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General Putnam

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol I. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

November 3. –There is a general curiosity in mankind to inquire into the character of those who arrive at stations of high trust and dignity. In the dreadful times of public commotion and civil discord, this laudable passion is most strongly excited. To satisfy this in part, an old friend of General Putnam’s gives the following authentic account of that officer:

The general’s paternal state consisted of a small farm in the colony of Connecticut, by the diligent cultivation of which, he supported himself till he entered the colony’s service, during the late French war in America. The stories that have been repeatedly told, of his being a blacksmith and carpenter, are the contradictory effusions of ignorance and falsehood. When very young, he gave a proof of early courage, in following a fox that had plundered the poultry-yard into its den, creeping on his hands and knees, where, discovering it by the brightness of its own eyes, he destroyed it. This is not a very important fact, but it is a real one, well known to the people of Pomfret.

When a major of the rangers, in the year 1758, leading the van of a scouting party, he was overpowered and taken by a body of five hundred Indians and Canadians. During the latter part of the engagement, he was tied to a tree, and exposed to the fire of his own men. At last the enemy being forced to retreat, an Indian, in passing, struck him with the butt end of his musket, intending to kill him, but happened only to break one of his jaw-bones; immediately after a Canadian came up, cut the straps that fastened him to the tree, and led him off. He was carried to Ticonderoga, and soon after exchanged. A romantic account of this skirmish was given in the public prints some months ago, in which it was said that he had received a multitude of wounds, beside being scalped. All this is fiction; the blow above mentioned was the only one he received in that action.

In the colony service he considerably increased his estate. He has now a large, well-cultivated farm, and generally represents the town of Pomfret, in the colony assembly.

When the discontents in New England rose very high, in 1775, he was very much caressed by the American party; and, on a false rumor spreading through the country, of the King’s troops having massacred five hundred inhabitants of Boston, he headed a large party of volunteers, in Connecticut, and marched to the relief of Boston, but soon returned home, on that intelligence being contradicted.

After the action at Concord, in April, 1775, he joined the Massachusetts troops, commanded by Warren.1 He was then a colonel in rank. On June seventeenth, at one o’clock in the morning, they took possession of Bunker’s Hill, opposite to Boston, where in a few hours they threw up a redoubt and intrenchment. When he saw the British troops embarking to attack them, he advised Warren, who commanded in chief, to retreat, and founded his opinion on the following reasons: — “That he had often served with the King’s troops; that although one-half or two-thirds of them should be killed, yet those that remained would certainly storm their works; that the moment the intrenchment was mounted, his countrymen, whom he knew very well, would run; for though they would fight as long as any troops whatever, while under cover, yet they would never stand an open engagement, and the push of the bayonet; that the spirit of veteran troops ought not to be expected from them, who were raw men, badly disciplined, and badly armed; that it would be highly injudicious to put them, at first, to so severe a trial, as the check they would in all probability receive, would tend greatly to dishearten them, and have a very bad effect on all their future operations.”

This salutary advice was rejected by Warren, who was very opinionated, addicted to liquor, and in haste to distinguish himself, this being the very first morning of his apprenticeship in the art of war. He replied, “That they had been branded as cowards, but would show the military they could fight as well as themselves,” and ordered the colonel to return to Cambridge, and bring on the rest of the men. Putnam obeyed. On the march back, his men followed him with spirit enough till they reached the fort of Bunker’s Hill, when the heavy firing, it being then the heat of the engagement, made them shrink. (This he has often mentioned when speaking of that day’s service.) Whilst he was laboring fruitlessly in this manner, the King’s troops stormed the redoubt, and he was instantly joined by the fugitives; upon which they all retreated over the neck as fast as possible. The colonel had frequently given it as his opinion that if but five hundred men had pursued them, he could not have kept one man at Cambridge. But no pursuit being made, he took post there; and as they heard from Boston that very night what dreadful havoc they had made amongst the King’s troops, the men immediately recovered their spirits. So much does success in war depend on the improvement of a single moment.

The colonel was now promoted to the rank of major-general, but his commission was hardly delivered to him, when it was debated, in the General Congress, to supersede him, and give his rank to Mr. Thomas,2 a favorite of General Washington. He was only saved from this insult by the necessity they had for his services. During the summer and autumn, 1775, whilst Boston was blockaded, he was by far the most popular officer in the American camp; he was the first to take up the spade and the mattock, and to join the common men in all the fatigues of the day, which very naturally endeared him to them. His popularity, however, suffered a great shock, towards the latter end of the same year; for, at the request of the General Congress and the commander-in-chief, attempting to persuade the men, whose time of service was nearly expired, to continue in arms four months longer, till another army could be embodied, he raised a general clamor against himself. The men went off precisely at their time, and exclaimed against him over all the country, as an enemy to liberty. By this defection, in the space of six weeks in the middle of winter, there were not more than seven thousand men in the extensive lines round Boston. If General Howe had had good intelligence, he might have cleared the whole environs of that town in less than twenty-four hours; for such a small body of troops were very insufficient to defend a line of intrenchments and redoubts, that extended at least twelve or fourteen miles, from Mystic River all round the head of the Bay to Dorchester Point. Another raw army was at last drawn together, which made some semblance of attacking Boston, on which General Howe left it. Since the war has been moved into the territory of New York, we find General Putnam commanding in the lines, at the battle of Brooklyn. It is not surprising that new levies should be beat by veterans. After the defeat, the desertion of their lines was a wise measure, as their retreat might have been cut off by ships of war posted in the East River.

There is no doubt but General Putnam wishes as sincerely for peace as any man on either side of the question; yet there is no man in either army will do his duty with greater bravery in the field. He never was a favorer of American Independency. As to his person, he is middle size, very strongly made, no fat, all bones and muscles; he has a lisp in his speech, and is now upwards of sixty years of age.3


1 Major-General Joseph Warren.
2 General John Thomas died at Sorel, in Canada, on the 2d of June, 1776.
3 A correspondent of the Middlesex Journal, December 21.

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