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   Chapter 5 THE ADVENTUROUS SOLDIER

Old Put" The Patriot" By Frederick A. Ober Characters: 11100

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


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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 check-*mating 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.

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