Israel Putnam (January 7, 1718 – May 29, 1790) was an American army general who fought with distinction at the Battle of Bunker Hill (1775) during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783). Although Putnam never quite attained the national renown of more famous heroes such as Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone, in his own time his reckless courage and fighting spirit were known far beyond Connecticut's borders through the circulation of folk legends celebrating his exploits.
Putnam was born in Salem Village (now Danvers), Massachusetts, to Joseph and Elizabeth Putnam, a prosperous farming family of Salem Witch Trials fame. His birthplace, Putnam House, still exists. In 1740, at the age of 22, he moved to Mortlake (now Pomfret) in northeastern Connecticut where land was cheaper and easier to obtain.
Strong oral tradition in northeastern Connecticut claims that, in his youth, Putnam--with the help of a group of farmers from Mortlake--killed the last wolf in Connecticut. The tradition describes Putnam crawling into a tiny den with a torch, a musket, and his feet secured with rope as to be quickly pulled out of the den. While in the den, he allegedly killed the she-wolf, making sheep farming in Mortlake safe. There is a section of the Mashamoquet Brook State Park in modern day Pomfret named "Wolf Den" (which includes the 'den' itself), as well as a "Wolf Den Road" in Brooklyn, Connecticut.
By the eve of the Revolution he had become a relatively prosperous farmer and tavern keeper, with more than a local reputation for his previous exploits. Between 1755 and 1765, Putnam participated in campaigns against the French and Indians as a member of Rogers' Rangers, as well as with regular British forces. He was promoted to captain in 1756 and to major in 1758.
As the commander of the Connecticut force in 1758, Putnam was sent to relieve Pontiac’s siege of Detroit. He was captured by the Caughnawaga Indians during a New York State campaign, and was saved from being roasted alive, after being bound to a tree, only by the last-minute intervention of a French officer.
In 1759, Putnam led a regiment in the attack on Fort Ticonderoga and later at Montreal. In 1762, he survived a shipwreck during the British expedition against Cuba that led to the capture of Havana. It is believed that Major Putnam returned to New England from Cuba with Cuban tobacco seeds that he planted in the Hartford area resulting in the development of the renowned Connecticut Wrapper agricultural product.
Putnam was outspoken against British taxation policies and around the time of the Stamp Act crisis in 1766, he was elected to the Connecticut General Assembly and was one of the founders of the Connecticut Sons of Liberty.
In the fall of 1765 Putnam threatened Thomas Fitch, the popularly elected Connecticut Governor, promising that Fitch's house "will be leveled with the dust in five minutes" if Fitch did not turn over the stamp tax paper to the Sons of Liberty. (See Colonel David Humphreys, The Life and Heroic Exploits of Israel Putnam, Major-General in the Revolutionary War (no city or date, J. Miller, early 19th century), page 68.)
The American Revolution
On April 20 1775, when Putnam received news of the Battle of Lexington that started the day before, he left his plow in the field and rode 100 miles in 8 hours, reaching Cambridge the next day, to offer his services to the Patriot cause. He joined the Continental army and was appointed colonel of the 3rd Connecticut Regiment and subsequently, brigadier of the Connecticut militia.
Shortly after the Battle of Lexington, Putnam led the Connecticut militia to Boston and was named major general, making him second in rank to his Chief in the Continental Army. He was one of the primary figures at the Battle of Bunker Hill, both in its planning and on the battlefield. During that battle Putnam may have ordered his troops "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes" (It is debated whether Putnam or Col. William Prescott uttered these words). This command has since become one of the American Revolution's more memorable quotes. This order was important, because his troops were low on ammunition. He progressed to overall command of the American forces in New York until the arrival of the newly-named commander-in-chief, General George Washington, on April 13 1776.
The Battle of Bunker Hill must count as the greatest achievement in Putnam’s life, for thereafter, his fortunes took a downturn at Battle of Long Island (1776), where he was forced to effect a hasty retreat. Washington did not blame Putnam for this failure as some in the Second Continental Congress did. However, Washington reassessed the abilities of his general and assigned him to recruiting activities.
In 1777 Putnam received another, though lesser, military command in the Hudson Highlands. He abandoned Fort Montgomery and Fort Clinton to the British, and was brought before a court of inquiry for those actions. However, he was exonerated of any wrongdoing. During the winter of 1778-1779, Putnam and his troops were encamped at the present-day site of the Putnam Memorial State Park in Redding, Connecticut. In December 1779, Putnam suffered a paralyzing stroke, which ended his military service.
Putnam died in Brooklyn, Connecticut in 1790, and was buried in an above-ground tomb in Brooklyn's South Cemetery. Within a few years, however, so many people visited Putnam's tomb that the badly-mutilated marble marker was removed for safe keeping to the Connecticut State Capitol in Hartford. In 1888, Putnam's remains were removed from the Brooklyn cemetery and placed in a sarcophagus built into the foundation of a monument, newly erected on a plot of ground near the Brooklyn town green.
In the early days of the war, Putnam was regarded by Washington as one of America's most valuable military assets, but this view was probably based primarily upon earlier exploits from his colorful past. In the War for Independence, however, Putnam proved to be incapable of commanding complex campaigns, which sharply reduced his value to the cause.
Today there are many places named for Israel Putnam, including as many as eight Putnam Counties across the United States and a elementary school located in Brooklyn, New York. There is also an East Putnam Avenue in Greenwich, Connecticut which is named after the path in which he retreated from British forces. Along East Putnam Avenue lies Putnam's cottage an eighteenth century residence that may have served as a tavern at the time of Putnam's escape.
Mural "The Life and Times of General Israel Putnam of Connecticut"
Recently a mural depicting General Putnam was to be returned to the newly renovated Hamilton Avenue School in Greenwich, CT. An article of September 28, 2006, entitled "Mural deemed too violent for school", explains the mural's reception:
After a debate that divided members largely along the lines of generation and gender, the Chickahominy Neighborhood Association voted unanimously yesterday not to bring a controversial Revolutionary War mural back to Hamilton Avenue School because its content is too violent.*
Instead, the group agreed to leave the mural, "The Life and Times of General Israel Putnam of Connecticut," at its current location at Greenwich Library.
Painted by James Daughtery of Weston as part of the Works Progress Administration program in 1935, the mural depicts Putnam, Greenwich's war hero, aiming his musket at snarling wolves while all around him Native Americans hurl tomahawks and men armed with guns and knives tussle.
It hung high in the gymnasium of Hamilton Avenue School for nearly 60 years, often knocked by errant basketballs, before it was removed in 1998 and restored with $54,145 donated by the Ruth W. Brown Foundation. It is located in Maine.
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- Israel Putnam Website
- Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution
- The Massachusetts Historical Society
- Israel Putnam from u-s-history.com
- Israel Putnam at Curbstone
- Quotes from the American Revolution
- Putnam Cottage Historic House Museum
- Israel Putnam (1718-1790) at Find A Grave