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   Chapter 6 FIGHTING ON THE FRONTIER

Old Put" The Patriot" By Frederick A. Ober Characters: 13291

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


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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.

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