Israel Putnam was a military veteran who was affectionately known as “Old Put.” He served bravely at the Battle of Bunker Hill, but fell out of favor with George Washington after he failed against British forces in New York and Philadelphia.
Israel Putnam was well-known prior to the start of the Revolutionary War, due to his service in the French and Indian War. He joined the militia in 1762, at the rank of colonel, and served in Rogers’ Rangers.
He was active in politics in Pomfret, Connecticut, having been elected as a selectman and as a representative to the Connecticut general assembly. In the early part of the 1770s, he joined the Sons of Liberty.
When the seaport in Boston was closed by the Boston Port Act in 1774, Putnam drove a herd of cattle from Connecticut to Massachusetts to help provide food for the residents of the city.
Legend has it that Putnam was plowing in his field when he found out the British had attacked the militia in Lexington. He unhitched his plow and got on his horse. He told the people working with him in the field to notify the local militia that he was headed to Boston and they were to meet him there. Then he galloped off to Boston where he joined thousands of militia who came from all over to keep the British pinned up in the city.
In June 1775, the British, led by Governor Thomas Gage, devised a plan to mount an offensive against the American militia forces. The plan included taking control of the high ground around Boston, starting with Dorchester Heights, south of the city.
When the Americans found out about the plan, they decided to occupy the high ground of Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill on the Charlestown Peninsula, which was north of the city.
The Americans set their plan in motion on the night of June 16. Putnam was in charge of gathering supplies for the men to use to build a small fort. After some deliberation, the Americans decided to build their primary fortification on Breed’s Hill.
The next morning, British warships anchored in Boston Harbor saw the Americans had fortified the hill and began firing at them. Meanwhile, the Americans started building a second fortification on Bunker Hill, which was under the supervision of Putnam.
Governor Gage met with his generals and they decided to send troops to attack the American fortifications. The British arrived in the afternoon and launched two assaults, but were pushed back both times.
Another popular legend about the Revolutionary War has to do with the Battle of Bunker Hill. The Americans were low on ammunition and supplies, and one of the commanders supposedly ordered the men to hold their fire until they saw “the whites of their eyes.” Some say those words were spoken by Putnam himself.
When the British made a third assault, they overwhelmed the Americans, forcing them to retreat. Although the British occupied the high ground on Dorchester Heights, they suffered heavy casualties.
Putnam tried to rally the men under his command to meet another British assault, but instead, he covered the retreat of the militia as they fled Breed’s Hill. Two days after Bunker Hill, he was promoted to Major General in the Continental Army for his actions during the battle.
In March 1776, Putnam was given command of some of the American forces in New York City. Unfortunately, his forces were badly beaten by the British under the command of General William Howe at the Battle of Long Island.
After the debacle in New York, Putnam was sent to Philadelphia, where he was supposed to be in charge of the Hudson Highlands. Again, he failed to perform against British forces, this time under the command of General Henry Clinton. Clinton successfully executed an expedition against Putnam that allowed the British to capture Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery and burn the town of Kingston.
Putnam was charged with negligence and court-martialed. Although he was not found guilty, General Washington decided he could not be given another field command.
Putnam was on leave from military duty in December 1779 when he suffered a stroke. The stroke left him partially paralyzed and he was unable to continue his military service.
- Born in Salem, Massachusetts.
- Died in Brooklyn, Connecticut.
- Had 10 children with his first wife, Hannah.
- Fought in the French and Indian War, Pontiac’s War, and the American Revolutionary War.
- Served in Robert Rogers’ Rangers and earned a reputation as a skilled frontier fighter.
- Captured by Indians in August 1758 and rescued as he was about to be burnt at the stake.
- Served under Jeffrey Amherst and marched from Oswego to Montreal in 1759.
- Captured two enemy ships while defending Oswegatchie.
- Participated in the successful assault on Havana, Cuba in 1762.
- Commanded five companies under the command of John Bradstreet during Pontiac’s War.
- Explored the Mississippi River with Phineas Lyman.