Credited with shouting “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” at Bunker Hill, he was perhaps the most experienced general in the American army. But “Old Put” was not without his faults.
In the early summer of 1775, when the time came to appoint major generals to serve with George Washington in the Continental Army, Congress voted unanimously that Israel Putnam was to be one of them. Then in his fifty-eighth year and known universally as Old Put, he was five feet six inches tall, powerfully built, and had the face of a cherubic bulldog mounted on a jaw cut like a block of wood. More to the point, he was regarded not simply as a good soldier but as a great one; a reputation won during years of frontier warfare had hung a great fog of legends about him.
Then, as now, it was virtually impossible to distinguish fact from fiction about Putnam, but to cite a few of the exploits credited to him suggests the superman his contemporaries thought him to be. Born near Salem, Massachusetts, in 1718, he had moved in 1739 with his bride to Pomfret, Connecticut, where he purchased a farm and where, three winters later, the saga began. As retailed in awe by an early biographer, the first heroics concerned a ferocious she-wolf that had dispatched seventy of Putnam’s sheep and goats in a nighttime raid. Putnam and a group of neighbors tracked the “pernicious animal” (easily, it appears, since she had lost the toes of one foot in a trap) and drove her into a cave. A series of attempts failed to smoke out the wolf before Put, disregarding the pleas of his companions, fashioned a torch from birch bark, tied a rope around his waist, and was lowered into “the deep and darksome cave.” Crawling about forty feet down a narrow passage, he spotted the “glaring eye-balls” of the beast, heard the gnashing of teeth and a sullen growl as the wolf prepared to spring, and in the nick of time shot her dead and dragged her out by the ears.
He prospered as a farmer, sired ten children, and in 1755—the year of Braddock’s defeat—he joined Major Robert Rogers in skirmishes around the French citadel at Crown Point. For ten years, off and on, he skirted violent death, each time escaping by a hairsbreadth. At Fort Edward in ’56 fire broke out near an ammunition magazine, and Putnam (single-handed, it seems) stood between the wall of a falling building and the magazine, pouring water on the blaze, saving the garrison at the penultimate moment and emerging with hands and face dreadfully burned and his entire body blistered.
Near Fort Miller he was alone in a bateau when surprised by Indians and immediately shot the “foaming rapids” of the Hudson to elude them—a feat, his biographer said, that not only astonished the savages but convinced them that Putnam was so favored by the Great Spirit that “it would be an affront to Manitou to attempt to kill him with powder and ball.” Which, presumably, is why they next tried to do away with him by burning at the stake. It was in 1758 in a skirmish near Fort Anne when Putnam was tomahawked and captured, stripped, and tied to a tree to be incinerated. Transported by the “hellish scene,” Old Put’s biographer described the Indians circling round the prisoner, screaming and howling deliriously as “the crackling flame began to curl around the fagots,” and then suggested his hero’s mental state. Perceiving that his hour was at hand, Putnam “composed his mind to bid an eternal farewell to all he held most dear” and fixed his thoughts on “a happier state of existence.” Then, at the very instant when “nature was quitting its last hold on sublunary things,” a French officer dashed up, scattered the burning brands, and untied his bonds.
There was a long captivity in Montreal before he was exchanged, followed by frontier service with Lord Jeffery Amherst in ’60 and duty in another theatre in ’62, when he accompanied a British expedition to Cuba against the Spaniards, was shipwrecked, and miraculously survived. Two years later he marched with Colonel John Bradstreet to Detroit in Pontiac’s War and subsequently journeyed up the Mississippi River to see what potential existed for land speculation in those parts.
All in all, it had been quite an eventful career for a simple Connecticut farmer, but more was yet to come. The image was not diminished when colonists learned that Old Put had driven a herd of sheep from Pomfret to Boston after the British closed that port in 1774. Nor did his reputation suffer when it was told how he responded to the news of Lexington a year later: he was plowing at the time and, the story went, left the plow in the furrow, unhitched his team, and without so much as a pause to change clothes rode off toward the scene of action after sending word for his regiment to follow posthaste. In June of 1775, when the Massachusetts Committee of Safety determined to fortify Bunker Hill, opposite Boston, many colonists supposed that it was Putnam—pugnacious as ever—who was behind the decision to erect a redoubt on Breed’s Hill instead, since that was a more exposed position and was almost certain to provoke an attack by the redcoats. And to Putnam, since the remark was so completely in character, went the credit for that time-honored admonition, uttered just before the battle began, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes! ”
The trouble with living legends, however, is that they sometimes prove less effective than they are cracked up to be—an unhappy discovery made by General George Washington during the defeat of his army on Long Island, where Putnam’s ignorance of the terrain and ineptness contributed their share to the disaster. There was no doubting Israel Putnam’s courage or energy or his popularity with the men in the ranks; the difficulty was that the man was a major general and as such should know about the care and conduct of an army, about logistics and topography and strategy and the movement of large bodies of troops. He ought, in short, to possess considerable intelligence and resourcefulness and be something more than a bold captain in battle. There is reason to suppose that many Continental soldiers would have followed Old Put wherever he chose to lead them, but unfortunately the qualities that had made him a renowned frontier fighter and roughhewn folk hero were not necessarily the stuff of which general officers are made, and Washington was increasingly aware of his deficiencies as time wore on. In fairness, part of the trouble may have been that Old Put was over the hill; at fifty-eight he was an elderly man as age was reckoned in that day. In any case, the long and short of it was that he was put out to pasture after 1776, never to hold an imDortant field command.
He was placed in charge of the defenses of the Hudson Highlands in 1777 and had the misfortune to let the British capture Forts Clinton and Montgomery and burn the town of Kingston, which were all in his sector. For this lapse he was relieved of command. It was alleged at the time that torpor or ignorance or incompetence—possibly all three—were involved, but a court of inquiry cleared him of negligence or malfeasance. Probably it was a blessing that a paralytic stroke forced him into retirement late in 1779; until then the spirit remained willing and the old war-horse was still eager for battle, and there was something pathetic about the inactivity to which he had been relegated.
Back on the farm at last, he lingered on until 1790 in a manner described in the rolling hyperbole of a former companion in arms: “In patient, yet fearless expectation of the approach of THE KING OF TERRORS, whom he hath full often faced in the field of blood, the Christian hero now enjoys in domestic retirement the fruit of his early industry.”