Israel Putnam

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Cuban Seed
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Cubano / Santo
Domingo / Habano

General Israel Putnam

If a single man could represent the American ideal of the rugged individualist who works hard with his hands, lays aside his plow in times of emergency, and picks up his weapons like Ulysses of Homeric legend, “Old Put” is that man. Described as five feet six, powerfully built, square-jawed, with leathery skin “flowing gray locks and a head like a cannon ball”, Israel Putnam took up soldiering in the War for Independence as one of the most experienced fighters in America. As might be expected, legends grew around him, sometimes making it difficult for historians today to discover all the aspects of his fame that are verifiable. Entering the war as an old, obese warhorse, he was promoted to general, and, like others of Washington’s generals, made some costly mistakes. He was that hero of Bunker Hill and died of a stroke in 1779, never seeing an end to conflict.  He was the right man at the helm, especially early in the war, and a grateful nation never forgot.

Of sturdy New England Puritan stock, Putnam was born in 1718 and left Massachusetts at the age of twenty two, to build a home in Pomfret, Connecticut. A hard working man, he prospered in farm and family with eleven children. An early story about him illustrated his fearlessness. A wolf had been terrorizing the local farm stock and a search for her by the farmers discovered the den. Putnam crawled down into the tiny cave with a torch and a loaded musket, with a rope tied around his ankle to pull him out if things went badly. Putnam emerged, wolf did not. The young Putnam had little time for education and in old age, according to James Truslow Adams, “his writing remained illiterate to a degree unusual even in his time.”

Israel Putnam entered the French and Indian War as a 2nd Lieutenant of Connecticut Volunteers. He also fought as a member of Rogers Rangers, the most feared British frontier unit of that war. Putnam was captured by the Indians and on the verge of being tortured and burned at the stake when a downpour of rain and a French officer intervened to rescue him. On another occasion he straddled the roof of a powder magazine, pouring water on a fire that threatened to blow him and all around to kingdom come. Though he was injured in the process, he contained the fire before it could set off the gunpowder. A final crisis for Putnam occurred when he was shipwrecked in a military expedition to Cuba in 1762 and was one of the few survivors. The ever-kindly providence that seemed to attend his ways, allowed for him to return to America carrying tobacco seeds from Cuba which he planted near Hartford and allegedly became the basis of the famous “Connecticut Wrapper.”

Upon his return from the French and Indian War, Putnam had a part, according to Douglas Southall Freeman, “in every phase of the trouble with Britain.” He joined the Sons of Liberty, opened a tavern where seditious talk became the norm, served in the rebellious legislature and when the Port of Boston was closed by the redcoats, he is said to have driven a herd of more than a hundred sheep into the town. The stories say that when Putnam heard about Lexington and Concord, he left his plowing, unhitched his horses, called for the militia to follow and rode to the sounds of the guns. Regardless of the undocumented nature of the tales, they illustrate Putnam’s real character and tell us what his contemporaries thought of him.

As Brigadier General of Connecticut volunteers at the Battle of Bunker Hill, Putnam “stood as a rock and a rallying-post” in the midst of the carnage. His courage inspired the troops to stand against the attack of the grenadiers, and he may have been the one to originate “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” Within days of the end of the battle, he was made a Major General by Congress. For a short time he commanded all the American troops before the arrival of George Washington in New York. Though “experienced, energetic, active, and persevering,” Israel Putnam’s style of warfare did not lend itself to the big-picture strategic maneuvers that large bodies of troops required and, while General Washington liked and respected the old soldier, he quietly moved him to less strenuous duties where his inspiration and small unit logistical skills could be better used. He served in various capacities till his death three years before independence was won. His contributions were important, even legendary, and his reputation so undiminished that his gravesite after the war was looted and chipped away for souvenirs, so much so that his marker was put in a museum and his remains placed out of reach.

As a patriot, Israel Putnam must be included among the most ardent of those who loved liberty and were willing to die for it; as a warrior, he had no peers as the war began, and showed his ardor, leadership and courage most effectively at Bunker Hill; as an example of the citizen-soldier, born for war, he was the standard.