I crawled out from under my pile of colonial diaries, letters, and official documents to read a few sections of David McCullough’s 1776, and out found something interesting about how we write and read about history. I wrote it all down in a post at my main blog.
(Above image: artist’s depiction of General Israel Putnam in the video game Assassin’s Creed III)
America’s first unit of elite soldiers lasted less than six months, from the day George Washington promoted a former farmer/village selectman, Thomas Knowlton, to the rank of lieutenant colonel and charged him with commanding the then yet-to-be unit, to the capture, release, and death of its members. Five weeks after the United States declared their independence, Knowlton’s Rangers became General Washington’s forefinger unit, tasked with staying out in front of the regular army to fight, reconnoitre, and spy on the British. Unlike the Queen’s Rangers from the French and Indian War and various special operations forces of today, Knowlton’s Rangers were borne of an underfunded, hardly trained army. They never even had a flag under which to fight (this would not come until the year following the unit’s demise). Their very existence as a unit was a gamble, their mission set was lethal to the enemy, and in the end, to themselves.
(Thomas Knowlton at the Battle of Bunker Hill, in the white shirt holding a musket, before the formation of the rangers.)
Therefore I seek to know whom it was that Washington so trusted to conduct such missions. Three members in particular have been immortalized throughout history: Thomas Knowlton, Israel Putnam, and Nathan Hale. Three men who came from different pasts, three men who met very different fates, and each of them known personally by Washington.
And then there are the rest, roughly 150 men whom history has neglected. 150 rangers who volunteered for a perilous mission in an already uncertain war whose stories have not been told. Having served in the military as an enlisted member at the lowest ranks, I can tell you that each of those men have stories as well.
Knowlton’s Rangers have received mentions inside of the tellings of larger stories about the early days of the revolutionary war, but no one as far as I can tell has taken the trouble to specifically chronicle the exploits of the unit itself. Military intelligence by nature is heavily guarded by secrecy. Time either brings secrecy to light or buries it. Follow me here and see what I can unearth.
18th and 19th century American biographers would have prosperity believe that war fighters are perfect specimens of human beings. We are to believe that every single man who fired a gun in the name of liberty was second only to Jesus freaking Christ. I can’t yet figure out if this is done because the authors are convicted that their subjects are that great, or if they wrote such for not wanting to besmirch the dead. It would be grating if it didn’t make me outright laugh. It is classicist and monotone, and becomes dull, fast. Then every few chapters they write something like this:
“The spy is the companion of darkness. He lurks–or if he moves in the light, it is behind walls, in the shadow of trees, in the loneliness of cliffs, under the cover of hills, in the gloom of ditches, skulking with the owl, the lynx, or the Indian. Or if he enters the camp of an enemy, he insinuates himself and winds treacherously into confidence. If caught, the certain penalty is death on the gallows.”
-Charles W. Brown in Nathan Hale, the Martyr Spy
I left the Air Force specifically to get out of a position where I had to sit in front of a computer for long hours every day.
Last night I found the roster containing the names of most of Knowlton’s Rangers. This morning I started emailing historical societies around the state and thought, shit, I should have a website to direct these people to. Hence, today is one of those long days spent behind a computer.
Below is the roster of Knowlton’s Rangers. If you have any information concerning these men (not currently available via Google) please let me know. Extra Brownie Points if you bring me a descendant (‘s contact information. No ski masks or sketchy getaway vans necessary.) Extra-extra Brownie Points if you can put me in contact with Knowlton’s direct descendent, Holly (Knowlton) Patraeus.
Thomas Knowlton, Ashford, detached from Durkees Conn. Cont. Regt. About Sept. 1, 76, to command of Rangers; mortally wounded in the affair or battle of Harlem Heights, Sept. 16; buried with military honors within the American lines on present Washington Heights, N.Y.
Andrew Colburn [New Hampshire], Major of Nixons Mass. Cont. Regt., appt. to command of Rangers, Oct. 1; wounded Oct. and retired.
Thomas U. Fosdick, New London, ensign in Chas. Webbs Regt.
Stephen Brown, Woodstock, of Durkees Regt.; in command of Rangers, after Knowltons death until about Oct. 1, when he returned to his Regt.
Thomas Grosvenor, Pomfret, of Durkees Regt.; returned to his Regt. About Oct. 1; cont. in 77.
Nathan Hale, Coventry, of Chas. Webbs Conn. Cont. Regt.; absent as spy in enemys lines; executed Sept. 22, 76.
Lemuel Holmes [New Hampshire], 1st Lieut. Sargents Mass. Cont. Regt.; rept. As Capt. Oct. 15, and commanded Rangers, succeeding Maj. Colburn; prisoner Nov. 16, 76; exch. Nov. 78.
Oliver Babcock, Stonington, 1st Lieut. Parsons Cont. Regt.; taken pris. Nov. 16, 76, at Fort Washington; exch. About Jan. 1, 77; died Jan. 25.
Jessee Grant, Litchfield, of Chas. Webbs Regt.; pris. Nov. 16, Ft. Washington; exch. Dec. 17, 80.
Abner Bacon, Canterbury, 1st Lieut. Chesters State Regt.; cont. in 77.
Ephraim Cleveland [Mass.], 1st Lieut. Sargents Regt.
Aaron Stratten [Mass.], 1st Lieut. Sargents Regt.
William Scott [Mass.], 1st Lieut. Sargents Regt.
Jacob Pope [Mass.], 2d Lieut.-Col. Jon Wards Mass. Reft.; cashiered Thomas Knowlton 9 Sept. 28, 76.
Benoni Shipman, New Haven, of Chas. Webbs Regt.; cont. in 77.
Aaron Cleaveland, Canterbury, of Chesters State Regt.
Daniel Knowlton, Ashford, of Chesters State Regt.; taken prisoner Nove. 26 at Ft. Washington; elder brother of Col. Knowlton.
Thomas Hender, Hartford, of Col. Wyllys Conn. Cont. Regt.; taken prisoner at Ft. Washington, Nove 16, 76. Ebenezer West, , of Hitchcocks R.I. Cont. Regt.
Non-Commissioned Officers and Privates of the Rangers, Taken Prisoners at Surrender of Fort Washington, N.Y. Island, Nov. 16, 76.
Detached from Durkees Regt., Conn.
Joel Jones, died Jan. 17,
Detached from Wyllys Regt. Conn.
Detached from C. Webbs Regt. Conn.
Samuel Robbins, died Jan. 14,
Zephaniah Cummings, died Feb. 7
Detached from Chesters Regt.Conn
Abijah Read (Canterbury), died Jan 28.
Jedediah Dyer, died Jan 20.
Richard Parsons, died Jan 19.
John Adams, died Jan 16.
Detached from Sargents Regt. Mass .
Joseph Goodrich, died Dec 2.
Joseph Spencer, died Nov. 2.
Barna Allien, died Nov. 28.
Serjt. Stephen Hempstead, New London, of Webbs Regt., a Ranger, wounded at Harlem Heights
Serjt. Nehemiah Holt, whom tradition places by the side of Knowlton when he fell
Frederick Knowlton, the Colonels son, who states in his pension papers that on his fathers death he was obliged to return to his home
Corp. George Wilson