ISRAEL PUTNAM


BY FANNY GREYE BRAGG
Published in
Connecticut Magazine May, 1899


Some photo's from this artical


THERE is a type of New England manhood upon which changes have been rung again and again without tiring reader or listener; a type whose very appellation was made, as early as 1713, a synonym for excellence and one which finds its most fitting embodiment in the life and achievements of a man whose characteristic qualities and rise by his own efforts from obscurity into deserved eminence, demonstrate him to have been a Yankee of Yankees. Israel Putnam, successful farmer and able soldier, exhibited in the motives which prompted his actions in every emergency, the inherent traits of Yankeeism. Where else but in a Yankee could be found the intrepid daring which almost amounted to recklessness; the courage, moral and physical, often stronger than discretion; the abhorrence of dissimulation, the frank, sensitive spirit, and the sound judgment which at all times distinguished the patriot general?

January 7, 1718, he was born on his fatherís farm in Salem, now Danvers, Mass.; there he imbibed a love for agriculture which followed him through life. The tenth of eleven children, he realized that whatever his share of their fatherís estate might be, it would necessarily be small, and so from early boyhood he learned the lesson of sturdy self-reliance. His education was given very little attention, a smattering of the "three Rs" being at that time considered sufficient for anyone and had it not been for the silent influences of Nature, the best possibilities of his character must have remained dormant; constant association with her softened and refined, while it deepened his impulses. Boy as he was, Putnam excelled his village companions in athletic sports, of which he was very fond, thus preparing himself unconciously for the hardships which he endured in after years.

The two earliest stories told of him show his honest pride and manliness. The one relates how, upon his first visit to Boston, he thrashed a lad bigger and older than himself for sneering at the rustic style of his homespun garments, and the other tells of the summary way in which he forced the proud son of a rich neighbor to retract the lying calumnies he had uttered to a lover against his sweetheart, a fatherless, innocent girl. He always made, common cause with the helpless and oppressed.

Putnamís resources were like those of the average Yankee, fathomless and unfailing; the following story of "Putnam and the Bull" aptly illustrates this. When a lad, his father sent him to drive home a young bull recently purchased. The bull objected and chased the boy out of the pasture. Putnam put on a pair of spurs and jumping out from behind a tree as the beast rushed by, managed to get upon his back. Plunging the rowels into this novel steed, he forced him to zun until he stuck exhausted in the clay which was at one end of the field. Then the lad extricated the thoroughly subjugated animal which was driven home without further trouble.

When twenty years of age Putnam married Hannah Pope of Salem and in 1739 he and his brother-in-law together bought five hundred and fourteen acres in Mortlake Manor in Connecticut. Such was his industry that in two years he was enabled to buy out his partner and thus became sole owner in what was called the "Putnam Farm." Although Massachusetts born, the best days of his life were spent in his adopted state upon this farm between the villages of Pomfret and Brooklyn. The fruits which he raised there were considered the best in New England; especially the winter apples, to which he paid the greatest attention. The sheep and goats he raised upon the sunny slopes of his farm could not have found their equal the country around.

It was the sheep and goats that indirectly furnished the young farmer with his most widely known adventure. In the early spring of 1743, an old she-wolf and her whelps destroyed seventy of these valuable sheep and goats. The whelps were destroyed but the dam, a sagacious and vigilant animal, escaped from traps and dogs time and time again; on one occa3ion leaving the toes of a fore-foot in the trap. This last accident rendered her trail easily recognizable in the snow and so Putnam and those neighboring farmers who had suffered from her depredations set their dogs on the scent one fine morning, determined to kill the cunning brute. She was trapped in a rocky cave near Putnamís home and refused to face her persecutors. The dogs retreated whining and covered with wounds; burning straw and sulphur failed to dislodge her, and at last the farmers found themselves under the disagreeable necessity of sending one of their number into the cavern or abandoning the chase. Putnam offered to go and stripping off all superfluous gaTments, he crawled into the cave. After ascertaining by the light of a birch-bark torch the whereabouts of the wolf, whose fiery orbs glared upon him out of the darkness, he was drawn out so hurriedly that he was severely cut and bruised. Loading his musket carefully, he went in again and shot the wolf. After being drawn out he went in a third time and emerged dragging the creature out by the ears.

When the northern approaches to New York were in danger of French invasion. Putnamís eagerly offered services were accepted, and with the rank of captain he followed Major General Phineas Lynch. During the next two years he was a prominent member of a band of Rangers and the comrade on many occasions of the famous Rogers. At one time when returning to a hidden party of his men, a Frenchman met Rogers, whose gun unfortunately missed fire. The soldier drew a knife, and but for Putnamís timely aid, the career of the Ranger might have been ended then and there. The captain killed the man with a blow from the butt-end of his musket and escaped with Rogers. Although the angry guards followed for no little distance, no lives were lost.

In the spring of 1756 Rogers and Putnam were transferred with their respective companies into the command of General Webb. One sultry night that summer Putnam and a soldier named Durkee were scouting in the vicinity of Fort Ticonderoga. The deceptive arrangement of the enemyís camp-fires betrayed the young men into the very midst of the encampment. In the shower of bullets which followed their escape Durkee was wounded, and upon reaching a temporary place of safety, Putnam generously offered him his canteen of rum, but it had been tapped by a bullet and was empty. When Putnam examined his blanket he found no less than fourteen bullet holes in it.

The next year General Lyman succeeded Webb and the Rangers were stationed on an island off Fort Edward. One morning a company of Provincials escorted by fifty British regulars were cutting timber and fell into an ambuscade. After the greater part of their number was slain the rest fled in dismay. Lyman, fearing lest the safety of the garrison should be jeopardized, called in the outposts and closed the gates. But Putnam was not the man to look calmly upon the slaughter of his friends. Calling his men about him, he rushed to the rescue, although Lyman peremptorily ordered him

to return. Amid cheers of encouragement the little band dashed into the fight; the tide was turned, and the baffled savages retreated in disorder. The hero of the hour, Putnam was received with joyous demonstrations when he returned to the fort; even Lyman privately commended the generous motives which had caused the young Ranger to disobey orders.

There are brave men who fear some one form of danger and shrink from it, but Putnam seems to have possessed a nature singularly free from fear; always mindful of the force of example, he invariably took the post of danger in every expedition. In the winter of 1758, when Colonel Haviland took command at Fort Edward, Putnam and his Rangers were still on Rogerís Island. One mild February morning a cry of fire alarmed the garrison, and turning out they found the row of barracks nearest the magazine in flames. Every effort was put forth to quench the flames, but in vain. Putnam and his men being apprised of the danger, crossed on the ice and gave their assistance. Although the danger of an explosion was imminent, and all expected momentarily to be blown into eternity, officers and men worked gallantly. From his position on the roof, Putnam poured bucket after bucket of water upon the devouring flames. He only descended when the buildings fell but a few feet from the magazine. In spite of his severe wounds he ran again to the place of most danger, and amid flames and smoke, sparks and cinders, he dashed water upon the magazine until the fire was under control. His exposure and burns made him an invalid for a month.

The young captain was usually rendered extremely impatient at any loss of good opportunities. The spring after his recovery he was retreating from Molang when a party of Provincial scouts fired upon his company, mistaking them for the enemy, but their fire fortunately did little damage. Putnam afterward reproved their leader, saying, "Your men ought to be hanged for not killing more at so fair a chance."

One narrow escape of Putnam's caused the Indians to regard him with superstitious awe and reverence. He was returning from a visit to Fort Miller, and as he was going to his boat he was surprised by a large body of Indians, some in the woods about him, and some in their canoes. The young man saw that the chances on land and water were equally bad, so springing into his boat, he allowed himself to be carried down among the rocks and dangerous currents where the savages dared not follow. His escape from them was indeed miraculous. The next year, 1757, his bravery was rewarded with the rank of major.

An experience which might well have formed the subject for one of Cooper's tales now befell him. Retreating with Rogers and five hundred men from Molang and his French and Indians, he fell into an ambuscade on Clear River. He aimed at an Indian chief but his gun missing fire, the savage sprang upon him and bound him to a tree standing in the line of fire of both parties. During the engagement which followed, the major's garments were. completely riddled with bullets, and at one time a young Indian amused himself by throwing his tomahawk within an inch of the captive's head. The Rangers repulsed Molang, but the Indians carried off their prisoner when they retreated. Upon reaching the depths of the forest, Putnam's captors separated from their French allies, and after some preliminary tortures they decided to burn the unfortunate officer at the stake. Accordingly he was tied to a tree, fagots were piled about his feet and fired, but scarcely had the wood begun to crackle in the heat when a thunder shower came up, and by extinguishing the flames, saved Putnam for the nonce. The shower passed over and more fagots were added to the pile which was again fired. Just as the captive was giving up all hope, Molang, who had been informed of the proceedings by a converted Indian, rushed into the circle and cutting the thongs, freed him from the horrible death which had seemed inevitable. He was sent by the French officer to Montcalm at Ticonderoga, and from there to Montreal. Here another prisoner, Colonel Peter Schuyler, interested himself in the ragged, wounded soldier, and by his influence procured an exchange for him.

In 1759 his worth was again recognized and his rank became that of lieutenantcolonel. His last exploit in the French and Indian war was in 1760 near Fort Oswegatchie. The approach to the fort was guarded by two twelve-gun schooners, concerning which General Amherst had expressed the wish that some one would take " those infernal schooners." Putnam offered to do it. Amherst, at first incredulous, reflected on the native ingenuity of the Yankee officer and finally authorized the venture. That night Putnam's party of six picked men rowed with muffled oars to the schooner, drove wedges between stern and rudder and cut the cable. The following morning the ship stranded on the beach, and when she struck her colors the other vessel surrendered also, and the fort fell easily into Amherst's hands.

At the close of the war Putnam went on the West Indies expedition with General Lyman, his old commander, and returned home laden with more honors, and in 1764 he commanded the Connecticut forces in Bradstreet's army, at which time he received the rank in full of colonel. He took a well-earned rest at the end of this year, and retiring to his farm interested himself in agriculture. Shortly after his return his wife died, leaving ten children, the youngest of whom was but a year 01(1; the following May the bereaved husband joined the Brooklyn church. In 1767 he brought to his family a new mother in the person of Deborah Gardiner, a widow, and the union proved a very happy one for the ten years of its duration. The next seven years were spent with his family on the farm.

At the very outset of the trouble which caused the Revolution, he stood out boldly and conspicuously as an upholder of liberty. In August of 1774, when Gage had not quite shut up Boston, Colonel Putnam rode over from the Neck with one hundred and thirty sheep sent as a gift from Brooklyn parish. During his visit in Boston he was the guest of Doctor Warren. Gage informed Putnam complacently that five thousand veterans could march across the continent without hindrance. The reply he received voiced the public sentiment admirablyó"Ay, if they behaved properly, and paid as they went. But if they showed the least hostility, the American women would knock them over the head with their ladles.

Soon after Colonel Ingersoll's resignation of the office of "Stamp Distributor," Putnam, accompanied by two other gentlemen, visited Colonel Fitch, determined to prevent, by fair means or foul, the entrance into Connecticut of stamped paper. F.itch was dubious, and wanted to look at every side of the matter before acceding to the demands of his visitors. However, when he learned that a refusal would be followed by the levelling of his house to the ground he yielded at once, and no stamped paper entered Connecticut.

The intelligence of the Concord fight roused the whole country in April of the following year. Putnam was employed in ploughing a field of Indian corn when the news reached him. He was swift to act. Leaving the catt]e and plough in the furrow, not stopping to change his clothes, he mounted a fleet horse and was soon well on his way to Cambridge, which he reached at sunrise the next morning, and his gallant steed galloped into Concord later the same day. At the same time that Washington was appointed commander-in-chief, Putnam was made brigadier-general and given command of the army-center at Cambiidge.

At Bunker Hill, Putnam was ranking officer and conducted the retreat, though reluctantly. In point of fact, he was absolutely furious about it, for he was an officer little used to reverses in battle. Standing among his men he waved his Sword and shouted, "Victory shall be ours! Make a stand here, boys. We can Stop them yet! In God's name, fire and give them one shot more !" Finding his exhortations useless, he lost control of himself and for the first and last time in his life he swore roundly at the retreating Colonists. Instead of leading he followed on their retreat, and was almost the last to leave the earth-works. Years afterward the old general went on his crutches into the Brooklyn church and told the deacons of his profanity. He closed his confes sion with these words, "It was enough to make an angel swear to see those cowards refuse to secure a victory so easily won." The deacons could not find it in their hearts to do anything but forgive him.

After this battle Howe offered Putnam a large sum of money and a commission as one of four major-generals. As might have been foreseen, Howe might have saved himself the trouble of making this offer which Putnam refused with indignation, and four days afterward Washington sent him the same commission, only it was in the "rebel army."

A humorous incident is told of Putnam's stay in Cambridge. His wife had joined him at the house of one Ralph Inman, a runaway Tory, and frequently drove out in the latter's coach. The town selectmen did not approve of this, and one day stopped the coach and obliged Mrs. Putnam to return home on foot. The general went into a fearful rage when his weeping wife told him her story and, it is said, went to the selectmen and was not satisfied until he had frightened them badly with his stern reproaches.

And now Putnam's more active military life comes to the fore. In 1776 General Washington sent him to New York, and in August to Brooklyn Heights. He was not responsible for the defeat of two days afterward. How could he be expected to repulse twenty thousand veterans with only five thousand raw recruits? At Harlem Heights, Chatterton Hill, Fort Washington and Princeton he took no inconspicuous part.

While in command at Peekskill a young Royalist lieutenant was captured in the camp. The hapless youth, as unfortunate as erring, was tried and condemned to death as a spy, in spite of the efforts of his friends and the pleas of his young wife. Sir Henry Clinton sent a message ordering the instant release of his Majesty's liege subject, Edmund Palmer. The reply is historical.

HEADQUARTERS, August 7, 1777.

Edmund Palmer, an officer in the enemy's service, was taken as a spy, lurking within our lines. He has been tried as a spy, condemned as a spy, and shall be executed as a spy, and the flag is ordered to depart immediately.

.......................................ISRAEL PUTNAM.

P. S.óHe has accordingly been executed. -

 

Throughout the trying exigencies of war, Putnam, now almost sixty years old, retained his youthful spirit and humor. Colonel Moylan relates in a letter how, upon the capture of two brigs with plenty of ammunition, "Old Put," as he was nicknamed, mounted a large mortar with a bottle of rum in his hand, and as parson, with the help of Muffin, an aide of Washington, as godfather, christened it "Congress." Says Colonel Moylan, "Old Put's cry throughout the winter has been, 'Powder! powder!! Ye gods, give me powder!' and now at last he is satisfied."

The same year, 1777, the intelligence of the decease of his beloved wife came to him at Fishkill. He took but a short absence, saw her buried in the Robinson family vault, and then, smothering his grief, returned to his place of duty. The suffering was intense throughout the army that year. While Washington was at Valley Forge, Putnam was enduring the same privations with his men at the Hudson Highlands; he never made his age an excuse for shirking duty. Before the winter was over he was obliged to give up his command to McDougal, merely because his treatment of the Tories had been gentler than his envious detractors thought proper. Washington wrote to him deploring this, and adding that he was obliged to do it because those who objected to him were the powerful and influential ones, the withdrawal of whose support would be a great inconvenience. Putnam did not complain, but returned to Connecticut and endeavored to labor there for the cause he so loved. When the dissatisfaction of the Connecticut troops threatened at one time to make trouble for Congress, Putnam rode to meet them as they marched toward Hartford, and by a judicious speech contrived to restore their good humor.

That same winter he performed an exploit which will live in song and story. While visiting an outpost at Horseneck (now West Greenwich), he saw in the mirror by which he was shaving, the red coats of the advancing British regulars. Dropping the razor he seized his sword, and half shaved roused his men. He mounted his horse and ordered a retreat, for his little company of one hundred and fifty men could do nothing but retreat from the fifteen hundred under Tryon. But the orderly retreat became a wild, ungovernable rout, every man seeking his own safety. Putnam spurred toward Stamford, pursued by a large number of dragoons. Upon discovering that they were gaining on him, the general, urged by desperation, turned his horse and went at full gallop down a steep declivity near a rude flight of stone steps. Picture the bluff, florid, good-humored face of the daring old hero as he dashed down the hill amid the flying bullets! His hat gone, his dark hair ruffled by the breeze, his keen, kindly light-blue eyes sparkling with humorous satisfaction and triumph as he waved one arm at the wondering regulars reining up their horses on the brow of the hill! With steady nerves not in the least shaken by his astonishing ride, he called the Stamford militia, and following Tryon captured forty of his men.

In the summer of 1779 Putnam was posted with his men two miles below West Point at Buttermilk Falls, and early that winter he made his headquarters at Morristown, New Jersey. Returning there from a visit to his family, he had a stroke of paralysis at the house of Colonel Wadsworth at Hartford. His was a hopeful mind, and he refused to believe the dis ease dangerous. But as his illness necessitated the resignation of all public duties, he returned to the bosom of his family at Brooklyn, where he spent the remainder of his life among the affectionate friends and neighbors of his youth. He lived eleven years after this, and was able to walk, ride and enjoy society to some little extent.

Two years before his death his biographer, Colonel Humphreys, finished his "Essay on the life of the Honorable Major-General Israel Putnam." It is said that this was the first biography attempted in America, and we are certainly indebted to Colonel Humphreys for selecting from the hundreds of lives about him our Connecticut hero.

On May 27, 1790, an acute inflammatory disease attacked the veteran and he considered it as fatal. In two short days he was gone to that country from which there is no return. His children were almost inconsolable, for he was the kindest and most affectionate of fathers. At his funeral religious rites were mingled with military honors, and the address was delivered by a personal friend whose warmest praises, however, could do no more than justice to the departed hero. His is but a humble monument; yet upon its marble surface are graven words which find an answering thrill in the heart of every patriot who scans that last tribute to the memory of Israel Putnam.

Painting of Major General Putnam

The Wolf Den, Pomfret, Conn

Putnam's Plow

Putnam's Ride at "Horse-Neck"

Room where Putnam was born

Putnam's Grave Stone

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