FREDERICK A. OBER
AUTHOR OF CRUSOE'S ISLAND, THE STORIED WEST INDIES, PUERTO RICO AND ITS RESOURCES, ETC.
NEW YORK D. APPLETON AND COMPANY
Copyright, 1904, by D. APPLETON AND COMPANY
Published, September, 1904
CONTENTS CHAPTER PAGE
I.—Birthplace and Youth 1
II.—"Old Wolf Putnam" 11
III.—First Taste of War 25
IV.—A Partizan Fighter 39
V.—The Adventurous Soldier 53
VI.—Fighting on the Frontier 65
VII.—Strategy and Woodcraft 79
VIII.—A Prisoner and in Peril 92
IX.—A Campaign in Cuba 106
X.—Tavern-Keeper and Oracle 120
XI.—On the Side of His Country 134
XII.—At the Battle of Bunker Hill 150
XIII.—Holding the Enemy at Bay 171
XIV.—In Command at New York 184
XV.—Washington's Chief Reliance 198
XVI.—Defending the Hudson Highlands 212
XVII.—Last Years in the Service 226
XVIII.—The Disabled Veteran 243
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"Old Put" escaping from the British at Horseneck Frontispiece
The Wolf Den at Pomfret, Connecticut 18
Fort near Havana where the Colonials landed 112
Israel Putnam 188 From a painting by Trumbull.
Statue to General Putnam at Brooklyn, Connecticut 254
"OLD PUT," THE PATRIOT
BIRTHPLACE AND YOUTH
This is the life story of one who was born on a farm, and died on a farm, yet who achieved a world-wide fame through his military exploits. It has been told many times, it will be told for centuries yet to come; for the world loves a man of high emprise, and such was Israel Putnam, the hero of this story.
He was born January 7, 1718, in Danvers, then known as Salem Village, Province of Massachusetts Bay, in New England. His father's Christian name was Joseph, his mother's Elizabeth, and Israel (as he was called at baptism, after his maternal grandfather, Israel Porter) was the great-grandson of his first American ancestor, John Putnam, who had come from England, where the original name of the family was Puttenham. He had settled at Salem more than eighty years before, and his son, Thomas, built, in 1648, the house in which Israel was born in 1718. On the death of Thomas it had become the property of Joseph, who first occupied it in 1690, after his marriage to Elizabeth Porter.
Here the young couple passed through the perilous "witchcraft times," during the worst period of which, in 1692 (it is a tradition in the family), Joseph Putnam kept a loaded musket at his bedside every night and his swiftest horse saddled in the stable, ready for a fight or a flight in case the witch-hunters should come to carry him off to jail. They had accused his sister, who saved her life only by fleeing to the wilderness and remaining in hiding until the insane furor was over. He and his wife survived that gloomy period, and in the ancestral homestead lived happily for more than thirty years, raising a "baker's dozen" of children, of whom Israel was the eleventh.
On both the maternal and paternal side Israel Putnam was descended from a line of sturdy, prosperous farmers. The grandfather whose name he bore had married a daughter of William Hathorne, who came from England and settled in Salem about the year 1630, and who was an ancestor of the famous romancist Nathaniel Hawthorne. John Hathorne, son of William, was a military man and a magistrate. He presided at the infamous witchcraft trials in Salem, and, like the near relatives of Joseph Putnam, looked with severe disfavor upon any one who showed sympathy for the persecuted witches.
Joseph Putnam died in 1723, leaving his widow with eleven surviving children, nine older than Israel, who was then but five years of age, and one, little Mehitable, only three. Several of the older children were already married, and when, in 1727, Mrs. Putnam took a second husband, one Captain Thomas Perley, of Boxford, only the younger members of her family went with her to live in the new home. There Israel resided until he was about eighteen, and Boxford being only a few miles distant from his birthplace, in the same county (Essex), he made frequent visits to the old farm, to which he finally returned as part owner before he attained his majority.
Numerous anecdotes are still related of him in Danvers, all tending to illustrate the early development of those high qualities for which in after-life he became conspicuous. Courage, enterprise, activity, and perseverance, says his original biographer, were the first characteristics of his mind. His disposition was frank and generous, as his mind was fearless and independent. From his earliest years he craved, and was always in pursuit of, some daring adventure, yet he was the most sober and apparently contented youth in the village, loving hard work, even seeking to perform a man's task at daily labor, while yet a mere stripling. Brought up mainly on the farm, spending his days in severe labor and his nights in sweet slumber, he became the peer of all his companions in athletic feats involving strength and skill. He could "pitch the bar," run, leap, wrestle with the best of them, and more than held his own with the most doughty champion. But he never boasted of his strength, nor sought occasions to display his skill, being content with their mere possession.
His sense of fairness and self-respect, however, would not allow him to become the butt of other people's ridicule, and when the need arose for putting forth his energies in a good cause, he held nothing in reserve. Such an occasion occurred the first time he paid a visit to Boston, the metropolis of his State. He was roaming about in rustic fashion, when he attracted the attention of a youth twice his size, who began to "make fun" of him. Young Putnam bore the insult as long as he could, then he "challenged, engaged, and vanquished his unmannerly antagonist, to the great diversion of a crowd of spectators."
There were very few diversions for the youth of Putnam's time, so long ago; but the boys, like those of modern times, indulged in bird's-nesting now and then. Climbing to a tree top one day, in his endeavor to secure a nest, "Young Put" had a fall, owing to a branch breaking in his hands. He was caught by a lower limb, however, and there he hung, suspended by his clothes betwixt heaven and earth. His cries attracted some companions, one of whom he commanded (as he had a gun) to fire a bullet at the limb and try to break it. This the boy did, after much coaxing on Putnam's part, and was so successful that his friend came tumbling to the ground. He was bruised and lamed, but no bones were broken; and the very next day the intrepid boy climbed up to the nest again, and this time secured it. That was the "way with 'Old Put,'" the man who in later years succeeded "Young Put" the youth. His motto was: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."
He always tried, and with his utmost endeavor, to accomplish the task that faced him at the time. What is more, he generally succeeded; and that is the chief reason why he is considered worthy a biography. There are few men, perhaps, who did so many things worthy of emulation, and so few unworthy. Dangerously near the latter, however, was one act of his youth, when he caught a vicious bull in a pasture, and, having mounted astride the animal's back, with spurs on his heels, rode the furious creature around the field until it finally fell from exhaustion, after seeking refuge in a swamp.
Young Putnam's education, as may have been inferred already, was obtained mostly in the woods and open fields. While he possessed great mental endowments, as afterward displayed in his career, yet his early education was grossly neglected, in the school and college sense. Having mastered the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic, he was considered well equipped for his destined calling, which was to be that of a farmer. Throughout his whole life he suffered from this neglect of early instruction. His letters, particularly, though they always "displayed the goodness of his heart, and frequently the strength of his native genius, with a certain laconic mode of expression, and an unaffected epigrammatic turn," were "fearfully and wonderfully made," the despair of his correspondents and the ridicule of his enemies.
It is doubtful if he had any greater ambition than to become a good farmer, as good as was his father before him, and like him, attain to a competency. He was already fairly well to do the year he became of age, for his father, after providing generously for the other children, had bequeathed to him and his brother David the homestead, house and farm attached. His mother was to have a home there so long as she desired; but on her second marriage she relinquished her claim upon the homestead, and the two brothers shared it between them. Israel's portion was set off in 1738, and the next year he built a home in a remote corner of the farm, but within sight of the house and room in which he was born. For, after the fashion of those primitive times, when early matrimony was encouraged, young Israel had been "courting" a lovely girl, the daughter of a neighbor, who lived about four miles distant from the home farm, near the boundary-line between Salem and Lynn. Hannah Pope was her name, and she also was descended from one of the first families of Salem Village. Being a sensible girl, she accepted Israel Putnam as soon as he proposed, and the 19th of July, 1739, they were married, when he was twenty-one years of age and she only eighteen. Taking his young wife to the little house he had built with his own hands on the farm, there Israel Putnam and Hannah, his wife, began their married life. The next year a son was born to them, the first of ten children who blessed their union, and he was called Israel.
The house in which the first Israel Putnam was born, an old colonial, gambrel-roofed structure, still stands where it was erected by his grandfather in 1648, near the foot of Hathorne Hill, in Danvers, on the turn-pike road half-way between Boston and Newburyport. It contains many relics of Putnam's time, but the most interesting portion of the house itself is the little back chamber, with its one window looking out over the farmyard, where the infant Israel first saw the light.
Of the house which he himself built, on a distant knoll of the home farm, nothing now remains but the cellar and foundation stones, near which is the well he dug, now choked with rubbish and overgrown with brambles.
"OLD WOLF PUTNAM"
Judging from the stability of his position in Danvers, it would seem that young Farmer Putnam was established for life. He had land enough to satisfy any ordinary cultivator of that period, and a comfortable house in which dwelt with him wife and child, to cheer him by their presence. But the future patriot felt within him an ardent thirst for adventure. He longed for a wider field, and though to all appearances firmly rooted in the soil of Salem Village, he was already thinking of transplanting himself and family into that of another region. Hardly, in fact, had he settled in the home he had made than he began preparations for removal to what was then considered a comparatively wild section of New England.
In the old homestead at Danvers is still preserved the quit-claim deed signed by Israel Putnam, "of Salem in the County of Essex and Province of Massachusetts Bay in New England, husbandman," which records the transfer by him to his brother David of his share in the ancestral house and acres.
In the local history of the town of Brooklyn, Conn., occurs this passage: "In the year 1703, Richard Ames purchased 3,000 acres of land lying in the south part of Pomfret, where the village of Brooklyn now stands, which he divided into five lots and deeded to his sons. Directly north of this was situated a tract of land owned by Mr. John Blackwell, comprising 5,750 acres, which was willed to his son John, and afterward sold to Governor Belcher of Massachusetts, who divided it into farms and sold them to different individuals, among whom was General Israel Putnam. This tract went by the name of 'Mortlake.' A beautiful stream which rises in the western part of the tract, and received its name from the former proprietor, Blackwell, empties into the Quinnebaug."
These several transactions in real estate, taken together, will sufficiently explain to the reader, perhaps, the subsequent movements of Farmer Putnam. After disposing of property to his brother David, and receiving therefor the goodly sum of L1,900, Israel Putnam joined with his brother-in-law, Joseph Pope, in the purchase of more than five hundred acres of land from Governor Belcher, for which they agreed to pay at the rate of five pounds per acre. They paid for it partly in "bills of credit on the Province of Massachusetts," and gave a mortgage for the remainder. And so fertile was this wild land, and so thrifty was the young pioneer farmer Israel Putnam, that within little more than two years he had liquidated the mortgage and received a quit-claim deed from the Governor, as well as purchased his brother-in-law's portion of the tract they had bought together.
The two pioneers may have made a special trip to the Connecticut tract before deciding to purchase; for it was not in the nature of them to "buy a pig in a poke," as it were. And such a journey of nearly a hundred miles, mainly through a wilderness, was no child's task in those days. In after-years General Israel Putnam made many a longer journey, through wilds swarming with hostile Indians, too, and thought nothing of it; but this was the first of any account that he took very far away from home.
What the young wife thought when the enthusiastic adventurer came back with his story was never recorded. Neither, for that matter, was the tale he told her, as well as his friends and neighbors, many of whom, doubtless, would fain have dissuaded him from making what they viewed as a rash and risky move. Details of Putnam's life at this period of his career are lacking; but there stand the records, with their statement of facts. They can not be gainsaid. The very fact that he, a prosperous farmer, even then well off as to this world's goods, should make the adventure—the first of his family in America to abandon the home acres and seek others in the wilderness—is sufficient to attest his energy and ambition.
Sometime in the latter part of the year 1740 the young husband of twenty-two, with a wife under twenty and a babe only a few months old, set out to make his fortune in the rough country adjacent to his native State. Many of his race and family have since become pioneers in various parts of the world, and this country owes them much for blazing out the way in which others might follow; but young Israel Putnam was the first of them—the pioneer of pioneers, in the great American movement.
A second time he set himself to the building of a house and the establishing of a home, and as he found much of the material ready at hand—stone for foundations and timber for the building—it was not long before the farmer and his family had another roof-tree of their own above their heads. This structure has gone the way of the first, and long since disappeared, traces of the cellar and foundations only being visible; but the large dwelling-house which he later built, and in which he died, still stands at a little distance away. After clearing a portion of the land, and working the stones with which it was plentifully bestrewed into dividing walls, he planted an apple-orchard, sowed grain of various sorts, and increased as rapidly as possible his flocks and herds of live stock. His chief, perhaps his only, assistant in these earlier labors was a negro servant, who figures, though not greatly to his credit, in the narration of an adventure in which his master took part, about two years after his arrival in Connecticut. This, of course, is that famous encounter with the wolf, which has since become part and parcel not only of local tradition, but of American history. As many generations have been familiar with this story as related in story-books and primers, particularly during the early part of the nineteenth century, it will now be told in the language of a contemporary, Colonel David Humphrey, who was an aide-de-camp to General Putnam, and also to General Washington, during the Revolutionary War, and who wrote the first and best biography of our hero, which was published in his lifetime. "The first years on a new farm are not exempt from disasters and disappointments, which can only be remedied by stubborn and patient industry. Our farmer, sufficiently occupied in building an house and barn, felling woods, making fences, sowing grain, planting orchards, and taking care of his stock, had to encounter in turn the calamities occasioned by drought in summer, blast in harvest, loss of cattle in winter, and the desolation of his sheepfold by wolves. In one night he had seventy fine sheep and goats killed, besides many lambs and kids wounded. This havoc was committed by a she-wolf, which, with her annual whelps, had for several years infested the vicinity. The young were commonly destroyed by the vigilance of the hunters, but the old one was too sagacious to come within reach of gunshot. Upon being closely pursued she would generally fly to the western woods, and return the next winter with another litter of whelps. This wolf at length became such an intolerable nuisance that Farmer Putnam entered into a combination with five of his neighbors to hunt alternately until they could destroy her. Two by rotation were to be constantly in pursuit. It was known that, having lost the toes from one foot by a steel trap, she made one track shorter than the other, and by this vestige the pursuers, in a light snow, recognized and followed the trail of this pernicious animal. Having followed her to the Connecticut River and found she had turned back toward Pomfret, they immediately returned, and by ten o'clock the next morning their bloodhounds had driven her into a den, about three miles distant from the house of Mr. Putnam. The people soon collected, with dogs, guns, straw, fire, and sulphur, to attack the common enemy, and made several unsuccessful efforts to force her from the den.
"Wearied with the fruitless attempts (which had brought the time to ten o'clock at night), Mr. Putnam tried once more to make his dog enter, but in vain. Then he proposed to his negro man to go down into the cavern and shoot the wolf; but he declined the hazardous service. Then it was that the master resolved himself to destroy the ferocious beast, lest she should escape through some unknown fissure of the rock. His neighbors strongly remonstrated against the perilous enterprise; but he, knowing that wild animals were intimidated by fire, and having provided several strips of birch-bark, the only combustible material he could obtain that would afford light in this deep and darksome cave, prepared for his descent. Having accordingly divested himself of his coat and waistcoat, and having a long rope fastened about his legs, by which he might be pulled back at a concerted signal, he entered head foremost, with the blazing torch in his hand. The aperture of the den, on the east side of a very high ledge of rocks, is about two feet square; from thence it descends obliquely fifteen feet, then running horizontally about ten more, it ascends gradually sixteen feet to its termination. The sides of this subterraneous cavity are composed of smooth and solid rocks, as also are the top and bottom, and the entrance in winter, being covered with ice, is exceedingly slippery. It is in no place high enough for a man to raise himself upright, nor in any part more than three feet in width.
"Having groped his passage to the horizontal part of the den, he found it dark and silent as the house of death. He, cautiously proceeding onward, came to the ascent, which he slowly mounted on his hands and knees until he discovered the glaring eyeballs of the wolf, who was crouching at the extremity of the cavern. Startled by the sight of fire, she gnashed her teeth and gave a sullen growl. Having made the necessary discovery (that the wolf was in the den), Putnam kicked at the rope, as a signal for pulling him out. The people at the mouth of the den, who had listened with painful anxiety, hearing the growling of the wolf, and supposing their friend to be in the most imminent danger, drew him forth with such celerity that his shirt was stripped over his head and his skin severely lacerated.
"After adjusting his clothes, and loading his gun with nine buckshot, holding a torch in one hand and the musket in the other, he descended the second time. He drew nearer than before, and the wolf, assuming a still more fierce and terrible appearance, growling, rolling her eyes, snapping her teeth, and dropping her head between her legs, was evidently on the point of springing at him. At this critical instant he leveled his gun and fired at her head. Stunned with the shock and suffocated with the smoke, he immediately found himself drawn out of the cave. But, having refreshed himself, and permitted the smoke to dissipate, he went down the third time. Once more he came within sight of the wolf, who appearing very passive, he applied the torch to her nose, and perceiving her dead, he took hold of her ears, and then kicking the rope (still tied round his legs), the people above, with no small exultation, dragged them both out together."
This is the story, told by one who knew Putnam intimately and who had it from his own lips, while neighbors were still living who were "in at the death" and could have refuted any misstatement or exaggeration. The deed, in truth, was characteristic of the dauntless young farmer, whose courage and heroic character (as his eulogist justly remarks) "were ever attended by a serenity of soul, a clearness of conception, a degree of self-possession, and a superiority to all vicissitudes of fortune, entirely distinct from anything that can be produced by a ferment of the blood and flutter of spirits, which not unfrequently precipitate men to action when stimulated by intoxication or some other transient exhilaration."
That was "Wolf Put," or "Old Wolf Putnam," as he came to be called thenceforth. But at no time in his active and wonderful career was he an old man when he performed his deeds of valor. The wolf-hunt, in fact, was mainly a young men's and boys' affair, Putnam himself being only twenty-four at the time, and the wolf having been traced to her lair by young John Sharp, a boy of seventeen.
The slayer of the old she-wolf was the hero of the time; but he bore his laurels modestly, though exaggerated accounts of the affair were published all over the colonies, and even in England, where they were exploited in the public prints. By rising to the occasion, and doing the right thing at the right time, he acquired a reputation for valor and firmness that stood him in good stead in those coming conflicts, the Seven Years' War and the Revolution.
Unknown to him, however, and unsuspected, were the heights to which he subsequently rose. He devoted himself to his farm, becoming the best agriculturist in the region in which he lived, and also performed the duties of a good citizen, never shrinking from his share of civic burdens. The youth of to-day could not do better than emulate the example of this illustrious American; and they might do worse than take part in the patriotic pilgrimages annually made to the scenes of his early life. The citizens of his adopted State have religiously preserved intact the second house he built in Brooklyn, then Pomfret; and the she-wolf's den may still be seen, in the side of a wooded hill. The entrance-way is at present too low and narrow to admit the passage of a boy, much less of a full-grown man; but that is said to have been caused by the falling in of the rocks, in the lapse of time since Putnam's day.
FIRST TASTE OF WAR
Israel Putnam's adventure with the wolf gave him an unsought, and in some respects undesirable, notoriety; but that he did not court this notoriety is shown by the fact that for the next twelve or thirteen years he lived quietly on his farm, attending to his duties as a cultivator of the soil and a simple citizen. During these years he acquired an enviable reputation as one of the best farmers in all the region of which Pomfret was the center, and had it not been for the lamentable struggle between the French and the English for supremacy in North America, he might have continued as the humble and prosperous citizen-cultivator to the end of his days. The breaking out of the prolonged strife which is known in history as the French and Indian War, found Putnam in possession of what in those days was considered a competency. Having received a good start from the paternal inheritance, he had not hidden his talents in a napkin, but had put them out to good purpose. He erected a large and substantial dwelling about a fourth of a mile distant from the first he had built in Pomfret, and here he lived most happily, with his good wife Hannah, surrounded by a growing family of healthy children.
In the year 1755, when active operations began in this war between England and France, fought out on the soil of America, Israel Putnam was thirty-seven years old and in the prime of life. There was no immediate necessity for him to volunteer in defense of the frontier, where the hostile French were gathering, for it was far distant from his home, the forests around which were threatened by no roaming savages with tomahawks and muskets. But his patriotic instincts were aroused by the reports of massacres committed in other regions; he knew the tide must be met before it became irresistible and breasted in the North. Four great expeditions were planned by the English to frustrate the schemes of the enemy: against Fort Niagara, Crown Point on Lake Champlain, Fort Duquesne, and against the French in Nova Scotia.
It was to take part in the expedition with Crown Point as its objective that Israel Putnam abandoned his farm, early in the summer of 1755, just when it needed him most, and started on his second long journey away from home. He reached the rendezvous at Albany, after a toilsome march through the forests that intervened between the Connecticut and the Hudson, and there found three thousand other "Provincials" gathered for the defense of the colonies. Most of them were sons of the soil, like Putnam, and like him were yet to receive their baptism of fire; but they were sturdy and valiant, though appearing rude and uncouth in the eyes of the British veterans.
The commander-in-chief of the British Colonial forces in North America at the beginning of the war was Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts, and the commander of the Crown Point expedition was General William Johnson, the famous and eccentric "sachem" of the Mohawks. Having lived for many years with or near the Indians, this Englishman had acquired a great influence over them, especially over the Mohawks, of whose tribe he had been elected an honorary sachem. He had learned their language, had even adopted their peculiar garb, and at times adorned his face with war-paint and performed with his savage friends the furious war-dance. His stanch ally was the ever faithful chief of the Mohawks, the valiant Hendrick, who rendered invaluable service to the English and was killed while battling for their cause.
As Putnam, the stalwart provincial soldier, was merely a private in the ranks when he made the acquaintance of the famous general and the Mohawk chief, he may not have attracted their attention; though he later won encomiums from the commander. He could not but have admired the General's sagacity in retaining the Mohawks as allies of the English Colonials, when most of the Indian tribes had arrayed themselves on the side of the French. At the time Johnson was assembling his army on the Hudson, in that very month of July, 1755, General Braddock, commander of the Duquesne expedition, met with most disastrous defeat, and almost his last words were regrets that he had not taken the advice of his aide-de-camp, a "young Virginian colonel named Washington," who had earnestly besought him to abandon the British tactics and adopt the American system of "bush-fighting."
"We shall better know how to deal with them another time," the defeated Braddock had said to Washington, just before he died. But General Johnson and the Provincial officers already knew how to deal with their wily foes. They had taken leaves from the unwritten book of Indian tactics; their men fought from behind trees and logs, as the savages fought, and in this manner turned the tables upon the French commanders.
"It was owing to the pride and ignorance of that great general that came from England," said an Indian chieftain, alluding to the terrible defeat of Braddock. "He looked upon the Indians as dogs, and would never take their advice, and that is the reason many of our warriors left him. We are ready again to take up the hatchet with you against the French; but let us unite our strength. You are numerous, and all the English governors along your seashore can raise men enough. But don't let those that come from over the great seas be concerned any more. They are unfit to fight in the woods. Let us go by ourselves—we that came out of this ground."
Colonel Washington knew of what the Indians were capable, for young as he was then, he had been through a dreadful experience and had received valuable lessons in their mode of warfare. "It is in their power," he declared, "to be of infinite use to us; and without the Indians we shall never be able to cope with these cruel foes of our country."
There is no doubt that the Indians turned the tide of the first battle in which Israel Putnam took part—that of Lake George, on the eighth of September, 1755. Having made all his preparations at Albany, General Johnson took up his march for Crown Point by way of the "carrying-place" (subsequently known as Fort Edward) and Lake George. After leaving some of his troops to complete the fort he had begun at the "carrying-place," the commander proceeded to the south end of Lake George, where he made camp. He had between five and six thousand New York and New England troops and his loyal Mohawks. Not long had he been in camp before his Indian scouts brought him intelligence of an approaching force of French and Indians.
About the time that General Johnson had begun his march northwardly, Baron Dieskau, with a force of 3,000 French troops, 800 Canadians and 700 Indians, had started southwardly from Montreal, also for Crown Point on Lake Champlain. He had intended to proceed against Oswego; but learning of the contemplated English expedition for the reduction of Crown Point, he changed the direction of his march.
Had he waited for the English general to carry out his original intention, the result might have been more favorable to the French, for the former would then have been the attacking party and have borne the brunt of the battle. As it was, the French commander nearly succeeded in drawing the thousand men that Johnson had sent out to meet him into an ambuscade, and among the slain was brave Colonel Williams, commander of the Provincials in this engagement, and gallant Chief Hendrick, who had accompanied him with two hundred Mohawks.
The Provincials fought fiercely, but vainly, for they were outnumbered, and at first outgeneraled. They fell back upon the main body, the rear of which was protected by the lake, the flanks by densely-wooded swamps, and the front by a breastwork of trees, behind which were mounted several cannon.
On came the enemy, in pursuit of the retreating Provincials, who sought shelter behind the rude breastworks as rapidly as possible. They had lost heavily, they had been partially ambuscaded, some of their best officers were killed and some wounded; but they had no thought of surrender. Recovering from the first shock of surprise, they quickly adopted the Indian fashion of fighting from behind the trees and rocks, thus exposing themselves very little and inflicting upon the enemy the greatest possible punishment by their accurate marksmanship.
The gallant Dieskau was unable to control his Canadian and Indian allies, but advanced his French regulars against the breastworks without flinching. There, however, he committed the same mistake that had caused Braddock's bloody defeat, by ordering his men to advance in a body and fire by platoons. And again, though the Canadians and Indians fought bravely, after their manner, posted behind the trees, they here encountered what they feared so much, the fire of artillery.
It had been Dieskau's intention to march upon Fort Edward; but hearing that there were cannon mounted there, his allies had refused to go. So he changed his course and set upon Johnson at Lake George. Here, however, his forces, victoriously advancing after their successes of the morning, were met by the destructive fire of the few cannon which had been hastily mounted, and which mowed down the regulars and struck such terror into the savage allies that the latter fled in a panic, their whoops of triumph changed to yells of fear.
It was then the turn of the Provincials to take the offensive, which they did promptly, ably seconded by the Mohawks. They pursued the French a long distance through the woods, and only halted when spent from fatigue.
The French themselves had paused for rest on the very ground where the battle of the morning had been fought, and here, reenforced by soldiers sent by General Lyman from Fort Edward, the Americans set upon them a second time and finally vanquished them completely. They covered the ground with the slain and took many prisoners, among them being the French commander, who was found leaning against a stump, having been wounded in the second fight. He was alone, save for a companion, who was shot down by his side. Seeing an American soldier approach, the Baron felt for his watch, hoping probably to secure good treatment by presenting him with it; but the soldier, mistaking the motion for an effort to draw a pistol, shot him through the hips, inflicting a wound from which he ultimately died. Johnson himself was shot through the thigh, early in the action, and the command devolved upon General Lyman, who conducted the battle to a successful issue, as narrated.
Thus was fought the battle of Lake George, September 8, 1755. The brilliant victory gained here was greater than is apparent at a superficial glance, for it checked the French advance upon the English colonies; it probably saved Albany and other towns from destruction; it was the means of driving the invaders back upon their defensive posts at Ticonderoga and Crown Point, where they were eventually attacked and overcome.
Contrary to the expressed opinions (and perhaps advice) of the Provincials, among whom was Putnam, General Johnson decided to advance no further in that campaign, brief as it had been, but proceeded to erect a fort on the site of his camp, alleging that this was necessary to protect his base of supplies and maintain communication with Albany. Had he followed up the victory and pursued the demoralized enemy to Ticonderoga and Crown Point, he might have saved the English many valuable lives and the humiliation of repeated defeats in their subsequent efforts to reduce those important fortifications.
The reduction of Crown Point was abandoned for that season; but notwithstanding this, and the fact that the brunt of the fight had been borne by General Phineas Lyman and his New England militia, the commander-in-chief was rewarded for the victory by a baronetcy and a grant of five thousand pounds!
That the results of this victory at Lake George were far-reaching, and not forgotten by posterity, was shown, for example, nearly a century and a half after it was won, by the erection of a monument upon the site of the battle-field. On the eighth of September, 1903, the governors of four States—New York, Connecticut, Vermont, and Massachusetts—gathered at the unveiling of a bronze memorial (erected by the Society of Colonial Wars), the heroic figures of which, nine feet in height, are General Johnson and Chief Hendrick. The inscriptions on the granite pedestal tell the story: "Defeat would have opened the road to Albany and the French.... Confidence inspired by the victory was of inestimable value to the American Army in the War of the Revolution."
It should be borne in mind that Israel Putnam was present at this battle, and rendered important service.
A PARTIZAN FIGHTER
The shore of the beautiful lake was strewn with the slain, its waters crimsoned by their blood, the French having lost nearly half their regular force, and the English more than two hundred men. Several days succeeding to the battle were passed in gathering the wounded and burying the dead, in which dismal duty Putnam was engaged, with the rest of the uninjured survivors.
As our hero kept no diary of his doings, we know only in a general way that he was in the thickest of the fight, that he went out with the devoted band under Colonel Williams, and was foremost at the finish under General Lyman. It has been stated by some of Putnam's biographers that he held the rank of captain in this, his first, battle; but a careful search of the colonial records makes it appear that he was merely a private. With his accustomed eagerness to be foremost in a good cause, he had hurried to the front without thought of rank or wages; and although the General Assembly of Connecticut, which convened in August, promptly made him out a commission as captain of a company, it did not reach him until after the fight.
He had outstripped his commission, had enlisted, had met the enemy, acting, as he always acted, on his own initiative; and it seemed very fit that he should be appointed to command a company of "partizans," as the picked troops were called who made forays, performed scouting duties, and led the advance of the main body.
He became associated with the redoubtable leader of the hardy company of back-woodsmen known as "Rogers' Rangers," and he held his own with the best of them. The duties of these rangers were particularly hazardous, for they were ever in the advance, as scouts or skirmishers, employing the Indians' tactics in bush-fighting, engaged as escorts for the wagon trains, as well as for the artillery, etc. They were thoroughly independent, in the fullest sense of the word, following their commander's general rule only, which was: "Every man's reason and judgment must be his guide, according to the particular situation and nature of things, and that he may do this to advantage, he should keep in mind the maxim, never to be departed from by a commander, viz., to preserve a firmness and presence of mind on every occasion."
Had the foregoing rule been made expressly for our farmer-soldier, it could not more exactly have exemplified the qualities he pre-eminently possessed. He was a born "partizan," and entered at once into his dangerous duties with ardor and zest.
There exists a "Report of Captain Putnam, who was sent by Captain Rogers as a Spy to Ticonderoga," dated October 9, 1755, which illustrates both the bravery of the young officer, and the defects of his early education, to which allusion has been made. It is as follows:
"Then left Capt. Rogers upon a neck of Land upon the west side of Lake George and Set out towards Tyconderogue to see what Discoveries we Could make and after we had marchd about 7 or 8 miles we came upon a Large Mountain near the Heither end of the narrowes, and when we came there we Could make no Discovery at all, but after sometime we espyed three Barke Cannoes Drew upon the Shore upon a point of Land that Ran into the Lake, and then wee espyed two Indians Comeing out of the Bushes toward the Cannoes, after water, and after sometime wee espyed several french and Indians on the East side of the Lake ... and so Concluded to tarry there all knight and see what further Discoveries wee Could make by the fires in the knight, and just at the Dusk of the evening their came four Cannoes from the East and went to the west side of the Lake and landed on the point where the others were incamped, and Drew up their Cannoes on ye Shore and by this time wee began to Discover the fires on the point and on the east side of the Lake, but Could not Discover what number their was, because the Bushes were so thick by the Lake and about Day Brake they mustered their men to work and then wee Left the mountain and returned to Capt. Rogers on the point and when we Came within 60 or 70 Rods of the point we Espyed 13 Indians pass by within 10 Rods of us, towards the point where we left Capt. Rogers, and after they had passed by us we Came to the point where we left Capt. Rogers, and found all well this is the Chef of the Discovery and best account that I am able to give."
Captain Putnam belonged to that class of soldiers, so large in the early wars of our country, that would "rather fight than eat," and made much less of wielding the sword than the pen. It may well be believed that after receiving a few "Reports" like this herewith quoted, his superiors vastly preferred he should stick to the sword, since he was so much better at fighting than writing. He himself was doubtless of the same opinion, so he was kept constantly employed at the dangerous and arduous work of the ranger, and within a week of writing his first report he had distinguished himself by saving his commander's life.
The French had retired to Crown Point and Ticonderoga, but the forests between those points and Lake George were still swarming with hostile Indians, engaged, like the Rangers, in reconnoitering the enemy's posts and in cutting off stragglers. Captains Rogers and Putnam were ordered by General Johnson to make a reconnaissance of Crown Point, and taking a small party they penetrated the forests to within a short distance of the works, where they left their men concealed, and, alone, set out on their hazardous mission.
They lay all night within gunshot of the fort, and in the gray dawn of morning approached more closely in order to secure the information desired, when Captain Rogers, who was slightly in advance, was discovered and set upon by a big Frenchman, who seized his musket and gave the alarm. A companion sentinel hastened to the Frenchman's assistance, but Putnam also was at hand, and getting in ahead brought the guard to the ground by a well-aimed blow from the butt-end of his musket, and while the enemy lay quivering in his death-agonies the two companions hastened away. They rejoined their men and finally reached the camp in safety.
An occurrence like this seemed of small moment at the time, perhaps, and the ungrateful Rogers is said to have overlooked it entirely in his report to General Johnson; but the same month (October, 1755) the two again went out scouting, and another adventure followed which brought Putnam's heroism into strong relief.
Going down the lake in their bateaux, on the last day of the month, they landed at night at a point where they had discovered some camp-fires of the enemy, and in the morning three spies were sent out into the forest. These spies were Putnam, a man named Fletcher, and Lieutenant Robert Durkee, who was afterward tortured to death by the Indians. They accomplished the immediate object of their mission, which was to ascertain the location of some detached camps of Indians, and one of them, Captain Fletcher, returned to report. Putnam and Durkee kept on, in order to reconnoiter the enemy's main camp at the "Ovens," and in consequence nearly lost their lives.
Night overtook the two brave partizans before they had reached the vicinity of the enemy, and when they saw the camp-fires gleaming they incautiously approached, thinking that the French, like the English, would be found within the circle. But the French pursued an altogether different system, and probably the safer one, of building their camp-fires within and themselves sleeping without the lines, protected by the darkness of the night. Their sentinels were posted still further from the center of the main body, so when the two spies approached and, dropping to their hands and knees, crept cautiously toward the fires, they had not gone far in this manner before they were discovered and fired upon.
To their amazement, they then found themselves right in the midst of the enemy, hemmed in on every side. Lieutenant Durkee was slightly wounded in the thigh, but he and Putnam immediately rose to their feet and made the best of their way out into the darkness amid a shower of bullets, and pursued by the awakened enemy. Unable "to see his hand before his face," Putnam soon fell into a clay-pit, and Durkee, like the immortal "Jill" in the nursery rhyme, came tumbling after. Knowing that the enemy were in swift and close pursuit, Putnam raised his tomahawk to give the supposed hostile a deadly stroke, when Durkee fortunately spoke. Thankful that he had escaped murdering his companion, Putnam immediately leaped out of the pit, and followed by Durkee, groped his way to some ledges, where they lay down behind a large log for the remainder of the night. Before they lay down, the original narration goes on to state, "Captain Putnam said he had a little liquor in his canteen, which could never be more acceptable or necessary than on that occasion; but on examining the canteen, which hung under his arm, he found the enemy had pierced it with their bullets, and that there was not a drop of liquor left. The next morning he found fourteen bullet-holes in his blanket!"
His canteen was dry enough, but in falling into the clay-pit Putnam had wet his gun, so that he could not return the fire of the Frenchmen, even had he been so disposed. The tale as to the "fourteen bullet-holes in his blanket" has often been held up to ridicule; but it is probably true, for the blankets being rolled up, one ball alone might have cut through many folds in its flight, and another have perforated his canteen. At all events, he and his companion were in a most miserable plight, all night in danger of being discovered. In the morning (according to the official report by Captain Rogers) "they made the best retreat they were able. Hearing the enemy close to their heels, they made a tack and luckily escaped safe to our party."
"How he escaped a wound is passing strange," says one of Putnam's biographers [Mr. J.T. Headley]; "but he was one of those men who seem eternally seeking death without being able to find it. There are some persons in the world who appear to bear a charmed life, which no amount of daring or exposure can endanger. Foremost in the charge, and the last to retreat, they are never found with the dead. Fate seems to delight to place them in the most desperate straits, on purpose to make their deliverance appear the more miraculous. Putnam was one of those favored beings, and was not born to be killed in battle."
Another incident related of Captain Putnam shows his acute penetration and acquaintance with Indian ways and wiles. It was in his second campaign, when, after returning home for the winter, he had re-enlisted and was again amid the scenes of his former adventures. He was stationed at Fort Edward, the region immediately around which was infested with savages bent on securing as many scalps as possible with the least exposure. The sentinels on posts without the fort were in the greatest danger, and there was one outpost in particular which had lost so many of its sentries that at last no man could be found to accept a station there voluntarily. One after another they had disappeared, as completely as though the earth had opened and swallowed them. It was a post of such danger that the officers at Fort Edward, having called for volunteers repeatedly, all of whom had met the same mysterious fate, were compelled to resort to drafting the men for duty there. As a commissioned officer Putnam was exempt from the draft, but with his love of danger and from a desire to penetrate the mystery, he volunteered for the hazardous service for at least one night. His offer was accepted, although his friends warned him of the risk he ran. He was already informed as to the general instructions: on hearing the least noise to challenge promptly, "Who goes there?" three times, and then, if no answer were returned, to fire at whatever approached.
Mounting guard at his post as early as possible, Putnam took occasion to make a thorough examination of the nature of his environment, with a trained woodsman's eye noting every peculiarity of rock, stump, bush, tree, and leaf. Even then, as darkness fell and the scene became faintly illumined by the rising moon, his surroundings assumed an unfamiliar cast.
He stood at his post till past midnight before anything unusual happened, then his attention was attracted by what appeared to him a wild hog which, with stealthy footstep, gradually neared his position. There could be no danger in such a beast, any one less acute than he might have reasoned; but anyway, he issued the challenge, and then, no response having been made to his "Who goes there?" he immediately fired at the animal. It was a groan, and not a grunt, that answered his well-directed shot, and going up to the object, then writhing in its death-struggles, he stripped off a bear-skin and revealed an immense Indian, who had in this disguise approached the unsuspicious sentinels previously stationed there, stabbed them, and carried them away.
THE ADVENTUROUS SOLDIER
The campaign of 1755-'56, abounding in opportunities for personal adventure, in which Israel Putnam took great delight, showed the true mettle of the provincial soldier from Connecticut. At one time in the summer of 1756, five or six hundred French soldiers from Ticonderoga descended upon some British baggage wagons at Halfway Brook, a spot about midway between Fort Edward and Fort William Henry at Lake George, and overcoming the escort, succeeded in getting away with a large quantity of provisions. They retreated northward, in the direction of their stronghold, by the Narrows of Lake Champlain, and in order to head them off, if possible, Rogers and Putnam were ordered by their commander to take one hundred Rangers, with "two wall-pieces and two blunderbusses," and proceed by boat down Lake George to a point opposite a certain part of the Narrows, where they were to cross overland and try to intercept the enemy.
The orders were obeyed with such promptitude and exactness that the pursuers reached the place appointed half an hour before the Frenchmen, into whose boats, when they finally appeared, loaded down with their plunder, they poured several deadly volleys, killing many of the oarsmen and soldiers and throwing the party into confusion. Putnam had so placed his men in ambush, behind bushes and trees, that they were entirely concealed, while the enemy were exposed to their unexpected fire, which was terribly effective. Had not a strong wind sprung up at this time, few of the Frenchmen would have escaped; but several boatloads were swept into South Bay, beyond musket-shot, and in a shattered condition finally arrived at Ticonderoga.
As soon as it was made known that the Rangers were at the Narrows, and full twenty miles from their boats, which they had left under guard at Lake George, three hundred soldiers were sent post-haste in pursuit. It was now the turn of the Provincials to retreat, and indeed they had lost no time in setting out for their boats, as soon as the Frenchmen were out of sight, being well aware of their perilous position. It was a close race between them and their enemies, who, having passed them at night, were discovered next day off Sabbath-Day Point, where they offered battle. They allowed the French and Indians to approach within pistol-shot without firing a gun, but at just the right moment they discharged their wall-pieces and blunderbusses, followed by a destructive fire from their muskets, so that the havoc and confusion were great. Completely routed, the enemy made for the shore and retreated without delay to Ticonderoga. Only one man was killed and two men were wounded on the side of the Rangers; but while the total losses of the French and Indians were unknown they must have been great, as one canoe containing twenty Indians lost fifteen of the number, and many were seen to fall overboard and drown.
In the preceding, the honors were shared between Rogers and Putnam; but soon after the affair on the lakes the latter figured as the hero of an exploit which was unique, if not altogether successful and creditable to all concerned. General Webb, the commander of the forces, considered it necessary to secure a French prisoner, for the sake of the intelligence he might gain from him of the enemy's movements, and Captain Putnam was deputed to accomplish the difficult task.
Taking with him five men, Putnam concealed himself and them near a trail which led to Ticonderoga, and they had not lain long in the high grass before a Frenchman and an Indian came along. The Indian was in advance, so Putnam allowed him to pass, but when the Frenchman arrived opposite his place of concealment he sprang out, and after running quite a distance overtook and seized him by the shoulder. It happened that the Frenchman was large and muscular, and Captain Putnam, though himself a marvel of strength and agility, was not quite his equal, in fact, he soon found he had "caught a Tartar." His men had not supported him, while the Indian was hastening to his opponent's assistance, so he loosed his hold and snapped his musket at the man's breast. It missed fire, as the rude firearms of that time were often liable to do, and so Putnam turned and ran for his life, hotly pursued by the irate Frenchman, followed by the Indian.
There was a grim humor in the situation, for, since his men would not go to the Frenchman, Captain Putnam was taking the Frenchman to them! They had to assist him now, whether they wanted to or not, he thought; but as they sprang up from the grass where they were hidden, the wary Indian caught sight of them, gave the alarm to his companion, and both darted off into the forest and escaped. Putnam was mortified as well as enraged; but after denouncing his men as cowards and unfit for special service, he sent them back to camp and finally accomplished his object unassisted.
In such adventures as these Captain Putnam found vent for his energy and activity. He was rarely at rest, either by command of his superior officer or of his own volition, being engaged in scouting in the forest and along the shores of the lakes. As both regulars and Provincials were withdrawn from the north country during the severest of the winter months, it is likely that the soldier-farmer paid a short visit to his home; but if so, he was soon back again, on active duty employed, as early in the spring of 1757 he is reported at Fort Edward.
The author of this biography has seen a most interesting letter, written in June, 1757, by Lieutenant Samuel Porter, of Captain Putnam's company, in which there are several references to our hero, as follows:
"I received your letter May 20, at Fort Edward, from Capt. Putnam's hand.... I have sent you six letters before this. In the last I told you that Capt. Putnam had took out a number of his men and also a number of another company and made up a company of Rangers.... The next day after I wrote to you there was a number of our Connecticut men out at work with a guard, but the Enemy came and fired upon them and captivated four of them.... Capt. Putnam was then out for several days and when he came in he brought a Frenchman which he took near the Narrows."
Always active, alert, and good-humored, Captain Putnam was the idol of his men, and easily the most noted of the Provincials. Such was his nature, however, that he paid no attention to what men said of him, but always marched in the road that led to duty. Much like him in his devotion to duty and principle was another of his name, who now appears in this narrative, having come to Fort Edward in a Massachusetts regiment, in which he was a private. This was Rufus Putnam, who achieved a reputation in later years hardly second to that of Israel; in many respects he surpassed him. These two have been called cousins; but, to state their exact relationship, Israel's father and Rufus's grandfather were brothers, or half-brothers. Here is what Rufus Putnam says, in his Memorandum Book of Family Concerns, respecting his American ancestry:...
"I am the youngest son of Elisha Putnam, who was the third son of Edward, grandson of John Putnam, who settled in Salem in 1634.... I was born the 9th of April, 1738, at Sutton, Massachusetts."
By this it will be seen that Rufus and Israel Putnam were descended from the same English ancestor, John Putnam; and further, it may be observed, they had many high qualities in common. What concerns us especially, in this connection, is the fact that Rufus Putnam had acquired the habit of keeping a diary, or journal, and he faithfully recorded all the happenings at Fort Edward, after his arrival. He could not but make mention of the most prominent personage there, his distinguished kinsman; though the latter was too busily engaged in fighting and marching to concern himself as to diaries and chronicles.
Soon after arriving at Fort Edward, young Rufus Putnam was sent out scouting with twenty-two men, and encountering some Indians, thirteen of his comrades were killed. "This was the first sight I had of Indians butchering," he writes, "and it was not agreeable to the feelings of a young Soldier, and I think there are few if any who can view such Scenes with indifference."
Few, indeed. But, while realizing to the full the horrors of savage warfare, Israel Putnam's kinsman stuck to his task and did his duty gallantly. His first experience must have been a severe trial, for he says:
"Capt. Putnam then ordered three of us to follow the trale (of the Indians) a mile or more further, and there lie close until quite dark, to observe if any came back; for, said he, 'if they do not embark in there boats to-night they will send a party back to See if they are pursued.' We went back according to order but made no discovery, and here I would remark that Capt. Putnam's precaution Struck my mind very forceably, as a maxim always to be observed whether you are pursuing or pursued by an enemy, especially in the woods. It was the first Idea of Generalship I recollect to have treasured up."
These two remarkable men had a very similar experience in their youth, for Rufus, like Israel, was deprived of his father by death at an early age, the former at seven, and the latter at eight, and each went to live with his stepfather after his mother had married a second time.
Israel Putnam had been given a major's commission by the Connecticut Legislature, in 1757, and almost every year succeeding he was promoted, until finally he was at the head of the forces of the State. In common with his fellow Provincials, he suffered from the incompetency of the British commanders sent over from England. Crown Point was the objective for assault during several years, and still was not reached until the hearts of all concerned grew heavy with hope deferred. One of the most glaringly inefficient of Britain's generals in America was Lord Loudoun, at this time commander-in-chief of all the forces. Against him was pitted the acute and discerning Montcalm, in command of the French, who, by the destruction of important forts, and checkmating Loudoun at Louisburg, soon put the latter on the defensive. Instead, then, of carrying the war into Canada, the British Colonials were compelled to rest on their arms while Montcalm himself, taking advantage of the depletion of the forces caused by Loudoun's futile expedition against Louisburg, marched down from Montreal and made a demonstration against the forts to the south of Lake Champlain.
Equally inefficient with Loudoun, the commander-in-chief, and in addition cowardly as well (it would appear from the records of the time), was General Webb, who commanded in the northern department, and who, though he probably had intimation of the French army's approach, allowed himself to be caught in a trap and lost thousands of his men. He was warned by Putnam, who scouted to some purpose in the forest along the lake shore, discovering the approaching hostiles; but he heeded not the warning, and the result was a massacre.
FIGHTING ON THE FRONTIER
Up to midsummer of 1757, the British had accomplished nothing of account; the French, also, had little to show for all the marching and counter-marching, fortifying, and skirmishing with their foes. But a decisive blow was to be struck, and by Montcalm, who, having been informed by his spies of the condition of affairs at the lakes, sent an overwhelming force against Fort William Henry, at the south end of Lake George. It happened that a few days before the French army arrived at the lake, Major Putnam, with two hundred men, escorted his commander, General Webb, from Fort Edward to Fort William Henry, his object being to examine into the efficiency of the latter fortification. The fort itself was a poor construction, but it was commandingly situated on ground gently rising from the shore of the lake, and its approaches were defended by felled forest trees forming an immense abattis deemed impenetrable.
With his customary caution, Major Putnam suggested to General Webb that he should be sent down the lake to ascertain if the enemy were approaching, certain inexplicable signs having aroused his suspicions. His commander reluctantly consented, and Putnam took with him eighteen volunteers and proceeded down the lake, but had not gone far before he discovered a company of Frenchmen on an island. These men started out in pursuit of Putnam in his whale-boats, and the latter retreated; but not before he had, with the aid of a telescope, perceived a "large army in motion." He reported to General Webb to this effect, and to his astonishment that cowardly commander ordered him to make no mention of the approach of the French army, though he agreed with Major Putnam that it was destined for the reduction of the fort on the lake. He, moreover, directed him to pledge his men to keep the matter secret from the devoted garrison at Fort William Henry, and to make ready, without loss of time, to return with him to headquarters at Fort Edward.
"But, your Excellency," exclaimed the amazed and indignant Putnam, "I hope you do not intend to neglect so fair an opportunity of giving battle, should the enemy presume to land!"
"What do you think we should do here?" replied the pusillanimous commander; and no other answer would he give to the sub-ordinate who had rashly ventured to expostulate with him. The next day, accordingly, Putnam escorted Webb back to Fort Edward, whence the latter sent letters to the Governor of New York, at Albany, urging him to send the militia to his aid; and also despatched reenforcements to Fort William Henry under Colonel Monroe, who was ordered to assume command of the garrison, until then ignorant of their peril.
There were then about three thousand men at Fort William Henry, with as many more held in reserve at Fort Edward, half a day's march only away. Against the lake fort, however, Montcalm brought an army of eight or nine thousand men, including not only a corps of Canadians, but a "larger number of Indians in a body than had ever before been collected." The French and Indians outnumbered the hapless garrison three to one; but during the week in which they appeared before the fort at Lake George (the first week in August, 1757), Sir William Johnson reached Fort Edward with his Indians and militia from Albany, thus augmenting the total British force considerably. He demanded to be allowed to proceed to Fort William Henry, and was permitted to start out, taking with him, besides his own force, Major Putnam and his company of Rangers. Three miles from the fort, however, this rescuing force was ordered to return, and thus such men as Johnson and Putnam were compelled to remain at Fort Edward and listen to "the report of cannon from Fort William Henry, two or three shots sometimes within a minute or two of one another." Those fateful cannon-shots continued all day long, and day after day, meanwhile, messengers were arriving from Colonel Monroe asking for assistance in most urgent terms. For six days the siege continued, with thousands of soldiers lying inactive at Fort Edward while their brothers-in-arms were in peril of their lives at Fort William Henry, only fourteen miles away. On the morning of the eighth of August the cannon firing ceased, just as the last express from Colonel Monroe arrived stating that he must give up the fort unless at once relieved.
The ammunition of the beleaguered garrison was almost exhausted, many of their cannon were split, some of the soldiers were sick with smallpox, and their losses in killed and wounded amounted to more than three hundred men. The end was inevitable, and it came after General Webb had sent a letter to Colonel Monroe advising him to surrender. This letter was intercepted by Montcalm, who thus knew the exact situation and acted accordingly. He sent the letter to Colonel Monroe, with an urgent demand for surrender, promising him most liberal terms, and the despairing officer, who had gallantly defended the fort to the last, gave in and threw himself upon the mercy of his foe.
The Marquis de Montcalm may have intended to keep his stipulations, which were that the garrison should be protected by an escort of French troops to Fort Edward, and their sick and wounded cared for. Relying upon these terms, they marched out of the fort without arms or baggage, but were no sooner clear of the gates than they were set upon by more than two thousand Indians, excited by the liquor they had discovered and drunk, and frenzied at the prospect of the escape of their foes. Then ensued a sickening scene of slaughter. Then was committed the massacre, which, had Major Putnam's advice been followed, might have been prevented. More than fifteen hundred, men, women, and children, were indiscriminately butchered, despite the promises of the "noble" Marquis de Montcalm, and the Indians reveled in a carnival of blood.
It having been reported that the victorious Montcalm intended to march against Fort Edward next, Major Putnam was despatched with his Rangers to "watch the motions of the enemy," and reached the lake shore soon after their departure. The fort was entirely demolished, he reported to Webb, next day; "the barracks and all buildings were heaps of ruins, the fires still burning, the smoke and stench from which were offensive and suffocating. Innumerable fragments, human skulls, and bones were still broiling, half consumed, in the smoldering flames. Dead bodies, mangled with knives and tomahawks, including those of more than one hundred women, were everywhere to be seen, affording a spectacle too horrible for description."
And this awful occurrence might have been obviated, if, in the first place, Major Putnam's precautions had been adopted and a firm stand made in the face of the enemy; or if, in the second place, the reenforcements so often requested by the commander of the garrison had been sent. Montcalm himself told Major Putnam, when he was a prisoner in Canada, the next year, that when Sir William Johnson with the militia and Rangers set out from Fort Edward one of his runners reported as to their number, "If you can count the leaves on the trees, you can count them."
Believing, then, that a mighty force was advancing against him, Montcalm was on the point of abandoning the siege, when General Webb's order to return saved the situation for the French. Of a truth, the conduct of General Webb, in command of the forces at Fort Edward and Fort William Henry, deserves the execration of the world. Fuming inwardly against their unjustifiable detention, yet so well disciplined as to accept their commander's orders with impassive faces, the soldiers all, Provincials as well as regulars, were compelled to inaction, and thus became in a sense accessories to the blood-thirsty savages who had murdered their friends.
We have no record of any oath that Putnam may have taken, but doubtless one was registered in Heaven, that his comrades should be avenged, for his acts accord with this assumption. He was even more active than before in annoying the enemy and in taking prisoners, both French and Indian; but there is no stain of cruelty affixed to any of his deeds. He fought honorably, without thought of himself, without regard for what Fame might say of him, or the future hold in store. His courage was of the sort that shuts its eyes to the consequences and goes straight ahead, in the path of duty and rectitude.
Soon after the massacre at Fort William Henry, General Webb was relieved of his command and succeeded by General Lyman, an old soldier under whom Putnam had already served. Even old soldiers make mistakes, as will now be shown. Having despatched one hundred and fifty men into the forests adjacent to Fort Edward, to cut timber for strengthening the fortification, General Lyman sent along a company of regulars to protect them against possible attacks by Indians. This was a prudent measure; but the commander had not counted upon the wary nature of the foe. He should have sent out the Rangers, who knew the Indians and their ways and would have provided protection, without a doubt. But there chanced to be a Ranger on duty as a sentinel, and early one morning, before the sun was up, his attention was attracted to a flight of wonderful birds silently winging their way across the sky. Suddenly, one of those "birds" came with great force against the limb of a tree right over his head, where it stuck, and then the sentry saw that those winged messengers were Indian arrows! He lost no time in giving the alarm and the working party began retreating toward the fort. They were promptly attacked by a large body of Indians, who had hoped to kill the sentry without any noise, when the workmen would have been cut off, without a doubt.
The regulars bravely stood their ground and poured a destructive fire into the savage ranks; but the foe was persistent and soon obtained the upper hand. It happened that, as usual, brave Putnam was not far distant from the sound of battle, which he no sooner heard than he hastened in its direction. As he and his men were posted on an island, he and they waded through the water to dry land, and in pressing to the scene of conflict passed near the fort, on the parapet of which stood General Lyman, who, imagining the attack came from the main body of the enemy, had called in his outposts and closed the gates. As Major Putnam and his men dashed past on the double-quick, intent only upon rescuing their friends from the savages, the General ordered them to return, believing that they were needlessly exposing their lives in a vain attempt against an overwhelming force.
For the first time in his military career (but not the last) Putnam refused to obey the orders of his superior officer. Indignant at the mere thought of abandoning his companions-at-arms at such a juncture, he muttered something under his breath (which he afterward said was an apology; but those who knew "Old Put" best thought otherwise) and pushed on, without turning to right or left. And his obstinacy saved the day, for, uniting with the regulars, the Rangers "rushed" the savages from their position and chased them through the forest so long as daylight lasted. Their victory was complete, and when they returned to the fort the gates were no longer closed against them, nor was a reprimand forthcoming from the General, the disobedience of whose orders made Major Putnam more popular than ever.
That Major Putnam's bravery was of the sort requiring no artificial stimulus, and proceeded solely from the promptings of a nature superlative in every sense, was shown in the winter of 1757, when the barracks at Fort Edward were consumed by a fire which threatened and almost reached the powder magazine. Seeing the blaze from his aerie on the island, Putnam attacked the fire as he always attacked the enemy, with impetuosity. He at once took the forefront of danger, nearest to the powder magazine, and, mounted on a ladder, threw upon the raging flames the buckets of water which the soldiers brought him from the river. Enshrouded in smoke, and so near the sheets of flame that a pair of thick mittens was burned from his hands, Putnam heroically toiled to subdue the fire, which was rapidly eating its way toward the magazine, containing three hundred barrels of powder.
His commander at first begged him to descend, but as he was obstinate, he provided him with another pair of mittens which had been dipped in water, and, charmed at his pertinacity and bravery, exclaimed, "Well, if we must be blown up we will all go together!" He then gave orders to the men to redouble their efforts.
The sequel was that Putnam, though at times enveloped in smoke and cinders, maintained his position, even when there was but a charred strip of timber between him and the powder, finally extinguishing the fire and saving the fort. One hour and a-half he had fought the flames. "His legs, arms and face were blistered, and when he pulled off his second pair of mittens, the skin from his hands and fingers followed them." He was a month in hospital, recovering from his terrible burns; but before the winter was over he was off scouting with his beloved Rangers in the vicinity of Ticonderoga.
STRATEGY AND WOODCRAFT
The year 1758 was the most eventful in Putnam's life hitherto, notwithstanding the numerous adventures in which he had already been engaged, and which were enough to satisfy the craving of the most ambitious individual. The great event of that year, in which he took part, was the attack made by General Abercrombie on Fort Ticonderoga; and the most dire happening, to him personally, was being made a prisoner by the Indians.
Before proceeding to narrate these occurrences, however, let us take notice of two stirring incidents in his career, which further illustrate his cool daring and his readiness of resource in the face of danger. In the first instance, he was sent by his superior officer to a place known as Wood Creek, in order to make such observations as were possible, and also to intercept any parties of the enemy that might chance to pass that way. With the intuition of a born strategist, he posted his force on the bank of the creek where it jutted boldly into the water, and there constructed a parapet of stone about thirty feet in length, and masked it with young pine-trees in such a manner that they appeared to be a part of the natural forest growth.
The provisions of the party running short, and a big buck opportunely appearing, Putnam departed from a rule he himself had always insisted upon—of never firing a gun when waiting for an enemy or in the enemy's country, and shot him. The result was as he might have anticipated. He and his men got the deer and replenished their stores; but the wily leader of the Indian hostiles, Marin, heard the report, and came with his men in search of the cause of it. He came at night, so cautiously and silently that some of the canoes which held his men, about five hundred in number, were abreast the fort before the sentinels discovered them.
The creek at this point was scarcely a hundred feet in width, the banks about fifteen or twenty feet in height. A full moon was shining in the heavens, illumining spaces of water here and there, so that the oncoming Indians were plainly visible to the men behind the parapet, there awaiting, with fast-beating hearts, the signal to fire. At a critical moment, one of the nervous soldiers accidentally struck his firelock against a stone, and the sound being heard by the foe, in an instant came the watchword for silence and caution—"Owish." The canoes in the van halted, and the others coming up, they were soon huddled together right in front of the breastwork. This was the moment awaited by Putnam, who gave the signal for his men to fire by setting the example with his own musket.
The plunging fire, directed into the midst of the canoes, committed terrible execution. It was returned by the enemy; but being caught at a disadvantage, and unable to perceive their foes, concealed as they were behind the breastwork, their fire was ineffective. During the whole engagement, which is said to have lasted through the greater part of the night, only two of the Provincials were wounded, none being killed outright.
There were but sixty men in Putnam's party, while the Indians were estimated at not less than five hundred, half of which number were either killed or wounded, it was thought, before daylight came. Perceiving, from the intermittent fire, that it was a small party which had ambuscaded him, Marin, the Indian scout and leader, attempted a landing below the Americans, in order to cut off their retreat. But Major Putnam had anticipated that move, and after sending a detachment to repel the landing party, ordered his men to "swing their packs" and retire up the creek, which they did in good order, leaving their wounded men behind. This act was the one inexplicable occurrence of the affair, for it was not creditable to Major Putnam, nor in accord with his reputation for humanity and tender regard for his men. But the safety of the greater number was considered, in preference to the security of the two wounded men, one of whom, a Provincial of undaunted courage, was set upon and hacked to pieces, after he had killed three of the approaching enemy, as he lay on the ground unable to escape. The other, a friendly Mohawk, was taken prisoner, and Major Putnam afterward saw him in Canada.
On the way back to Fort Edward, Putnam and his men were fired upon by a scouting party of Provincials, who mistook them for Frenchmen; but they were quickly undeceived when the doughty major ordered his men, "in a stentorophonick tone," to advance and give a good account of themselves. Putnam's "stentorophonick" voice—as his original biographer styles it—was well known to all the army, having been heard many times rising above the din of battle, and always in the forefront of the fighting. So the commanding officer of the scouting party recognized it at once and cried out that those approaching were friends. The volley had killed one man only, and "Old Wolf Putnam," enraged, indignant, and yet sarcastic, said to the opposing officer, "Friends or enemies, you all deserve to be hanged for not killing more, when you had so fair a shot!" He had in mind, of course, the numbers he and his men had slain, that night preceding, when six or seven times their own force had fallen before their unerring aim.
Having suffered so considerably at Putnam's hands, the French and Indians, as may be imagined, were constantly on the watch to take their arch enemy at a disadvantage. Not many weeks after the unsuccessful attack upon Ticonderoga—to which allusion will presently be made—it appeared as though the savages were about to accomplish their purpose, for they surprised him, together with a small body of his men, on the left bank of the Hudson, with the river between them and the fort. The party of Indians was too strong to be successfully resisted, it was impossible to cross the river without being shot, while below lay a quarter-mile stretch of rapids through which a boat had never been sent without disaster. But, with his customary promptitude, Putnam ordered his men into their single boat, himself taking the helm, and pushed off just as the savages came within sight of the shore. The disappointed and infuriated Indians sent a shower of balls after the boatmen, but none took effect; though the fugitives seemed doomed to certain death by drowning in the foaming rapids of the river. Calmly taking the helm, Putnam steered the boat through the roaring rapids, avoiding the half-hidden rocks and protruding ledges, and, while the Indians looked on in amazement, in a few seconds brought his charge into smooth water at the foot of the falls. Throughout all this turmoil and danger, he maintained his self-possession, his customary placidity of countenance even; and it is said that after that the Indians looked upon him as more than human and under the special protection of the Great Spirit.
It was the misfortune of the Provincials to become the sport of fate in the shape of inefficient commanders from England, who led them, not only to defeat, but to death by wholesale, in their endeavors to carry out plans insufficiently matured and schemes which would not have received the sanction of military experts at all. One of the most disastrous of defeats was encountered at Ticonderoga, against which General Abercrombie led a force of fifteen thousand men, consisting of six thousand regulars and nine thousand Provincials. Crown Point and Ticonderoga were still the British objectives, along with other posts of greater or less strength, such as Louisburg, Frontenac, and Fort Duquesne. All these last were taken before Crown Point and Ticonderoga yielded; but it was fated that Ticonderoga, which had been seized and fortified by the French in 1755, and which, together with Crown Point, commanded the direct route from the St. Lawrence to the Hudson, should first cost the lives of many men.
On the morning of July 5, 1758, a magnificent flotilla set forth from the southern end of Lake George, consisting of 135 whale-boats and 900 bateaux, laden with soldiers, cannon, and military stores of every description. As it sailed through the Narrows it made a line six miles in length, and was indeed a most imposing spectacle. Sabbath-Day Point was reached about five in the afternoon, and here the soldiers debarked for rest and refreshment, but sailed on again about midnight, reaching the northern end of the lake next morning at dawn. Soon after landing, late in the day, a portion of the army became lost in the forest and while entangled in the wilderness of trees encountered a French force of observation which had been sent to watch their movements at Lake George. This force, likewise lost in the woods, was cut to pieces by the Rangers, only fifty escaping, while nearly three hundred were either killed, wounded, or taken prisoners.
This was the sole success of the expedition, and this cost the lives of many men, including young Lord Howe, who was a great favorite in the army with both regulars and Colonials. He had insisted on forging ahead with Putnam, who, as usual, was in front with his Rangers, and against his urgent remonstrances went with him into the vortex of the fire, where he was killed. The soldiers considered their success on the first day as a foretaste of victory to follow on the morrow; but while Abercrombie delayed his advance for various reasons, Montcalm and his men did herculean work by felling a forest of trees and constructing an impenetrable abatis in front of the fort.
It was this terrible entanglement, composed of thousands of trees with pointed and jagged limbs turned outward, that really prevented the British and Provincials from gaining even the outer works of Ticonderoga, behind which lay not more than thirty-six hundred men under Montcalm. Abercrombie's engineer having reported that the works were unfinished, and might be easily captured if promptly attacked, the British general gave the order for assault, though his cannon had not arrived, and indeed were not used at all.
Not satisfied with one futile assault, in which his men were cut down by hundreds, torn by grape-shot and mangled by cross-fires of musketry, Abercrombie ordered another and another, until the heroic and desperate fighting men were entirely exhausted. Never was there a greater display of courage and senseless devotion to a mistaken sense of duty, than on that day when the fifteen thousand British and Provincial soldiers tried vainly to dislodge one-third their number of Frenchmen from their position at Ticonderoga. And it was all on account of the incapacity of a British commander, whom the home Government had sent out with authority, not only over his own regulars, but Colonial officers whose abilities were vastly in excess of his own. But it was not for these Colonials to question; only to "do and die," and they did all in their power, and died by hundreds, merely that an incompetent commander's whims should be gratified.