Knowlton's Rangers were the United States of America's first organized espionage organization, as well as the first American Ranger unit formed after America declared its independence from the United Kingdom. Named after their commander, Thomas Knowlton, they were formed in 1776.
On August 12, 1776, General of the Army George Washington promoted Knowlton to Lieutenant Colonel. He was ordered to select an elite group of men from Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts to carry out reconnaissance missions. America's first official spies, "Knowlton's Rangers" were also the first organized American elite troops, analogous to a modern special forces unit. The famous American spy, Captain Nathan Hale, of Coventry, Connecticut, was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton. The date "1776" on the modern U.S. Army's intelligence service seal refers to the formation of Knowlton's Rangers.
On September 16, 1776, Knowlton's Rangers, outfitted as a regiment of light infantry, were scouting in advance of Washington's Army at Harlem Heights, New York. They stumbled upon the Black Watch, an elite Highlander British unit with an attachment of Hessians. They managed a successful retreat but re-engaged the enemy with the support of a unit led by Major Leitch of Virginia. General Washington ordered the units to fall on the enemy's rear, while a feint in front engaged the British troops’ attention. An American premature shot into the right flank of the British ruined Washington's plan and placed Knowlton's Rangers and the Virginians at risk. Once the premature shot had been fired, Knowlton rallied his troops to carry on the attack. Both commanding officers were killed in front of their men.