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   Chapter 4 A PARTIZAN FIGHTER

Old Put" The Patriot" By Frederick A. Ober Characters: 13129

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


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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."

"Israel Putnam."

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 bate

aux, 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.

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