Bunker Hill, where he accomplished his mission without losing a man, Knowlton was promoted to Major by Congress. He was considered "the first officer of his grade in the army," and Colonel Aaron Burr said years later "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."
General of the Army George Washington agreed, for on August 12, 1776, he promoted Knowlton to Lieutenant Colonel and gave him what he considered to be the most important job of the war. He was ordered to select an elite group of men, wise and industrious, from Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts in order to carry out reconnaissance missions and special operations "either by water or by land, by night or by day."
"Knowlton's Rangers" were the first organized American elite troops, analogous to our men in Afghanistan today, the Special Forces, Army Rangers, and Marine Force Recon. In historical deed, Knowlton's Rangers were America's first official spies, and the first American spy to die in the Revolution, Captain Nathan Hale, was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton.
On September 16, 1776 Knowlton's Rangers were scouting in advance of Washington's Army at Harlem Heights, New York, when they stumbled upon the Black Watch, an elite British unit picked for size and ferocity and composed mostly of Highlanders in traditional attire. With his sixteen-year-old son at his side, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton was killed in action.
The Knowlton Award was established in 1995 by the Military Intelligence Corps Association. It is given to individuals who have contributed significantly to the promotion of Army Intelligence in ways that stand out in the eyes of the recipients' superiors, their subordinates, and their peers; men and women, brave and true, who have performed honorably, with diligence and integrity, as did Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton, America's first Intelligence Professional.
Regarding American Espionage:
the first American Intelligence failure in New York
George Washington, Spymaster
Wild Bill Donovan
the Stars of Project Paperclip
burning crosses in the Fatherland
doing drugs for fun and profit
the CIA wants YOU!
When is a monkey's orgasm more than just fun and games?
The Johnny Appleseed of LSD
Sidney Gottlieb, the real-life "Q"
The Nuremberg Code
The Bureau and the Mole
, G.J.A. O'Toole, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991
, George Washington, U.S. Government printing Office, 1931-44
Encyclopedia of the American Revolution
, Mark M. Boatner, New York: McKay, 1974