Putnam, Israel

views updated May 11 2018

Putnam, Israel

PUTNAM, ISRAEL. (1718–1790). Continental general. Connecticut. Born at Salem Village (later Danvers), Massachusetts, on 7 January 1718, "Old Put" was already an American hero when the Revolution started. Because he showed no interest in schooling, Putnam received only scant formal education. He moved to Pomfret, Connecticut, around 1740 and became a prosperous farmer. Although only about five feet six inches tall, he was powerfully built, square-jawed, and had a love for outdoor activity. One of the earliest legends associated with him is that in the winter of 1742–1743 he killed a large wolf in her den.


At the start of the French and Indian War in June 1755, this thirty-seven-year-old farmer left his wife and six children to enlist as a private in the Connecticut provincials. He displayed notable leadership and coolness under fire at the Battle of Lake George (8 September) and shortly thereafter volunteered to join Robert Rogers's rangers. He proved adept at the hard and dangerous work of scouting and reconnaissance and was soon captain of an ad hoc Connecticut ranger company. He spent most of the next eight years in the field, much of the time leading rangers and scouts. Promoted to major in 1758, he was captured after a botched ambush in late July 1758 and was about to be burned at the stake by French-allied Native American warriors when he was rescued by a French officer. He spent four months as a prisoner in Canada, was exchanged, and was then promoted to lieutenant colonel, serving in that rank for the rest of the war (1759–1762, 1764).

In 1760 he marched with Jeffrey Amherst from Oswego to Montreal. Two years later he was among the few survivors of a shipwreck off Cuba in the disease-ridden expedition that captured Havana, and in 1764 he commanded Connecticut's five companies in John Bradstreet's march to Detroit during Pontiac's War. Connecticut's most famous soldier returned to his farm in Pomfret, married a second time (3 June 1767), and set up a tavern in the house his new wife had inherited from her first husband. He left home for an extended period only once more, from 1772 to 1774, when he and the former senior officer of Connecticut provincials, Major General Phineas Lyman, went up the Mississippi as far as Natchez to examine land granted to Connecticut veterans of the Havana expedition and to see what possibilities existed for land speculation.


At home in Pomfret, Putnam became a prominent member of the Sons of Liberty. He opposed the Stamp Act and led the mob of former soldiers that forced the colony's stamp distributor to resign. When the imperial government closed the port of Boston, he drove a herd of 125 sheep there to relieve the hunger of the townspeople (15 August 1774). He responded with his customary audacity when rumors arrived on 3 September that General Thomas Gage had seized provincial gunpowder at Charlestown, Massachusetts. Although he held no rank in the militia, he initiated the call that prompted perhaps a thousand armed Connecticut men to march toward Boston on the Powder Alarm. When the news that actual fighting had broken out at Lexington reached Pomfret on 19 April 1775, Putnam was plowing on his farm, and according to legend, he was said to have left the plow in the furrow, unhitched one of the horses, left word for the militia to follow, and ridden one hundred miles in eighteen hours to Cambridge.

In late April 1775, the General Assembly appointed him second brigadier general (after Major General David Wooster and First Brigadier General Joseph Spencer) and then colonel of the Third Connecticut Regiment (1 May), in which ranks he served during the first few weeks of the Boston siege. With typical aggressiveness, on 13 May he led two thousand men through the deserted streets of Charlestown "to show themselves to the regulars," but this reckless action did not draw a response (French, p. 187). A skirmish with British raiders removing cattle from Noodle's Island in Boston Harbor on 25 May so impressed Congress, sitting in Philadelphia, that it appointed him a Continental major general, fourth in seniority to Washington himself, an egregious violation of the Connecticut pecking order that enraged Wooster and Spencer. Although he had actual command only over the two Connecticut regiments then at Cambridge, he urged his Massachusetts colleagues to act aggressively in response to William Howe's plan to break the Boston siege. In the council of war that preceded the Battle of Breed's Hill (17 June 1775), he is alleged to have said that "Americans are not at all afraid of their heads, though very much afraid of their legs; if you cover these, they will fight forever" (Frothingham, p. 116). During the battle itself, he labored hard to send reinforcements to Colonel William Prescott and is alleged to have given the order (conventional wisdom in the age of smoothbore musketry and also attributed to, among others, Prescott himself), "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes." His display of confidence, vigor, and aggressiveness helped to sustain American morale and was the pinnacle of his career. After Washington arrived at Cambridge on 3 July, Putnam commanded the American center.


At the start of the New York Campaign, Putnam was in overall command at New York City for a short period before Washington arrived. On 24 August 1776 he superseded John Sullivan in command of the forces that were later defeated in the Battle of Long Island on 27 August 1776. During the remainder of the New York Campaign and Washington's withdrawal to the Delaware, Putnam played no significant part. He was put in command of Philadelphia toward the end of the year, and when the British consolidated their position in northern New Jersey after Washington's victories at Trenton and Princeton, Putnam commanded the American wing posted at Princeton from January to mid-May 1777.

By this time, it was apparent to Washington that the old hero lacked the qualities of a field commander. In May 1777 he was made commander of the Hudson Highlands. He failed to prevent Sir Henry Clinton from capturing Forts Clinton and Montgomery on 6 October and from burning the town of Kingston on the 16th. Although a court of inquiry cleared Putnam of any misconduct or negligence in the temporary loss of the forts, Washington granted his request for a leave of absence to attend to family business and replaced him with Alexander McDougall on 16 March 1778.

During the winter of 1778–1779, Putnam commanded the forces quartered around Redding, Connecticut. On 26 February 1779 he is alleged to have escaped from Loyalist raiders near Stamford, Connecticut, by riding his horse in a headlong gallop down a flight of rocky steps, an improbable display of horsemanship by a sixty-one-year-old man but not out of character with either the man himself or the legend. In May he was in command of American forces on the west side of the Hudson until a paralytic stroke in December 1779 forced his retirement. He died at Brooklyn, Connecticut, on 29 May 1790 after an illness of two days. He was a cousin of Rufus Putnam and a granduncle of the founder of the G. P. Putnam's Sons publishing house.


Putnam's greatest strength as a soldier was his ability to inspire raw American soldiers with confidence in their martial skill; his contributions during the early stages of the Boston siege were especially important. A courageous, energetic, and optimistic officer on the battlefield—"as colonel of a fighting regiment, he would have been admirably placed," the historian Christopher Ward has stated—he lacked the patience, insight, and administrative acumen to succeed as a general (vol. 1, p. 76). Putnam's enduring appeal rests on the image of him as a "self-made man, unlettered but wise, brave yet compassionate" (Bruce C. Daniels in ANB), the very embodiment of the ideal American citizen, a "rough-hewn Cincinnatus" who ranked "second only to Washington in the pantheon of revolutionary heroes" (Paul D. Nelseon in ODNB). Timothy Dwight, who served with him in the Highlands and was later president of Yale College, composed this epitaph: "Ever attentive to the lives and happiness of his men, he dared to lead where any dared to follow."

SEE ALSO Clinton's Expedition; Long Island, New York, Battle of; New York Campaign.


French, Allen. The First Year of the American Revolution. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934.

Frothingham, Richard. History of the Siege of Boston. 6th ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1903.

Humphreys, David. An Essay on the Life of the Honorable Major General Israel Putnam. Hartford, Conn.: Hudson and Goodwin, 1788.

Livingston, William F. Israel Putnam: Pioneer, Ranger, and Major-General, 1718–1780. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1901.

Niven, John. Connecticut's Hero: Israel Putnam. Hartford: American Revolution Bicentennial Commission of Connecticut, 1977.

Tarbox, Increase N. Life of Israel Putnam ("Old Put"), Major-general in the Continental Army. Boston: Lockwood, Brooks, 1876.

Ward, Christopher. War of the Revolution. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1952.

                               revised by Harold E. Selesky

Israel Putnam

views updated Jun 11 2018

Israel Putnam

Israel Putnam (1718-1790), American soldier, was a Revolutionary War general. Although known for his courage and energy in combat, he was an incompetent commander.

Israel Putnam was born in Salem Village, Mass., on Jan. 7, 1718. He had very little education and remained nearly illiterate all his life. In 1738 he married Hannah Pope and the following year moved to Connecticut, where he bought land and farmed successfully, soon becoming a man of substance. When the French and Indian War broke out in 1756, Putnam was commissioned a lieutenant in the Connecticut militia and served throughout the conflict, rising steadily in rank until he reached a colonelcy by the time it ended in 1763. He fought in numerous engagements, earned a reputation for bravery and resourcefulness, and gained valuable military experience.

With the coming of peace, Putnam returned to farming and also operated a tavern. He took part in the developing conflict between England and the Colonies, helping organize the Sons of Liberty in 1765. He participated in the political life of Connecticut as a representative to the General Assembly in 1766 and 1767. In 1774 he headed the local Committee of Correspondence and accepted appointment as lieutenant colonel of a regiment of Connecticut militia. When the fighting began in the spring of 1775, Putnam entered active service and in June was appointed by the Continental Congress one of the four major generals under George Washington's command. It was not a wise appointment, for although Putnam was a good soldier and an inspiring and able leader, he did not have the qualities needed for planning major operations, commanding large units, or executing grand strategy.

Putnam was at Bunker Hill, at the siege of Boston, and in New York to plan the defenses there. He was in command at the Battle of Long Island in August 1776 until Washington's arrival, and that American defeat has been blamed by one historian on "the incapacity of Israel Putnam." In subsequent assignments his performance was no better. Washington ordered him to Princeton early in 1777, but Putnam delayed. He was then sent to command an important post on the Hudson River, but in December 1777, after 7 months of inefficiency, he was removed. A court of inquiry convened to investigate his record in one action, but he was exonerated. It was clear, however, that he was unfit for a command. Washington sent Putnam to be chief of recruiting in Connecticut in 1779. In December of that year, a paralytic stroke ended his military career. He returned to his farm in Connecticut, where he died on May 29, 1790.

Further Reading

The best account of Putnam's career is William Farrand Livingston, Israel Putnam, Pioneer, Ranger, and Major-General, 1718-1790 (1901). Two other biographies are useful: David Humphreys, The Life and Heroic Exploits of Israel Putnam (1835), and I. N. Tarbox, Life of Israel Putnam ("Old Put" ), Major-General in the Continental Army (1877).

Additional Sources

Humphreys, David, An essay on the life of the Honorable Major-General Israel Putnam, New York: Garland Pub., 1977.

Niven, John, Connecticut hero, Israel Putnam, Hartford: American Revolution Bicentennial Commission of Connecticut, 1977. □

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