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Knowlton’s Rangers: “But one life to give”

By DIA Public Affairs

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After a spree of debilitating defeats as a result of intelligence failures in early battles of the Revolutionary War, General George Washington recognized the Continental Army’s grave need for an elite group whose sole objective was intelligence and reconnaissance. In 1776, Washington selected Lt. Col. Thomas Knowlton as commander of the Continental Army's first intelligence unit, which would come to be known as "Knowlton's Rangers.”

Washington chose Knowlton as the unit’s commander because of his experience as a scout in the French and Indian Wars and adept leadership at the battles of Breed's Hill and Long Island.

Consisting of 130 men and 20 officers, the unit was charged with conducting reconnaissance, carrying out raids against British facilities and other dangerous covert missions.

While on an intelligence-gathering mission for the unit in New York City, one of Knowlton’s Rangers, Capt. Nathan Hale, was captured by the British. Just before his subsequent execution on the gallows Sept. 22, 1776, Hale proclaimed, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

That same month, Knowlton himself was killed while leading his men at the Battle of Harlem Heights.

The creation of Knowlton’s Rangers is regarded as the birth of military intelligence, and thus the date “1776” on the modern-day seal of the Army's intelligence service refers to the unit’s formation.

Editor’s Note: This article is the fourth of a series highlighting the origins of American military intelligence and how it led to the birth of DIA. The American military intelligence system during the Revolutionary War was an active and effective instrument that helped counterbalance British numerical and operational superiority by informing American generals about their movements while it also deceived the British into making strategic errors. From the Revolutionary War to the early years of the Cold War interest in and resources devoted to military intelligence surged during wartime and diminished or disappeared during peacetime. This lack of a sustained commitment to military intelligence contributed to several intelligence failures. These issues were not resolved until the establishment of DIA in 1961, which would serve as the centralizing hub of all military and defense intelligence.