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Israel Putnam, the redoubtable hero of Indian and French adventure in the old colonial wars, the survivor of many a revolutionary fight, was born at Salem, Mass., January 7, 1718. His grandfather, from the south of England, was one of the first settlers of the place. The boy was brought up with his father on the farm. He had little education in literature; much in the development of a hardy, vigorous constitution, in his contest with the soil and the actual world about him. He was fond of athletic exercises, an adept in running and wrestling, in which he proved himself more than a match for his village companions. The story is told of his being insulted for his rusticity, on his first visit to Boston, by a youth of twice his size, when he taught the citizen better manners by a sound flogging.
Before he was of age, he was married to the daughter of John Pope, of Salem, and presently removed with his wife to a farm in the town of Pomfret, in Eastern Connecticut. His rugged powers were, no doubt, sufficiently taxed in the ordinary labors of the field. In those days the farmer had enemies to encounter, which have since vanished from the land.
The well-known fable of AEsop, of the boy and the wolf, had then a literal application. Every child in the days of our fathers knew the story of Putnam, and the she-wolf which he dragged from its den. This and similar tales go far to make up the popular reputation of the hero, and it was as a man of the people that Putnam first appears upon the public scene.
On the breaking out of the old French war, as it was termed, at the age of thirty-seven, he drew together a band of his neighbors and reported himself with the Connecticut contingent before Crown Point. He appears to have been employed in this service under Major Rogers, the celebrated partisan "ranger," whose life he is said to have saved in an encounter with a stalwart Frenchman. Putnam conducted himself as a man of resources and valor in this mixed species of warfare, in achieving a reputation which brought him, in 1757, the commission of a major from the Connecticut Legislature. It was the year of the memorable massacre of Fort William Henry. Putnam was with the forces whose head-quarters were at the neighboring Fort Edward, under command of General Webb, and made several vigorous attempts to assist in the support of the beleaguered fortress, but his efforts were not seconded by the commander, who ungenerously left the fort a prey to Montcalm and the Indians. These adventures of Putnam displayed his personal courage, in approaching the enemy on Lake George, and subsequently in command of his Rangers in rescuing a party of his fellow-soldiers from an Indian ambuscade at Fort Edward.
The year 1758 saw Major Putnam again in the field, under the command of Abercrombie, at the scene of his former labors, in the vicinity of Lake George. In the early movements of the campaign, Putnam distinguished himself in an ambuscade, by a destructive night attack upon a party of the enemy at Wood Creek. When the main line advanced toward Ticonderoga, he was, with the lamented Lord Howe, in the front of the centre, when that much-loved officer was slain upon the march. It was the first meeting, after landing from Lake George, with the advance of the French troops. There was some skirmishing, which attracted the attention of the officers. Putnam advanced to the spot, accompanied, contrary to his dissuasions, by Lord Howe, who fell at the first fire. The party of Putnam, enraged by this disaster, fought with gallantry, and inflicted a heavy loss upon their opponents. The result of this miserably conducted expedition, however, made no amends for the loss of the gallant Howe. Two thousand men were blunderingly sacrificed before Ticonderoga, and the threatened siege was abandoned.
The life of Putnam is full of perilous encounters incident to border service against the Indians. In one of these he narrowly avoided capture by the savages on the Hudson, near Fort Miller. He escaped only by shooting the rapids with his boat, a marvellous adventure, which is said to have wakened a superstitious veneration for him in the minds of his Indian assailants.
Not long afterward, however, the barbarians had an opportunity of treating him with less respect. It was in the month of August of this year that he was engaged with a reconnoitring party in company with the partisan Rogers, near Ticonderoga. They had been employed in watching the movements of the enemy, and were on their return to Fort Edward when the attention of the French partisan officer, Molang, who was on the lookout, was attracted to them by a careless shooting-match between Rogers and a fellow British officer. A confused hand-to-hand action ensued in the woods, in the course of which Putnam, his gun missing fire, "while the muzzle was pressed against the breast of a large and well-proportioned savage," was captured and bound to a tree by that formidable personage. The English party now rallying, drove their pursuers backward, which brought the unfortunate Putnam to a central position between two fires. "Human imagination," well says Colonel Humphreys, "can hardly figure to itself a more deplorable situation." Putnam remained more than an hour deprived of all power save that of hearing and vision, as the musket-balls whizzed by his ears and a ruthless savage aimed his tomahawk repeatedly, with the infernal dexterity of a Chinese juggler, within a hair's breadth of his person. This amusement was succeeded by the attempt of a French petty-officer to put an end to his life by discharging his musket against his breast. It happily missed fire. The action was now brought to an end in favor of the Provincials; but Putnam was carried off in the retreat by his Indian captor. He was now destined to witness one of those scenes, since so well described by Cooper, of the peculiar tortures inflicted by the Indians upon their prisoners in war; but unhappily with less complacent feelings than the reader of the skilful novelist experiences, whose terrors are tempered by the delightful art of the narrator. With Putnam the spectator and the sufferer were the same. He has been bound on the march with intolerable thongs, he has almost perished under his burdens, he has been tomahawked in the face; he is now to be roasted alive. A dark forest is selected for the sacrifice; stripped naked, he is bound to a tree, and the inflammable brushwood piled around him. Savage voices sound his death-knell. Fire is applied, when a sudden shower dampens the flame, to burst forth again with renewed strength. Though securely fastened, the limbs of the victim are left some liberty to shrink from the accursed heat. He has thought his last thought of home, of wife and children, when the desperate French partisan, Molang, the commander of the savage hordes, hearing of the act, rushes upon the scene and rescues him from his tormentors. Putnam is now restored to the guardianship of the Indian chief by whom he had been captured, and from whom he was separated during these hours of agony, when he had fallen into the hands of the baser fellows of the tribe. The party now reach Ticonderoga, where Putnam is delivered to Montcalm, and thence courteously conducted by a French officer to Montreal.
There he found himself within reach of a benevolent American officer, then a prisoner in the city, Colonel Peter Schuyler, who generously ministered to his necessities, and who was instrumental in procuring his release from the French commander, when he himself was exchanged after the capture of Frontenac. Putnam, on his return home, gallantly conducted through the wilderness the sorely tried Mrs. Howe and her children, whose adventures in Indian captivity and among the French, equal the inventive pages of romance.
The next year, in Amherst's great campaign, Putnam returned to Montreal under better auspices. He was with that commander in his onward movement, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, and rendered efficient service in the passage down the St. Lawrence, by his bravery and ingenuity. When the fort of Oswegatchie was to be attacked, and two armed vessels were in the way, he proposed to silence the latter by driving wedges to hinder the movement of their rudders, and to cross the abatis of the fortification by an attack from boats, armed with long planks, which were to be let down when the vessels, protected by fascines, were placed alongside of the work. A timely surrender anticipated both of these expedients. The dying Wolfe had conquered Canada at Quebec, making victory easy elsewhere in the province. Montreal surrendered to the allied forces without a blow. Putnam, it is recorded, availed himself of the opportunity to look up the Indian chief who had taken him prisoner, and exchange civilities and hospitalities, now that the tables were turned.
We next find Putnam in charge of a Connecticut regiment, in a novel field of warfare, on the coast of Cuba, in Lord Albemarle's attack upon Havana, in 1762. He was in considerable danger in a storm, when the transport in which he embarked with his men was wrecked on a reef of the island; a landing was effected by rafts, and a fortified camp established on the shore. He was again fortunate in escaping the dangers of a climate so fatal to his countrymen. On his return home, he was engaged in service against the Indians, with the title of colonel. The war being now over, he retired to his farm, which he continued to cultivate till he was again called into the field by the stirring summons of Lexington.
In the preliminary scenes of the war, he fairly represented the feeling of the mass of his countrymen, as it was excited by the successive acts of parliamentary aggression. As a soldier of the old French war, he had learned the weakness of British officers in America, and the strength of a hardy, patriotic peasantry. "If," he said, "it required six years for the combined forces of England and her colonies to conquer such a feeble colony as Canada, it would, at least, take a very long time for England alone to overcome her own widely extended colonies, which were much stronger." Another anecdote is characteristic of the blunt farmer. Being once asked whether he did not seriously believe "that a well-appointed British army of five thousand veterans could march through the whole continent of America," he replied, "no doubt, if they behaved civilly, and paid well for everything they wanted; but--if they should attempt it in a hostile manner, though the American men were out of the question, the women, with their ladles and broomsticks, would knock them all on the head before they had got half way through."
The news of Lexington--the war message--transmitted from hand to hand till village repeated it to village, the sea to the backwoods, "found the farmer of Pomfret, two days after the conflict, like Cincinnatus, literally at the plough." He unyoked his team and hastened in his rude dress to the camp. Summoning the forces of Connecticut, he was placed at their head, with the rank of Major-General, and stood ready at Cambridge for the bloody day of Bunker's Hill. He was in service in May, in the spirited affair checking the British supplies from Noddle's Island, in Boston Harbor, and resolutely counselled the occupation of the heights of Charlestown. When the company of Prescott went forth on the night of June 16th, to their gallant work, he was with them, taking no active command, but assisting where opportunity served. He was seen in different parts of the field, but his chief exertions appear to have been expended upon the attempted fortification of Bunker's Hill, where he met the fugitives in the retreat, and conducted "such of them as would obey him," says Bancroft, to the night's encampment at Prospect Hill.
Putnam's was one of the first Congressional appointments, ten days before the battle, when the rank of Major-General was conferred upon him. He continued to serve at the siege of Boston, and when the theatre of operations was changed by the departure of the British to New York, was placed by Washington, in 1776, in command in that city until his own arrival. He employed himself during this short period, with several devices for the safety of the harbor. In August, on the landing of Howe, he was, upon the sudden illness of Greene, who had directed the fortifications, and after the arrival of the British, left in command at the battle of Long Island, and much censure has been thrown upon him for the neglect of the passes by which the American left was turned. In the actual combat there appears to have been a divided authority.
The abandonment of New York next followed, with the retreat to Westchester and the passage through the Jerseys. Putnam was then, in January, 1777, ordered to Philadelphia to make provision for its defence. In May, he was put in command of the post at the Highlands, to secure its defences, and observe, from that central position, the movements of the enemy. In the summer of this year, Sir Henry Clinton, at New York, sent up the river a flag of truce to claim one Edmund Palmer, who had been taken in the American camp, as a lieutenant in the British service. This drew forth from Putnam a reply which has been often quoted:
"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.
"P.S.--He has been accordingly executed."
In September, a portion of Putnam's command was withdrawn by Washington for the support of the army in Pennsylvania, by a peremptory order which, it is said, put an end to a plan formed by Putnam for a separate attack on the enemy at New York. Forts Montgomery and Clinton, at the entrance to the Highlands, fell into the hands of Clinton by a surprise shortly after, but the conquest of this important position was neutralized by the victory of Gates, at Saratoga. The British remained at Fort Montgomery but twenty days. Putnam seems still to have entertained some project in connection with New York, which led him to withhold troops called for by the imperious necessities of Washington. The neglect of these orders brought a pointed letter from Hamilton, and an equally significant rebuke from Washington himself. In the following spring, Putnam was relieved of his command in the Highlands by the appointment of General McDougal to the post, and was ordered to Connecticut to superintend the raising of the new levies. He was stationed the following winter at Danbury, when the famous descent of the precipice at Horse Neck occurred, one of the latest marvels of Putnam's anecdotical career. While he was on a visit to one of his outposts at Horse Neck, Governor Tryon of New York, advanced upon the place with a considerable body of troops. Putnam planted his small force on the hill, but was speedily compelled to provide for the safety of his men by a retreat, and for his own, by plunging down a formidable rocky steep by the roadside.
In 1779, he was again in the Highlands, superintending the defences then erected at West Point, one of which, the fort now in ruins, bore his name. In the winter, he visited his family in Connecticut, and as he was returning to the army, at Morristown, was struck with paralysis. His right side was enfeebled, and his active career ceased, though he enjoyed the cheerful, tranquil pursuits of age. His memory remained unimpaired. One of his amusements was to relate to his friend and military companion, Colonel Humphreys, those events of his varied life, which that officer wrought into the pleasing narrative appropriately addressed to the State Society of the Cincinnati in Connecticut, and published by their order. The dedication of the work to Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth, bears date June 4, 1788, about two years before the decease of the hero of the story. General Putnam died at Brookline, Conn., May 29, 1790, in his seventy-third year.