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Men Of The Revolution: 9. Israel Putnam
Perhaps the most experienced general in the American army, he was credited with shouting “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” at Bunker Hill. But “Old Put” was not without his faults.
June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
The trouble with living legends, however, is that they sometimes prove less effective than they are cracked up to be—an unhappy discovery made by General George Washington during the defeat of his army on Long Island, where Putnam’s ignorance of the terrain and ineptness contributed their share to the disaster. There was no doubting Israel Putnam’s courage or energy or his popularity with the men in the ranks; the difficulty was that the man was a major general and as such should know about the care and conduct of an army, about logistics and topography and strategy and the movement of large bodies of troops. He ought, in short, to possess considerable intelligence and resourcefulness and be something more than a bold captain in battle. There is reason to suppose that many Continental soldiers would have followed Old Put wherever he chose to lead them, but unfortunately the qualities that had made him a renowned frontier fighter and roughhewn folk hero were not necessarily the stuff of which general officers are made, and Washington was increasingly aware of his deficiencies as time wore on. In fairness, part of the trouble may have been that Old Put was over the hill; at fifty-eight he was an elderly man as age was reckoned in that day. In any case, the long and short of it was that he was put out to pasture after 1776, never to hold an imDortant field command.
He was placed in charge of the defenses of the Hudson Highlands in 1777 and had the misfortune to let the British capture Forts Clinton and Montgomery and burn the town of Kingston, which were all in his sector. For this lapse he was relieved of command. It was alleged at the time that torpor or ignorance or incompetence—possibly all three—were involved, but a court of inquiry cleared him of negligence or malfeasance. Probably it was a blessing that a paralytic stroke forced him into retirement late in 1779; until then the spirit remained willing and the old war-horse was still eager for battle, and there was something pathetic about the inactivity to which he had been relegated.
Back on the farm at last, he lingered on until 1790 in a manner described in the rolling hyperbole of a former companion in arms: “In patient, yet fearless expectation of the approach of THE KING OF TERRORS, whom he hath full often faced in the field of blood, the Christian hero now enjoys in domestic retirement the fruit of his early industry.”