The Birth of American Intelligence Operations by Marc Wolfe

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To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Military Intelligence Branch and the 25th Anniversary of the MI Corps, the MI Corps Association commissioned Marc Wolfe, a renowned artist of recent military actions, to paint the first Military Intelligence heritage artwork.

The Birth of American Intelligence Operations

During the Revolutionary War, General George Washington, Commander in Chief of the United States Continental Army wrote, “The necessity of procuring good intelligence is apparent and need not be further urged. . . .”  Military Intelligence has since been an important part of Army operations in each of the nation’s conflicts. 

This scene depicts the planning for one of the first known U.S. Army intelligence missions. In September 1776, General George Washington, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton, and Captain Nathan Hale met at Army headquarters in New York City to finalize the plan for CPT Hale’s covert mission to Long Island to ascertain British Army movements and intentions.

Following the July 4th, 1776, U.S. Declaration of Independence, the New York campaign was critical to the newborn republic. After defeat at the Battle of Long Island in late August, General Washington needed to determine the location of a British invasion of Manhattan Island and one method to do so was to send a spy behind enemy lines. CPT Nathan Hale was the sole volunteer for this important but dan­gerous mission.

On September 1, 1776, General Washington organized “Knowlton’s Rangers,” the first Continental Army unit dedicated to tactical reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. During the Boston Campaign, LTC Knowlton served courageously at the Battle of Bunker Hill and led the successful raid on Charlestown to capture British sol­diers for questioning. Subsequently on September 16, 1776, during the Battle of Harlem Heights, LTC Knowlton commanded the reconnaissance force that found, engaged, and repulsed the initial British advance. After rejoining the fight later that day, LTC Knowlton was killed in action bravely leading his regiment in the American victory. The loss of this experienced, dynamic, and able leader impacted the young Continental Army. For his gallant exploits, leadership, and command of the first U.S. Army unit designed for intelligence operations, the MI Corps designated LTC Knowlton as its “MI Hero” in 1995. The Knowlton Award recognizes distinguished professionals who contribute significantly to the promotion of Army Intelligence.

From Knowlton’s Regiment, CPT Nathan Hale stepped forward to conduct intelligence missions against British forces on Long Island, ultimately giving his life for his country. A 21-year old Yale College graduate and teacher, Nathan Hale had not seen action in the Boston or Long Island Campaigns and felt compelled to contribute to the Continental Army he had joined a year earlier. He saw this mission as a crucial opportunity to serve the patriotic cause. Thus, Nathan Hale dutifully vol­unteered to collect information against the British Army.  According to a subordinate, CPT Hale met with General Washington on two occasions prior to depart­ing. This scene portrays the final meeting.

Dressed in the guise of a school teacher, Nathan Hale crossed Long Island Sound from Connecticut and began his mission. After the British captured New York City, it was set ablaze under suspicious circumstances after midnight on September 21. The British immediately began to arrest local civilians for questioning. Nathan Hale was detained, found to have notes on the British Army, and immediately charged as a spy. According to the standards of the time, undercover spies were hanged as illegal combat­ants. Without a trial, Nathan Hale was executed on September 22, 1776. His last words were believed to be, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” Nathan Hale was the first American executed for conducting intelligence operations.

General George Washington’s use and staunch advocacy of intelligence operations coupled with the distinguished service and sacrifice of LTC Thomas Knowlton and CPT Nathan Hale serve as a constant reminder to all MI Corps Soldiers of our significant heritage as well as the hazards of the Military Intelligence profession.

U.S. Army Campaign:  Long Island 1776