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.