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   Chapter 7 STRATEGY AND WOODCRAFT

Old Put" The Patriot" By Frederick A. Ober Characters: 12618

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


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The year 1758 was the most eventful in Putnam's life hitherto, notwithstanding the numerous adventures in which he had already been engaged, and which were enough to satisfy the craving of the most ambitious individual. The great event of that year, in which he took part, was the attack made by General Abercrombie on Fort Ticonderoga; and the most dire happening, to him personally, was being made a prisoner by the Indians.

Before proceeding to narrate these occurrences, however, let us take notice of two stirring incidents in his career, which further illustrate his cool daring and his readiness of resource in the face of danger. In the first instance, he was sent by his superior officer to a place known as Wood Creek, in order to make such observations as were possible, and also to intercept any parties of the enemy that might chance to pass that way. With the intuition of a born strategist, he posted his force on the bank of the creek where it jutted boldly into the water, and there constructed a parapet of stone about thirty feet in length, and masked it with young pine-*trees in such a manner that they appeared to be a part of the natural forest growth.

The provisions of the party running short, and a big buck opportunely appearing, Putnam departed from a rule he himself had always insisted upon-of never firing a gun when waiting for an enemy or in the enemy's country, and shot him. The result was as he might have anticipated. He and his men got the deer and replenished their stores; but the wily leader of the Indian hostiles, Marin, heard the report, and came with his men in search of the cause of it. He came at night, so cautiously and silently that some of the canoes which held his men, about five hundred in number, were abreast the fort before the sentinels discovered them.

The creek at this point was scarcely a hundred feet in width, the banks about fifteen or twenty feet in height. A full moon was shining in the heavens, illumining spaces of water here and there, so that the oncoming Indians were plainly visible to the men behind the parapet, there awaiting, with fast-beating hearts, the signal to fire. At a critical moment, one of the nervous soldiers accidentally struck his firelock against a stone, and the sound being heard by the foe, in an instant came the watchword for silence and caution-"Owish." The canoes in the van halted, and the others coming up, they were soon huddled together right in front of the breastwork. This was the moment awaited by Putnam, who gave the signal for his men to fire by setting the example with his own musket.

The plunging fire, directed into the midst of the canoes, committed terrible execution. It was returned by the enemy; but being caught at a disadvantage, and unable to perceive their foes, concealed as they were behind the breastwork, their fire was ineffective. During the whole engagement, which is said to have lasted through the greater part of the night, only two of the Provincials were wounded, none being killed outright.

There were but sixty men in Putnam's party, while the Indians were estimated at not less than five hundred, half of which number were either killed or wounded, it was thought, before daylight came. Perceiving, from the intermittent fire, that it was a small party which had ambuscaded him, Marin, the Indian scout and leader, attempted a landing below the Americans, in order to cut off their retreat. But Major Putnam had anticipated that move, and after sending a detachment to repel the landing party, ordered his men to "swing their packs" and retire up the creek, which they did in good order, leaving their wounded men behind. This act was the one inexplicable occurrence of the affair, for it was not creditable to Major Putnam, nor in accord with his reputation for humanity and tender regard for his men. But the safety of the greater number was considered, in preference to the security of the two wounded men, one of whom, a Provincial of undaunted courage, was set upon and hacked to pieces, after he had killed three of the approaching enemy, as he lay on the ground unable to escape. The other, a friendly Mohawk, was taken prisoner, and Major Putnam afterward saw him in Canada.

On the way back to Fort Edward, Putnam and his men were fired upon by a scouting party of Provincials, who mistook them for Frenchmen; but they were quickly undeceived when the doughty major ordered his men, "in a stentorophonick tone," to advance and give a good account of themselves. Putnam's "stentorophonick" voice-as his original biographer styles it-was well known to all the army, having been heard many times rising above the din of battle, and always in the forefront of the fighting. So the commanding officer of the scouting party recognized it at once and cried out that those approaching were friends. The volley had killed one man only, and "Old Wolf Putnam," enraged, indignant, and yet sarcastic, said to the opposing officer, "Friends or enemies, you all deserve to be hanged for not killing more, when you had so fair a shot!" He had in mind, of course, the numbers he and his men had slain, that night preceding, when six or seven times their own force had fallen before their unerring aim.

Having suffered so considerably at Putnam's hands, the French and Indians, as may be imagined, were constantly on the watch to take their arch enemy at a disadvantage. Not many weeks after the unsuccessful attack upon Ticonderoga-to which allusion will presently be made-it appeared as though the savages were about to accomplish their purpose, for they surprised him, together with a small body of his men, on the left bank of the Hudson, with the river between them and the fort. The party of Indians was too strong to be successfully resisted, it was impossible to cross the river without being shot, while below lay a quarter-mile stretch of rapids through which a boat had never been sent without disaster. But, with his customary promptitude, Putnam ordered his men into their single boat, himself taking the helm, and pushed off just as the savages came within sight of the shore. The disappointed and infuriated Indians sent a shower of balls after the boatmen, but none took effect; though the fugitives seemed do

omed to certain death by drowning in the foaming rapids of the river. Calmly taking the helm, Putnam steered the boat through the roaring rapids, avoiding the half-hidden rocks and protruding ledges, and, while the Indians looked on in amazement, in a few seconds brought his charge into smooth water at the foot of the falls. Throughout all this turmoil and danger, he maintained his self-possession, his customary placidity of countenance even; and it is said that after that the Indians looked upon him as more than human and under the special protection of the Great Spirit.

It was the misfortune of the Provincials to become the sport of fate in the shape of inefficient commanders from England, who led them, not only to defeat, but to death by wholesale, in their endeavors to carry out plans insufficiently matured and schemes which would not have received the sanction of military experts at all. One of the most disastrous of defeats was encountered at Ticonderoga, against which General Abercrombie led a force of fifteen thousand men, consisting of six thousand regulars and nine thousand Provincials. Crown Point and Ticonderoga were still the British objectives, along with other posts of greater or less strength, such as Louisburg, Frontenac, and Fort Duquesne. All these last were taken before Crown Point and Ticonderoga yielded; but it was fated that Ticonderoga, which had been seized and fortified by the French in 1755, and which, together with Crown Point, commanded the direct route from the St. Lawrence to the Hudson, should first cost the lives of many men.

On the morning of July 5, 1758, a magnificent flotilla set forth from the southern end of Lake George, consisting of 135 whale-boats and 900 bateaux, laden with soldiers, cannon, and military stores of every description. As it sailed through the Narrows it made a line six miles in length, and was indeed a most imposing spectacle. Sabbath-Day Point was reached about five in the afternoon, and here the soldiers debarked for rest and refreshment, but sailed on again about midnight, reaching the northern end of the lake next morning at dawn. Soon after landing, late in the day, a portion of the army became lost in the forest and while entangled in the wilderness of trees encountered a French force of observation which had been sent to watch their movements at Lake George. This force, likewise lost in the woods, was cut to pieces by the Rangers, only fifty escaping, while nearly three hundred were either killed, wounded, or taken prisoners.

This was the sole success of the expedition, and this cost the lives of many men, including young Lord Howe, who was a great favorite in the army with both regulars and Colonials. He had insisted on forging ahead with Putnam, who, as usual, was in front with his Rangers, and against his urgent remonstrances went with him into the vortex of the fire, where he was killed. The soldiers considered their success on the first day as a foretaste of victory to follow on the morrow; but while Abercrombie delayed his advance for various reasons, Montcalm and his men did herculean work by felling a forest of trees and constructing an impenetrable abatis in front of the fort.

It was this terrible entanglement, composed of thousands of trees with pointed and jagged limbs turned outward, that really prevented the British and Provincials from gaining even the outer works of Ticonderoga, behind which lay not more than thirty-six hundred men under Montcalm. Abercrombie's engineer having reported that the works were unfinished, and might be easily captured if promptly attacked, the British general gave the order for assault, though his cannon had not arrived, and indeed were not used at all.

Not satisfied with one futile assault, in which his men were cut down by hundreds, torn by grape-shot and mangled by cross-fires of musketry, Abercrombie ordered another and another, until the heroic and desperate fighting men were entirely exhausted. Never was there a greater display of courage and senseless devotion to a mistaken sense of duty, than on that day when the fifteen thousand British and Provincial soldiers tried vainly to dislodge one-third their number of Frenchmen from their position at Ticonderoga. And it was all on account of the incapacity of a British commander, whom the home Government had sent out with authority, not only over his own regulars, but Colonial officers whose abilities were vastly in excess of his own. But it was not for these Colonials to question; only to "do and die," and they did all in their power, and died by hundreds, merely that an incompetent commander's whims should be gratified.

When at last the inept Abercrombie had sacrificed the lives under his command to the number of two thousand or more, and became convinced that he could not take Ticonderoga that way, he was seized with panic and ordered a retreat. As the Rangers under Putnam were the first in the assault, so they were the last to retire, being obliged to protect the retreat of the main army, and remained till dusk on the edge of the forest, where they maintained a continuous fire, to prevent pursuit. With but one-third as many soldiers as Abercrombie brought to the attack, Montcalm did not feel like pursuing the retreating foe, but contented himself with the great victory-a victory won not so much by the valor of his men as by the incompetency of his chief opponent.

Had the advice of Putnam, Rogers, and others of the Provincials been sought and accepted, much of this loss of life might have been averted, for though themselves fighting with great courage, doggedly and against all hope, they were averse to a direct assault without the cannon, with which a breach might have been opened into the fort. But the cannon reposed at the lake-side, whither retreated the defeated soldiers, with such haste that they were enabled to embark that very night, leaving their dead and many of their wounded in the forest where they lay. A few days before, after the first engagement, Major Rogers, of the Rangers, having been sent to bring off the dead and wounded of the enemy, had cruelly despatched the latter, to the horror not only of his confrère, Major Putnam, but of the British officers who became cognizant of the fact.

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