General Israel Putnam: Reputation Revisited

General Israel Putnam (Library of Congress).

Entering the American Revolution, Israel Putnam enjoyed an esteemed reputation as a courageous warrior and an accomplished military officer. Putnam earned this repute through over ten years of military experience including serving in the French and Indian War and with the Connecticut militia. During French and Indian War, he rose from a captain to a colonel in the Connecticut provincial ranks and fought alongside the famed Robert Rogers in battles around Lakes George and Champlain. Putnam effectively led many small unit clashes, survived Native American captivity and returned home with a reputation for battlefield valor and personal courage.

In the initial formation of the Continental Army in 1775, Congress appointed Putnam as one of four major generals to serve under George Washington. The achievements and failures of the other three major generals, Artemas Ward (Massachusetts), Charles Lee (Virginia) and Philip Schuyler (New York) were generally agreed upon by their contemporaries and consistently viewed by historians. However, Israel Putnam is an enigma, with both numerous contemporary proponents and detractors and differing historian assessments of his generalship and character.  Even some biographers present two sides:  a fierce partisan warrior but weak general.[1] How can a senior general and highly experienced military leader with such a strong reputation entering the Revolution, end up with a checkered reputation and largely be ignored today?

Early Life

Born in 1718, Putnam grew up on a Salem, Massachusetts farm and received only the basics of a formal education. In 1739, Putnam purchased 514 acres between the villages of Pomfret and Brooklyn in rural Connecticut in partnership with this brother-in-law. Well respected by his neighbors, he became a community leader and enjoyed success as a farmer. It was on the Connecticut frontier, where predators and dangers abounded, that Putnam’s reputation for courage first emerged. Neighbors recounted a fabled story of Putnam tracking down a wolf that had killed seventy sheep.  Cornering the wolf, Putnam crawled on his belly into its den to kill the dangerous predator.  Some historians believe that Putnam’s feat was not as daring as stated but greatly enhanced by latter historians to burnish Putnam’s heroic reputation.[2] Whether or not embellished, the wolf-killing story created the impression among frontier residents that Putnam was a man of fortitude and courage.[3]

In 1755, Connecticut formed a provincial unit to assist the British army against the French in the French and Indian War and appointed Putnam to lead a company. Serving alongside a ranger unit led by Robert Rogers, the combined New Hampshire/Connecticut units conducted dangerous scouting missions and raids on French outposts. On one foray, Rogers and Putnam stopped to have a playful shooting contest. Unfortunately, the gunfire attracted a Native American raiding party who attacked and captured Putnam. Ironically, this careless episode enhanced Putnam’s reputation as he survived two Native American attempts to burn him at the stake; first when a rainstorm intervened and second when a French officer came to his rescue. After an officer exchange, Putnam returned to combat with the Connecticut provincial unit. By war’s end, Putnam rose to the rank of Colonel and returned to Connecticut as a celebrated warrior.  His close association with Rogers’ ranger unit further enhanced the public’s view of his war service.

Revolutionary War Experiences

After the hostilities at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, Putnam led his militia unit to the aid of Massachusetts, demonstrating his early support for independence from Britain. During the subsequent siege of Boston, Putnam participated in a notable skirmish near Noddle’s and Hog Islands designed to deny the British forage for their horses.  While the extent and impact of his participation is debated,[4] Putnam garnered further acclaim for his warrior nature and heroism under fire.

However, the most disputed event in Putnam’s military career is his participation in the battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. This battle occurred before the formation of the Continental Army, and the colonial militia units lacked effective, coordinated command and control. Serving as a general in the Connecticut militia, Putnam was the most senior military officer on the battlefield but exercised little command over the Massachusetts forces under Col. William Prescott and the New Hampshire forces under Col. John Stark. Subsequently, battle participants and historians have disputed Putnam’s actions and overall effectiveness. During the retreat, Col. Prescott angrily questioned why Putnam did not send ammunition and reinforcements from the American position in the rear, the actual Bunker Hill, to where the fighting was taking place on Breed’s Hill. And in a politically motivated account, Capt. (later Gen.) Henry Dearborn excoriated Putnam’s performance, all but calling him a coward.[5]

On the positive side, former aide Col. David Humphreys’ battle account depicted Putnam riding his horse from Charlestown Neck to Bunker Hill to Breed’s Hill issuing orders and rallying the troops in a heroic fashion. In the most recent battle account, Nathaniel Philbrick characterizes Putnam’s role as moving from distraction to distraction with ineffective command of the thousand militia soldiers milling behind the lines at Bunker Hill.[6] Contrary to some early accounts and not in dispute today is that Putnam did not issue the famous Bunker Hill order “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes”.[7]

No matter his exact role at Bunker Hill, the Continental Congress named Israel Putnam as one of the initial four Continental Army major generals serving under George Washington. Controversy ensued as Congress raised Putnam’s rank over two Connecticut officers holding more senior militia positions, David Wooster and Joseph Spencer.[8] Connecticut Congressman Roger Sherman reported to Wooster that Putnam’s reputation after the skirmish at Noddle’s and Hog Islands convinced Congress of Putnam’s generalship abilities.[9] As a result of this Congressional slight, Spencer left his command at the siege of Boston in a huff. However, Congress soon commissioned both Wooster and Spencer as brigadier generals, which ended the controversy but not the animosity towards Putnam. George Washington was not pleased with Congress creating discord within the senior officer corps.[10]

Controversy continued to follow Putnam. At the disastrous August 27, 1776 Battle of Long Island, critics blamed Putnam for leaving critical roads and passes unguarded, opening up the Patriot army to a decisive surprise flanking maneuver.[11] There is even controversy as to who was in charge – Gen. John Sullivan or Putnam.  In the end Washington did not blame Putnam for the devastating loss.

In the summer of 1777, Washington entrusted Putnam with an important independent command to protect the strategically vital Hudson Highlands that guarded river crossings critical to moving supplies and communications between New England and the southern states. Patriot Forts Clinton and Montgomery as well as artillery batteries on Constitution Island guarded the Hudson River to prevent British waterborne passage to Albany and a junction with the invading Gen. John Burgoyne from Canada. In October 1777 with three thousand troops, Sir Henry Clinton utterly befuddled Putnam’s undermanned defenses. Clinton faked invasion on the east side of the river and then landed his main army below Forts Clinton and Montgomery and executed a march to attack the forts landward from the west. Clinton quickly overran the forts before Putnam could send reinforcements. To preserve his forces, Putnam retreated to the hills east of the river and left valuable stores in the Continental Village to be destroyed by the British.

While Putnam had only a small force to cover multiple strategic points and the British firmly controlled the river, detractors heavily criticized his judgment and strategic battlefield management. New York Governor Clinton lobbied Washington and Congress to replace Putnam. Yielding to this pressure, Washington sent Gen. Alexander McDougal to relieve Putnam and ordered a court martial to determine his culpability for the defeat.

Assigning Putnam to a low-profile role, in April 1778 Washington ordered him to his home state of Connecticut on a recruiting mission. When General McDougal handed down an exonerating verdict, Washington reassigned Putnam to a main army command under his direct supervision, and never again would Putnam hold an independent command. Putnam’s last notable military exploit came in February 1779. It was a close encounter with a raiding British unit and a mad dash down a steep Greenwich, Connecticut slope to freedom. Subsequent biographers have described his horse ride as a fearless descent down a precipitous hill that the timid British were unwilling to follow. However daring, this last military episode has been used to further establish Putnam as a fearless and courageous warrior. In December 1779, on a road between military camps, Putnam was stricken by a paralysis of his right side.  While the stroke effectively ended his military career, Putnam regained a measure of health and mobility before passing on May 29, 1790.

Contemporaries’ views of Putnam

As the Revolutionary War wound down, Washington wrote a laudatory letter to Putnam thanking him for his service.[12] Descendants point to this letter as proof of Putnam’s exemplary Revolutionary contributions. Henry Laurens, a member of the Continental Congress from South Carolina, appears to have been of the same mind in writing Lafayette on October 10, 1777 about Putnam’s ability to protect the Hudson Highlands.

“He is a brave Officer in the field, cautious & timid only upon paper therefore I am not diffident of his success”[13]

On the other hand, Lafayette penned a harsh evaluation of Putnam’s later loss of the Hudson Highlands, writing that the British,

“… were hardly bothered by old Putnam, the man who, when the troubles first began, had left his plow and given the army more zeal than talent”[14]

In addition, there are curious signs that Putnam was not always firmly committed to American independence. In December 1776, the British Middlesex Journal reported about Putnam:

 “… no man in either army will do his duty with greater bravery in the field.  He never was a favorer of American Independence.”[15]

In the fall of 1777, British spymaster and provincial officer Col. Beverly Robinson, who also attempted to turn Ethan Allen, may have sought to entice Putnam to defect to the British cause. Under the pretext of looking after the status of his property and under a flag of truce, Robinson visited his home that also served as Putnam’s headquarters   Robinson relayed a turncoat offer to Putnam’s wife and communicated with Putnam’s son. With Burgoyne’s surrender, these communications ceased.[16]

Further, some contemporaries, especially New Yorkers, viewed Putnam as too easy on Loyalists. He allowed Loyalist and Patriot newspapers to pass between lines, provided Tories with safe passage, and well-treated captured wounded British soldiers. These actions became issues at his court martial as well as a charge that he misappropriated army funds. However, none of these accusations were proved. And clearly demonstrating that he prosecuted Tories to the fullest extent, Putnam hanged British spy Edmund Parker with little remorse.[17]

Lastly, in a curious May 14, 1783 letter to American loyalist Beverly Robinson, Putnam seemed to waiver in his support of the Revolution.

“There was a time when I firmly believed that a separation from the mother country would be the greatest blessing to this. But alas! Experience – too late experience – has convinced me, as well as thousands of others, how very erroneous this opinion was.”[18]

Whether or not this letter conclusively proves that Putnam had second thoughts, neither contemporaries nor subsequent historians have referenced it.

Historical Assessment of Putnam’s Military Contributions

Historians in the first half of the nineteenth century hotly debated the effectiveness of Putnam’s military career.[19] First to print, David Humphrey, an officer on Putnam’s staff, published a flattering 1788 biography. The first part of Humphrey’s biography was complied with the assistance of Dr. Albigence Waldo, a former army surgeon who interviewed Putnam about his French and Indian War experiences. Also Humphrey interviewed Putnam to corroborate Waldo and to fill in details about his Revolutionary War experiences. Humphrey’s text remained the authoritative biographical source until the emergence of a political fight thirty years later.

During the 1818 election campaign, Henry Dearborn, a candidate for governor of Massachusetts and participant in the Battle of Bunker Hill, wrote an essay challenging Putnam’s leadership role and labeling him as incompetent and a coward. This attack sparked rebuttals from Putnam’s son and other supporters.  In the end, Dearborn’s attack on Putnam’s character did not help him politically, and he was defeated. However, the controversy over Putnam’s reputation continued to simmer.

In an 1843 book, John Fellows penned another attempt to debunk or downplay Putnam’s Revolutionary War contributions as well as almost all of his pre-Revolutionary War accomplishments. Fellows, a member of the Massachusetts militia who served at Roxbury, Massachusetts during the Battle of Bunker Hill, was particularly critical of Putnam’s warrior reputation and ability to command men under combat conditions.[20] In the mid-twentieth century, Howard Parker Moore espoused these same themes in his biography of Gen. John Stark who served with Putnam in many battles in the French and Indian War as well as Bunker Hill. Stark was reputed to be highly critical of Putnam’s battlefield performance at Bunker Hill, stating that with proper generalship the Patriots could have thoroughly defeated the British.[21]

In the next seventy years after the Fellows book, three biographers chronicled Putnam’s life.  Of these, William Livingston’s biography written in 1901 is the most comprehensive and contains the highest supporting scholarship. Siding with Humphrey and Putnam’s family, Livingston generally provides a positive view of Putnam’s Revolutionary war performance and takes the side of Putnam and his family in the Dearborn-Fellows controversies. The four subsequent twentieth century biographies are written principally for young adults, relying mostly on secondary sources and containing fictionalized narratives. The last of these romanticized accounts was published in 1967.

Another measure of Putnam’s reputation is the view of his reputation by contemporaries and the succeeding generation. The people of Connecticut, New York and numerous other states memorialized Putnam’s reputation by naming counties, towns and geographical features after him. Connecticut citizens named a town after him, raised statues in prominent sites and placed his grave stone in the state capitol. Finally, the Greenwich, Connecticut scene of his fabled, madcap ride evading the British is now referred to as Putnam Hill.

Although highly critical during the war, New Yorkers also commemorated Putnam by naming a subdivided a portion of Dutchess County and town in northern New York after him. In addition, seven other states honored Putnam’s service by dubbing counties for him. By comparison, among the three other initial Major Generals, only Philip Schuyler had three counties named after him; Artemas Ward and Charles Lee had none.

Conclusions

Having served throughout the French and Indian War and the first four years of the Revolution, no detractor can dispute Putnam’s personal commitment to military service. He willingly served in over ten years of military campaigns and numerous times risked his life in close-quarters combat.

His military strengths were as a small unit commander, rallying troops with his martial spirit and setting an example of courage under fire. However, he was less effective in exercising large-scale battlefield command and control and demonstrated limits in his strategic military thinking and brigade level decision-making. Further, he acted rashly, such as parading a small force before the British ships at Charlestown and advocating an attack on New York City with only a few troops from his Hudson Highlands command.

Personally, Putnam exhibited courage and fortitude on many battlefields. However, he could not meld his bold, aggressive nature with sufficient political skills to garner widespread contemporary support from fellow military officers and political leaders. As to his patriotism, he was not a traitor and the hearsay aspersions on his wartime loyalties are unfounded. However, unlike many other Continental Army officers, he did not exhibit personal enmity toward Loyalists but likely expressed some political frustrations with several of them.

While receiving a checkered reputation from nineteenth century historians and being relatively unknown today, Putnam joined the rebellion at its earliest juncture, assumed senior leadership responsibilities and rallied his troops when necessary. Further, in battles against greater numbers and better-trained forces, he preserved his commands to fight another day. Finally, well-liked by his troops, Putnam “rose to the occasion” to competently serve his country in times of crises. And his countrymen memorialized his contributions with numerous place-names in nine states.

 

[1] For an example of how historians regard Israel Putnam see William M. Welsch, “The Ten Worst Continental Army Generals”, Journal of the American Revolution, October 10, 2013, https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/10/10-worst-continental-army-generals/ , accessed May 21, 2016

[2] John Fellows, The Veil Removed; or, Reflections on David Humphrey’s Essay on the Life of Israel Putnam (New York:  James D. Lockwood, 1843).

[3] The purported site of the wolf den is preserved and can be visited. For directions, see http://www.ct.gov/deep/cwp/view.asp?a=2716&q=325238&deepNav_GID=1650

[4] Fellows, The Veil Removed, 99-164.

[5] Henry Dearborn, “An Account of the Battle of Bunker Hill with De Berniere’s map corrected by General Dearborn,” Portfolio, March 1818. For background on Dearborn’s political motivations see Elizabeth M. Covart, “Bunker Hill Monument and Memory,” Journal of the American Revolution, June 28, 2013, https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/06/monuments-and-memory-the-battle-of-bunker-hill-debate/, accessed May 22, 2016.

[6] Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill:  A City, A Siege, A Revolution (New York:  Viking, 2013), 212-214.

[7] That is if such an order was really issued in this form.

[8] On April 28, 1775 the Connecticut legislature appointed David Wooster major general and Joseph Spencer 1st brigadier general for six regiments.  See “Connecticut Units in the Revolutionary War,” http://www.revolutionarywar101.com/american-units/ct/ accessed June 16, 2016.

[9] Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, Volume 1 (Washington, DC:  Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1921), 142.

[10] W. W. Abbot, ed., The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary Series Volume 1 June-September 1775 (Charlottesville:  University of Virginia Press, 1985), 89.

[11] Linda Davis Reno, The Maryland 400 in the Battle of Long Island, 1776 (Jefferson, NC and London:  McFarland & Co., 2008), 18-19.

[12] George Washington to Israel Putnam, June 2, 1783, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-11360, accessed June 15, 2016.

[13] Stanley J. Idzerda, Ed., Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution:  Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790 (Ithaca and London:  Cornell University Press, 1977), 1:120.

[14] Idzerda, Lafayette, 1:99.

[15] Middlesex Journal, December 21, 1776, quoted in Frank Moore, ed., The Diary of the American Revolution 1775-1781 (New York:  Washington Square Press, 1967), 176-9.

[16] For information on British attempts to turn Putnam see, Carl Van Doren, Secret History of the American Revolution (New York: Viking Press, 1941), 3-6 and Dave Richard Palmer, The River and the Rock:  The History of Fortress West Point, 1775-1783 (New York:  Hippocrene Books, 1969), 125-6.

[17] In a curt letter to Sir Henry Clinton, Putnam wrote:

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 order to depart immediately

Israel Putnam

P.S. He has been accordingly executed

[18] Original letter is in possession of the Robinson family.  Quoted from C. W. Robinson, Life of Sir John Beverly Robinson (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1904), 14.

[19] For an overview of the General Israel Putnam historiography, see https://geneprock.com/2016/06/24/general-israel-putnam-a-historiography/

[20] See www.fold3.com for pension application dated July 18, 1838.  John Fellows should not be confused with his uncle Gen. John Fellows.  For a genealogy of the Fellows family see, http://www.genealogy.com/ftm/f/e/l/Mark-D-Fellows/GENE-0021.html

[21] Moore quotes a conversation between Stark and a Dr. Bentley on May 10, 1810: “He was a poltroon.  Had he done his duty, he would have decided the fate of his country in the first action.” Howard Parker Moore, A Life of General John Stark of New Hampshire (New York:  Published by Howard Parker Moore, 1949), 151.

 

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4 Comments

  • Gene, thanks for a detailed review of Putnam’s military career. In research for my book I found only a few references to his military intelligence efforts. However, I did find that in Connecticut he was considered a leader of the Sons of Liberty during its maturation period into a functioning political network. So, in this pre-warfare period of the political revolution I think we can assume he was in favor of more independent and local government, if not true independence from the mother country.

    • Ken, I concur with you that Putnam actively supported the pre-war rebellion against the British. Putnam participated in providing sheep and other food stuffs to the people of Boston after Its port was closed. And he answered the call to arms in the Powder Alarm demonstrating his early commitment to defending against British army transgressions.

      I am looking forward to your book amend learning more about your thesis!

  • Gene – thank you for sharing this with me. It was great seeing you in NYC this past week and too bad we didn’t have time to chat a bit more history over dinner. Interesting read above on someone I definitely did not know too much about. Appreciate the insight!

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