Thomas Knowlton’s Revolution

The War Years (1775-1783)

September 2, 2021
by David Price Also by this Author

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The story of Thomas Knowlton in the American Revolution is brief but meaningful. He was only thirty-five at his death, arguably a full-fledged hero in what George Washington termed “the “glorious Cause”[1] of American independence. The Connecticut colonel remains largely obscure in our collective historical consciousness but has been long recognized by serious students of the Revolution for his stellar personal qualities and the dynamic role he played in the early stages of the conflict.

Knowlton was born in West Boxford, Massachusetts, just north of Boston, on November 22, 1740[2] to William and Martha Knowlton, his family of English origin being among the earliest settlers in the colony. William Knowlton moved the household to Ashford in eastern Connecticut when Thomas was eight. The boy’s formal learning was limited to the narrow course of study generally characterizing instruction in the common schools at that time. As a strapping fifteen-year-old, he took up arms with the Anglo-American forces in the French and Indian War, rising to the rank of lieutenant in a provincial unit by age twenty and surviving the Battle of Wood Creek in 1758, the campaign to capture Fort Carillon (Fort Ticonderoga) in 1759 and the siege of Havana in 1762.

Knowlton married Anna Keyes of Ashford at age eighteen, and between them they raised nine children. He became a prosperous farmer and at age thirty-three was chosen as a member of the local board of selectmen, the functional equivalent of a municipal council member. Being six feet tall, the lean and youthful New Englander was an imposing figure. Dr. Ashbel Woodward, his nineteenth-century biographer who lived in Ashford as a boy, described his subject as having a naturally bright intellect and recalled the enthusiasm and affection with which the colonel’s surviving contemporaries always spoke of him.[3]

Knowlton became actively involved in the rebellion against Britain when news came to Ashford of the shooting that had erupted at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. He was unanimously chosen as captain of his militia unit, the Ashford Company, which was part of the 5th Regiment of Connecticut militia along with men from the towns of Coventry, Mansfield, and Windham. Captain Knowlton’s company became the first to enter Massachusetts from another colony when he led these armed farmers across its boundary to support the Massachusetts militia who had engaged the redcoats. The Ashford volunteers were reorganized into the 5th Company of the Connecticut Regiment under Gen. Israel Putnam—with whom Knowlton had served in the last war—as the various contingents of citizen-soldiers gathering in Cambridge, just west of British-occupied Boston, attempted to form some semblance of an army.

On June 17, Captain Knowlton played a significant leadership role at the Battle of Bunker Hill on the Charlestown peninsula outside Boston. About two hundred men were under his command that day as part of a larger force led by Col. William Prescott.[4] Ordered by Colonel Prescott to oppose the advance of the British grenadiers, Knowlton’s force took up a position on the eastern slope of Breed’s Hill facing the Mystic River along a livestock fence that stretched for several hundred yards from the center of the peninsula nearly to the river. The captain’s men reinforced this barrier with rails and posts taken from other fields while filling any openings with newly cut grass and hay to create a suitable breastwork. “Here they received the enemy to very tolerable advantage,” according to Capt. John Chester.[5] Knowlton’s unit held its place until a general retreat was ordered, losing only three soldiers in the struggle. Functioning as a rearguard, it was among those providing protective cover as the entire rebel force was forced to withdraw once they had depleted their ammunition. For his role in the defense of Breed’s Hill, an image of Knowlton—wearing a white shirt and pointing his musket at the oncoming British regulars—is prominently included among the various figures portrayed in John Trumbull’s celebrated painting The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775.[6]

“The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill,” by John Trumbull, 1786. Thomas Knowlton is pictured at left in a white shirt pointing a musket at the British. (Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

The defenders exacted a heavy price in exchange for the ground they stubbornly yielded to His Majesty’s forces, causing one British officer to lament that “from an absurd and destructive confidence, carelessness or ignorance, we have lost a thousand of our best men and officers and have given the rebels great matter of triumph by showing them what mischief they can do us.”[7] In a letter to her husband John—then attending Congress in Philadelphia—from their home in Braintree, Massachusetts, Abigail Adams took satisfaction from the attackers’ tally of dead and wounded, which exceeded American casualties by more than two to one, even as she bemoaned the devastation of Charlestown by British cannons:

My Father has been more affected with the destruction of charlstown than with any thing which has heretofore taken place. Why should not his countenance be sad, when the city, the place of his Fathers Sepulchers lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire, scarcly one stone remaineth upon an other. But in the midst of sorrow we have abundant cause of thankfulness that so few of our Breathren are numbered with the slain, whilst our enemies were cut down like the Grass before the Sythe. But one officer of the welch fuzelers remains to tell his story. Many poor wretches dye for want of proper assistance and care of their wounds.[8]

The scenes of desperate fighting at Breed’s Hill were recorded by one of the rebel combatants, upon whom the bloodshed left an indelible impression long afterwards:

The firing on the part of the British commenced at an early hour in the morning from their ships and batteries. But the engagement did not become general until a little after noon, when their forces crossed Charles River and attempted to dislodge the Americans from the redoubt which they had erected the previous night. The battle was severe and the British repulsed at every charge until, for want of ammunition, the Americans were compelled to retire. The awful solemnities of that day are still deeply impressed upon declarant’s mind, and the scenes of carnage and death . . . appear as vivid as if the events of yesterday.”[9]

Knowlton was named major in Benedict Arnold’s 20th Continental Regiment on January 1, 1776 and led a successful raid on January 8 that set fire to eight of the fourteen houses still standing in Charlestown—those that had escaped the fires sparked by cannon fire during the Breed’s Hill battle—in order to prevent their being occupied by British patrols or used as firewood by the redcoats. The intruders captured five British soldiers while barely firing a shot and without losing a single man[10] The other side’s response was much more clamorous. Writing to his friend Mercy Otis Warren from Braintree that night, John Adams reported what he saw and heard of this action: “A very hot Fire both of Artillery and small Arms has continued for half an Hour, and has been succeded by a luminous Phoenomenon, over Braintree North Common occasioned by Burning Buildings I suppose.”[11] In his general orders the following day, Washington thanked Knowlton

and the Officers and Soldiers, who were under his command last night; for the Spirit, Conduct and Secrecy, with which they burnt the Houses, near the Enemy’s works, upon Bunkers-hill—The General was in a more particular manner pleased, with the resolution the party discover’d in not firing a Shot; as nothing betrays greater signs of fear, and less of the soldier, than to begin a loose, undirected and unmeaning Fire, from whence no good can result, nor any valuable purposes answer’d.[12]

Aaron Burr, a fellow officer who became acquainted with Knowlton during their military service, is said to have remarked years later, “It was impossible to promote such a man too rapidly.”[13] The rising Continental advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel of the 20th Regiment on August 12, 1776, and at Washington’s direction formed a contingent known as “Knowlton’s Rangers” or the “Connecticut Rangers,” which included about one hundred and twenty soldiers from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Regarded as an elite unit, its purpose was to meet the general’s desperate need for information about the British forces opposing him, he being “extremely anxious to learn the strength and contemplated movements of the enemy.”[14] The army’s commander-in-chief betrayed this anxiety when he wrote on August 26 from his headquarters in New York city to the manager of his Mount Vernon estate, cousin Lund Washington, and confessed to uncertainty about his adversary’s intentions in the wake of their landing “a pretty considerable part of their force” on Long Island: “What their real design is I know not; whether they think our works round this City are too strong, and have a Mind to bend their whole force that way—or whether it is intended as a feint—or is to form part of their Attack, we cannot as yet tell.”[15] Washington’s lack of information about enemy troop totals and dispositions prior to and during the Battle of Long Island on August 27, which eventuated in a near-catastrophe for his army, convinced him that he needed a singular force dedicated to this purpose, which would report directly to him.

In the wake of the Long Island debacle, Washington turned to Knowlton to provide a special scouting service in order to obtain accurate information about the enemy’s strength and positions on British-occupied Long Island. Accordingly, the colonel called on his captains to find a volunteer from among the Rangers who was willing to go behind enemy lines, but only one man agreed to do so—twenty-one-year-old Capt. Nathan Hale. Hale consented after Lt. James Sprague refused the “application” to serve as a spy on the grounds that “he was ready to fight at any time or place however dangerous but never could consent to expose himself to be hung like a dog.”[16] Knowlton inadvertently created a legendary hero by accepting Hale’s offer to undertake the information-gathering mission ordered by Washington, even though the youthful captain, who was described as “peculiarly free from the shadow of guile . . . however imperious circumstances of personal safety might demand a resort to duplicity & ambiguity,” was temperamentally ill-suited to such an endeavor, as his fate would attest.[17]

Departing the American encampment at Harlem Heights during the second week of September, Hale dressed as a schoolmaster and crossed to Long Island, where he was captured by the British on September 21. Gen. William Howe, the British army’s commander, ordered the prisoner to be executed as a spy the following day. The next morning, prior to his hanging on Manhattan Island, Hale dashed off a report to Knowlton that was included among the young captain’s last letters, unaware that his commanding officer was no longer alive.[18] One British officer observed that Hale “behaved with great composure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good Officer, to obey any orders given him by his Commander-in-Chief; and desired the Spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.”[19]

Nathan Hale’s demise followed by six days that of his colonel. Thomas Knowlton had suffered a mortal wound at the Battle of Harlem Heights on upper Manhattan Island on September 16 while leading his men during what proved to be a rare triumph in an otherwise dismal New York campaign for the Patriot cause. Washington’s battered and weary soldiery had retreated in haste up the island the day before to elude the pursuing Anglo-German invaders who came ashore at Kip’s Bay (the site of 33rd Street today), but now they turned to face their attackers. The latter “met with a very different kind of Reception from what they did the day before,” according to Washington’s youngest general, Nathanael Greene, who was experiencing his first taste of battle.[20] The King’s soldiers, he wrote, “flushed with the successes of the day before, approached and attacked our Lines, which I had the Honor to Command. The Action or rather Skirmish lasted about two hours; our people beat the enemy off the ground.”[21] The redcoats ultimately withdrew though a field of buckwheat on the grounds now occupied by Barnard College and Columbia University, and Col. George Weedon of the 3rd Virginia Regiment encapsulated the outcome of this encounter for their foe: “Upon the whole they got cursedly thrashed.”[22]

Notwithstanding the fact that the repulse of the British advance at Harlem Heights would do nothing to alter the larger dynamic of the New York campaign, Washington could take heart from his troops’ determined resistance and the positive, if fleeting, impact it had on their morale: “This Affair I am in hopes will be attended with many salutary consequences, as It seems to have greatly inspirited the whole of our Troops.”[23] This occasion, the first battlefield success of his army, was marked by a significant development. The participation of units from Connecticut, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Virginia in a concerted effort that transcended regional factionalism gave evidence that Washington was slowly if painfully building a national army that could, under the right circumstances, offer effective resistance to the Crown’s forces. In addition, this action provided valuable combat experience for some of his men that hardened them for the lengthy struggle ahead, as these novice soldiers were being forced to acclimate themselves to the reality of an austere military existence. Pvt. Joseph Plumb Martin of the Connecticut militia illustrated this phenomenon when he related the following incident: “While standing on the field, after the action had ceased,” one of the men in his unit complained of being hungry and the officer nearby, “putting his hand into his coat pocket, took out a piece of an ear of Indian corn, burnt as black as a coal, ‘Here,’ said he to the man complaining, ‘eat this and learn to be a soldier.’”[24]

Martin, who claimed to have met Colonel Knowlton years before, recounted the stand made by his Rangers and the Virginians accompanying them in the Harlem Heights clash:

We lay that night [September 15-16] upon the ground, which the regiment occupied when I came up with it. The next day, in the forenoon, the enemy, as we expected, followed us ‘hard up,’ and were advancing through a level field; our rangers and some few other light troops, under the command of Colonel Knowlton, and Major Leitch of (I believe) Virginia [Maj. Andrew Leitch commanding riflemen from Weedon’s 3rd Virginia Regiment], were in waiting for them. Seeing them advancing, the rangers, &c. concealed themselves in a deep gully overgrown with bushes; upon the western edge of this defile was a post and rail fence . . . . Our people let the enemy advance until they arrived at the fence, when they arose and poured in a volley upon them. How many of the enemy were killed and wounded could not be known, as the British were always as careful as Indians to conceal their losses. There were, doubtless, some killed, as I myself counted nineteen ball-holes through a single rail of the fence at which the enemy were standing when the action began. The British gave back and our people advanced into the field.

Martin recalled that,

The action soon became warm. Colonel Knowlton, a brave man, and commander of the detachment, fell in the early part of the engagement. It was said, by those who saw it, that he lost his valuable life by unadvisedly exposing himself singly to the enemy. In my boyhood I had been acquainted with him; he was a brave man and an excellent citizen. Major Leitch fell soon after, and the troops, who were then engaged, were left with no higher commanders than their captains, but they still kept the enemy retreating.”[25]

Another officer in Knowlton’s Rangers, probably Capt. Stephen Brown, wrote to a friend,

My poor Colonel . . . was shot just by my Side, the Ball entered the small of his Back—I took hold of him, asked him if he was badly wounded? He told me he was; but, says he, I do not value my Life if we do but get the Day: I then ordered two men to carry him off. He desired me by all Means to keep up this Flank. He seemed as unconcern’d and calm as tho’ nothing had happened to him.[26]

Sgt. David Thorpe of Woodbury, Connecticut, remembered that “we had a very severe battle with the enemy . . . and brave commander Colonel who fell in the battle—He did not say ‘go boys,’ but ‘come boys,’ and we always were ready and willing to follow him, until he fell within six feet where I was—He begged to be moved so that the enemy should not get possession of his body—I was one who helped put him on soldiers shoulders who carried him off—He expired in about one hour.”[27]

With his dying words, the stricken colonel reportedly urged his eldest son Frederick, then serving under him and not yet sixteen years of age, to fight for his country.[28] In death, he was lauded by Washington in his general orders as “the gallant and brave Colonel Knowlton who would have been an honor to any Country”[29] and in a letter to congressional president John Hancock as one whose “fall is much to be regretted, as that of a brave & good Officer.”[30]

The sentiments expressed by the commander-in-chief were widely echoed by other soldiers and friends of the Revolution. The army’s adjutant general, Col. Joseph Reed, writing to his wife about the Harlem Heights engagement, observed that “our greatest loss is poor Knowlton, whose name and spirit ought to be immortal. I assisted him off, and when gasping in the agonies of death, all his inquiry was if we had driven in the enemy.”[31] Lt. Col. Tench Tilghman, an aide-de-camp to Washington, praised the fallen Knowlton as “one of the bravest and best officers in the army” and noted that despite his fate, the Rangers had “persisted with the greatest bravery” during the balance of the engagement.[32] Gen. George Clinton, in recounting the events of September 16, referred to Col. Knowlton as “a brave Officer who was killed in the Action.”[33] Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut, a staunch supporter of the Revolution, added to this mournful litany when corresponding with his son Joseph, the Continental Army’s commissary general: “I lament the loss of the brave Lt. Col. Knowlton—would others behave with the spirit and bravery he did, our affairs would soon put on a different aspect.”[34]

Knowlton was buried in an unmarked grave along what is now Saint Nicholas Avenue between 135th and 145th streets in New York City.[35] According to Gen. William Heath, a fellow New Englander, the colonel’s remains “were interred with military honours” the day after the Harlem Heights battle.[36] A monument of Knowlton, standing defiant with sword in hand, has stood on the state capitol grounds in Hartford, Connecticut, near the corner of Trinity Street and Capitol Avenue, since 1895, the creation of sculptor Enoch Smith Woods. The following dedication is inscribed on the east side of its base:

In memory of Colonel Thomas Knowlton of Ashford Conn. who as a boy served in several campaigns in the French and Indian Wars, shared in the siege and capture of Havana in 1762, was in immediate command of Connecticut troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill, was with his commands closely attached to the person of Washington, and was killed at the Battle of Harlem Heights, September 16, 1776, at the age of thirty-six.[37]

Today, the date 1776 on the U.S. Army Intelligence Seal denotes the formation of Knowlton’s Rangers as the forerunner of the present-day army’s intelligence branch. In June 1995, the Military Intelligence Corps Association (MICA) established the “Knowlton Award” in the colonel’s honor to recognize MICA members who have made significant contributions to the corps, which encompasses the army’s various military intelligence components and their personnel. Those who are so recognized must exhibit the highest standards of integrity and moral character as well as outstanding professional competence.[38] The award is a fitting tribute to a man who by all accounts demonstrated the competence, courage, and resolve that endeared him to Washington, his fellow officers, and the common soldiers with whom he served.

 


[1]George Washington’s Address to Congress, June 16, 1775, in This Glorious Struggle: George Washington’s Revolutionary War Letters, ed. Edward G. Lengel (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2007), 4.

[2]Ashbel Woodward, Memoir of Col. Thomas Knowlton, of Ashford, Connecticut (Boston: Henry W. Dutton & Son, 1861. Reprinted by Andesite Press, 2015), 3. The author inferred Knowlton’s birthdate from church baptismal records.

[3]Woodward, Memoir of Col. Thomas Knowlton, 15.

[4]William Prescott to John Adams, August 25, 1775, in The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution As Told by Participants, eds. Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1967), 125.

[5]John Chester to Joseph Fish, July 22, 1775, in Richard Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston, and of the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1873), 390.

[6]Joseph J. Ellis, Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 153; Arthur S. Lefkowitz, Eyewitness Images from the American Revolution (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2017), 78; Paul Staiti, Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution through Painters’ Eyes (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2016), 180; Woodward, Memoir of Col. Thomas Knowlton, 17.

[7]Letter of a British officer, July 5, 1775, in The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six, 135.

[8]Abigail Adams to John Adams, June 25, 1775, in My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams, eds. Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 65.

[9]Jonathan Brigham, Military Pension Application Narrative, in The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence, ed. John C. Dann (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 4.

[10]George Washington to John Hancock, January 11, 1776, Founders Online, National Archives.  founders.archives.gov/?q=Thomas%20Knowlton&s=1511311111&r=7.

[11]John Adams to Mercy Otis Warren, January 8, 1776, Founders Online, National Archives. founders.archives.gov/?q=Thomas%20Knowlton&s=1511311111&r=1.

[12]General Orders, January 9, 1776, Founders Online, National Archives. founders.archives.gov/?q=Thomas%20Knowlton&s=1511311111&r=6.

[13]Woodward, Memoir of Col. Thomas Knowlton, 11.

[14]Ibid., 13.

[15]George Washington to Lund Washington, August 26, 1776, in This Glorious Struggle, 59.

[16]Jasper Gilbert to Cyrus P. Bradley, January 9, 1836, in Documentary Life of Nathan Hale, Comprising All Available Official and Private Documents Bearing on the Life of The Patriot, Together with an Appendix, showing the background of his life; including his family circle; his college friends; his friends made as a school-master and in the army; with many illustrations, portraits and buildings that knew his footsteps, ed. George Dudley Seymour (New Haven, CT: Privately printed, 1941), 339.

[17]William W. Saltonstall to Cyrus P. Bradley, March 1, 1837, in Documentary Life of Nathan Hale, 349.

[18]M. William Phelps, Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of America’s First Spy (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2008), 189.

[19]Lt. Frederick MacKenzie, diary entry of September 22, 1776, in Documentary Life of Nathan Hale, 292.

[20]Nathanael Greene to Nicholas Cooke, September 17, 1776, in The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, ed. Richard K. Showman (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1976), 1:300.

[21]Greene to [William Ellery?], October 4, 1776, ibid., 1:307.

[22]George Weedon to John Page, September 20, 1776, in The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six, 471.

[23]George Washington to Hancock, September 18, 1776, Founders Online, National Archives. founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-06-02-0264.

[24]Joseph Plumb Martin, Memoir of a Revolutionary Soldier: The Narrative of Joseph Plumb Martin (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2006), 25.

[25]Ibid., 24-25.

[26]Excerpt from a letter from an officer to his friend in New London, Connecticut, September 21, 1776, in Henry P. Johnston, The Battle of Harlem Heights, September 16, 1776; With a Review of the Events of the Campaign (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1897. Reprinted by Franklin Classics, 2018), 155.

[27]David Thorpe, Military Pension Application Narrative, in Johnston, The Battle of Harlem Heights, 195.

[28]Frederick Knowlton returned home upon his father’s death. See Johnston, The Battle of Harlem Heights, 192. Thomas Knowlton’s older brother Daniel, who was serving as an ensign with the Rangers, was captured by the British at Fort Washington in November 1776. See Johnston,The Battle of Harlem Heights, 190.

[29]Washington’s General Orders, September 17, 1776, in Johnston, The Battle of Harlem Heights, 162.

[30]George Washington to Hancock, September 18, 1776Founders Online, National Archives. founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-06-02-0264.

[31]Joseph Reed to his wife, September 22, 1776, in William B. Reed, Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed, Military Secretary of Washington at Cambridge; Adjutant-General of the Continental Army; Member of the Congress of the United States; and President of the Executive Council of the State of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847. Reprinted by Adamant Media Corporation, 2006), 1:238.

[32]Tench Tilghman to his father, September 19, 1776, in The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six, 470.

[33] George Clinton to Peter Tappan, in Johnston, The Battle of Harlem Heights, 143.

[34]Jonathan Trumbull to Joseph Trumbull, September 21, 1776, in I.W. Stuart, Life of Jonathan Trumbull, Sen., Governor of Connecticut. (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1859. Reprinted by Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010), 275.

[35]Johnston, The Battle of Harlem Heights, 79.

[36]William Heath, Memoirs of Major-General William Heath, ed. William Abbatt (New York: William Abbatt, 1901. Reprinted by Sagwan Press, 2015), 53.

[37]Dave Pelland, “Colonel Thomas Knowlton Monument, Hartford.” CT Monuments.net: Connecticut History in Granite and Bronze. October 21, 2013, ctmonuments.net/2013/10/colonel-thomas-knowlton-monument-hartford/. Knowlton was actually two months shy of turning thirty-six when he was killed, so the inscription errs on his age at death.

[38]“Knowlton Award,” Military Intelligence Corps Association, www.mica-national.org/awards/knowlton-award/.

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