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 exploits as a young man and service in the French and Indian War.
Putnam was born on January 7, 1718, in the village of Salem, Massachusetts. His parents were Joseph Putnam and Elizabeth Porter, and they were Puritans. He was the 10th of their 11 children. Growing up, the family raised sheep, goats, and oxen on their farm. Like many colonial children, he received a simple education.
Putnam Family and the Salem Witch Trials
Joseph Putnam and his father-in-law, Israel Porter, played a small part in the Salem Witch Trials. After Rebecca Nurse was accused of being a witch 39 members of the community signed a petition that defended her character. Nurse was initially acquitted of the charge, but the verdict was overturned and she was hanged on July 19, 1692.
Move to Pomfret
He married Hannah Pope in 1739, and their first year of marriage was quite eventful. Their first child, Daniel, was born. Putnam also partnered with his brother-in-law to buy more than 500 acres of cheap land in Mortlake Manor, a rural area between the villages of Pomfret and Brooklyn in Connecticut.
He became a successful farmer and within two years he bought out his brother-in-law and became the sole owner of the Putnam Farm. He was well-liked, which allowed him to become involved in local politics in Pomfret. He prospered as a farmer and was well known for the fruit he grew, including winter apples and the sheep and goats he raised. He and Hannah had 10 children.
Putnam and the Wolf
Early on, Putnam gained a reputation for bravery and a willingness to take action when others would not.
In the early part of 1743, a wolf was raiding farms and snatching animals from the pastures of Putnam and his neighbors. The wolf’s tracks were recognizable, because it only had three toes on one foot, after losing one in a trap. However, the wolf was elusive.
Finally, after a light snow, the wolf’s tracks were visible long enough for the farmers to track it. They tracked the wolf into the woods and found it hiding in a cave. They tried to smoke it out but were unsuccessful.
Putnam grew impatient and decided to go in after the wolf. He grabbed a torch, tied a rope around his legs, and told the men with him to use it to pull him out, then he crawled into the cave. He moved cautiously in the dark and finally found the wolf. It growled at him and the men heard the noise, panicked, and pulled him out. Putnam went back in and took a musket with him. When he came upon the wolf, he fired and was pulled out of the cave again. After the smoke cleared, he went back in for the third time and found the wolf was dead. He was pulled out of the cave one last time and dragged the wolf with him.
Like many early American heroes, his actual exploits were most likely embellished to the point of legend, but it still made people see him as a courageous leader.
French and Indian War
When the French and Indian War broke out, the colony of Connecticut organized a provincial unit to help support the British army. Putnam was promoted to the rank of captain. He was a natural leader and likable, which allowed him to successfully recruit men for his regiment.
Adventures with Rogers’ Rangers
In 1755, he was introduced to Major Robert Rogers and he joined up with his outfit, known as Rogers’ Rangers. He fought with Rogers in the battles around Lake George and Lake Champlain. His time with Rogers gave him a reputation as a skilled frontier fighter.
Bravery at Fort Edward
In 1758, Putnam was at Fort Edward, on the south end of Lake Champlain, when an incident occurred that added to his legend. A fire broke out in the fort, near the magazine, where the ammunition was kept. Putnam knew if the fire reached the ammunition it would explode and do serious damage to the fort. Putnam braved the flames and poured water on the fire. He saved the fort and suffered serious burns to his hands and face.
Captured By Indians
Rogers and his men were camped near Fort Ann. They had been out looking for a French raiding party that had attacked a British supply train. On the morning of August 8, 1758, Rogers and one of his men — some say it was Putnam — decided to fire on a target in the woods. The French party of roughly 400 men, including Caughnawaga Mohawk warriors, heard the shot and set up an ambush near the fort.
The strength of Rogers’ force was around 700. Rogers and his men broke camp and Putnam led the advance force. Rogers led the rear. They were headed to Fort Edward.
After a brief march, the French attacked Putnam’s column. During the fighting, one of the Mohawk warriors grabbed Putnam and tied him to a tree. Rogers’ forces pushed the enemy back and the French commander, Joseph Marin, ordered his men to withdraw, and they took Putnam with them. The British forces resumed their march to Fort Edward.
The Mohawk treated Putnam roughly, and one struck him in the left cheek with a tomahawk, which left a scar. They decided to burn him alive, so they stripped him of his clothes and tied him to a tree. They piled wood and brush around him and set it on fire, but it started raining and dampened the fire. Putnam’s captors stoked it again and it crept closer to him.
However, Marin arrived on the scene and spared Putnam. He freed Putnam and sent him as a prisoner to Ticonderoga. From there, Putnam was sent to Montreal. He returned to his Connecticut unit after he was involved in a prisoner exchange and eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Construction of Crown Point
Putnam was at Fort Carillon in 1759, at the Battle of Ticonderoga. Amherst and his forces took the fort without much resistance from the French. The British occupied it, and Amherst had a new fort built nearby at Crown Point. Putnam oversaw much of the construction of the fort at Crown Point, which helped the British control the Hudson River Valley and protect the colonies from invasions from Canada.
Action Near Fort Oswegatchie
In 1760, the British planned a three-pronged attack that was designed to take Canada from the French. General Amherst and his forces were near Fort Oswegatchie but their advance was blocked by two schooners on the St. Lawrence River.
Putnam volunteered to lead an expedition to capture the ships, which Amherst approved. Putnam and six men undertook a night mission where they rowed on flatboats out to the ships and sabotaged them.
The next morning, the ships were stranded on the beach and surrendered to the British. The fort soon followed suit. The incident was part of the chain of events that eventually led Montreal to capitulate to Amherst.
In 1762, he was part of the expedition that was sent to Cuba to capture Havana. The ship he was on was wrecked off the coast of Cuba. He was one of the few members of his force that survived.
Sons of Liberty
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.
Boston Port Act
When the seaport in Boston was closed by the Boston Port Act in 1774, Putnam drove a herd of sheep from Connecticut to Massachusetts to help provide food for the residents of the city.
Siege of Boston
Legend has it that Putnam was working in his field when he found out the British had attacked the militia in Lexington. He unhitched his plow and climbed up 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 the Siege of Boston.
The Battle of Bunker Hill
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.
Command in New York City
In March 1776, Putnam was given command of some of the American forces in New York City. It was during this time that his ability to lead started to come into question. Putnam’s lack of knowledge about the details of the terrain and his inexperience in commanding an army showed. His forces were badly beaten by the British under the command of General William Howe at the Battle of Long Island.
There was no question that Putnam was a courageous, bold leader, however, he lacked the skills and experience necessary for someone of the rank of major general. Some members of Congress blamed Putnam for the failure in New York. Washington did not, but he did lose confidence in him as a field commander in the Continental Army.
Command in Philadelphia
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. Washington simply could not depend on him to execute crucial military actions that were vital to the early days of the new nation.
End of Military Career
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. He retired to his farm and continued to be involved in the affairs of Pomfret.
Putnam passed away on May 29, 1790, after a two-day illness. He was in Brooklyn, Connecticut at the time. He was originally buried in a tomb in the South Cemetery of Brooklyn, but frequent visitors had a habit of chipping pieces off his headstone. A new tomb was built in the center of town and his remains were moved there in 1888.
Israel Putnam was important because of his participation in the French and Indian War and the early days as a military officer in the War for Independence. He also opposed British tax laws, like the Stamp Act, and supported Boston in a time of crisis after the Coercive Acts were passed.
Putnam’s legacy is kept alive in many places on the east coast and in the Ohio Valley.
Putnam Memorial State Park in Redding, Connecticut preserves the place where Putnam and his men spent the winter of 1778–79. The park is also referred to as “Connecticut’s Valley Forge.”
The wolf’s den where Putnam performed his heroic act of killing the wolf — which was supposedly the last wolf in Connecticut — is part of Mashamoquet Brook State Park and has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service.
Two statues honor his memory. One is at Bushnell Park in Hartford, Connecticut and the other is at the center of town in Brooklyn, Connecticut, and marks his final resting place.
Putnam, Connecticut, and Putnam, New York are named after him.
Multiple counties are named after him, including Putnam County in Ohio. Putnam’s cousin, Rufus, was one of the early settlers in the territory that would become Ohio and helped establish Marietta, the first permanent settlement made by the new United States in the Northwest Territory.
- Born in Salem, Massachusetts on January 7, 1718.
- Died in Brooklyn, Connecticut on May 29, 1790.
- His parents were Joseph Putnam and Elizabeth Porter.
- Had 10 children with his first wife, Hannah.
- Hannah died in 1765 and he married Deborah Lothrop in 1767.
- 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.