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   Chapter 8 A PRISONER AND IN PERIL

Old Put" The Patriot" By Frederick A. Ober Characters: 13214

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


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The good fortune with which Major Putnam had been favored during three years of fighting a wily and treacherous foe, suddenly deserted him when, in the month of August, 1758, he found himself confronted by an Indian warrior of herculean frame, during a skirmish near Fort St. Anne. He and Major Rogers had been sent out by Abercrombie to ascertain the whereabouts of a war party which was committing depredations between Fort Edward and the lakes. The timid general was very much afraid of an attack in force by the victorious Montcalm, and constantly on the watch.

One morning, as the Rangers were proceeding through a dense thicket, with Putnam's Provincials in front, they ran into an ambush which the wary Marin, the French partizan fighter, had prepared, by posting his men in a semicircular position across the trail. Suddenly the air was rent with yells and reports of firearms, and several Provincials fell in their tracks. Putnam, taken unawares, yet as always cool and collected, gave orders to return the fire, and sent word back for support, which in the confusion incident to the sudden attack was not promptly forthcoming. Forging ahead, he was confronted by an Indian chieftain, a giant in size, against whose breast he at once placed the muzzle of his fusee, which-as those primitive flintlocks were likely to do in an emergency-missed fire. The savage then had him at his mercy, and brandishing his tomahawk above his head compelled him to surrender, when he tied him to a tree, and then left him to mingle in the fight again. As the Rangers rallied to battle it happened that the tree to which Putnam was bound came directly between the fires of both parties, and as the bullets flew thickly around our hero's position was not by any means an enviable one. Some of the balls passed through the sleeves and skirt of his coat, and in this perilous position he remained for more than an hour, unable either to move a limb or even his head.

No attention was paid to him, except that now and then a savage would approach, and seeing him there helpless and a conspicuous mark would throw a tomahawk at his head, to see how near he could come to this living target without inflicting a fatal wound. An equally savage Frenchman also approached, and aiming his fusee at his breast, would have put him out of his misery had it not missed fire. This enraged the scoundrel so that he gave Putnam a blow on the jaw with the butt-end of his musket which nearly finished him, and then left him alone.

The battle waged unevenly for a while, but was finally decided in favor of the Provincials, and the French and Indians hastily gathered their prisoners together and fled northward toward Ticonderoga. Putnam's captor stripped him of his coat and waistcoat, socks and shoes, then after binding his wrists together he loaded him with as many packs as he could pile upon his shoulders, and giving him in charge of another Indian, left him to attend to the wounded.

Poor Putnam was soon in a deplorable condition, with hands swollen terribly from the tightness of the ligature, and his feet gashed and bleeding, as he trudged along the trail beneath his enormous burden. He begged the savages to knock him on the head and end his sufferings; but he was soon to experience even more horrible sensations, for, arriving in advance of the main party at the place where they were to camp for the night, the small body of Indians that had him in charge concluded to burn him at the stake! He was suffering terribly from the blow on his jaw, from his swollen hands and mutilated feet, and also from a tomahawk gash in his cheek, so that he cared little what became of him, provided the end came quickly. To be burned alive, however, was a fate that brought a shudder to the frame of even stout-hearted Israel Putnam, and he looked on in horror while his captors stripped him naked, bound him to a tree and piled the dry brush they had gathered for fuel around him in a circle. All the while, as they labored at their fiendish task, they chanted a funeral dirge, which was almost as depressing to their captive as their sinister preparations for his immediate immolation.

"Major Putnam soon began to feel the scorching heat," says his biographer, Colonel Humphreys, who had these details from the chief actor's own lips. "His hands were so tied that he could move his body, and he often shifted sides as the fire approached. This sight, at the very idea of which all but savages must shudder, afforded the highest diversion to his inhuman tormentors, who demonstrated the delirium of their joy by yells, dances, and gesticulations. He saw clearly that his final hour was inevitably come. He summoned all his resolution, and composed his mind, as far as the circumstances would admit, to bid an eternal farewell to all he held most dear.... His thought was ultimately fixed on a happier state of existence, ... the bitterness of death, even of that death which is accompanied with the keenest agonies, was in a manner past, ... when a French officer rushed through the crowd, opened a way by scattering the burning brands, and unbound the victim."

The officer was no other than the redoubtable partizan, Marin, who exerted a wonderful influence over his savage company. He at once sent for the Indian who had captured Major Putnam, who did what he could to make amends for the dreadful treatment the latter had received; but that night, in order to prevent his prisoner from escaping, he stretched his limbs out in the shape of a cross and bound them to four saplings, then placed poles and bushes across his body as it lay on the ground with several Indians at either side, who kept watch the night through.

Arrived at Fort Ticonderoga, Major Putnam had an interview with the Marquis de Montcalm, who ordered him sent to Montreal, whither he was taken without delay, and where he met a brother American, Colonel Peter Schuyler, of New Jersey, who, possessing considerable influence, compelled the Frenchman to treat their prisoner more humanely. The capture of Louisburg, Frontenac and other posts, by the English that year gave them numerous prisoners, which they were not slow to exchange for those in the hands of the French. Thus it came about that the period of Major Putnam's captivity was quite short, for he was in Montreal and Quebec in the last days of August, his exchange was accomplished in October, and in November he was on his way to his home in Connecticut.

If the French had known who it was they held a prisoner in the person of Major Putnam,

doubtless they would have been slow to permit his exchange; but Colonel Schuyler kept this information to himself, and when told by the governor that he might select whatever officer he liked to be included in the cartel, he chose his friend.

"There is an old man here," he said, "who is a Provincial Major, and who wishes to be at home with his wife and children; he can do no good here or anywhere else; I believe your Excellency had better keep some of the young men, who have no wife or children to care for, and let the old fellow go home with me."

This subterfuge availed, and Putnam went along with his friend; but whether the latter was justified in alluding to him as an "old man" is doubtful, as he was then only forty years of age. He had, however, won the sobriquets of "Old Wolf Putnam" and of "Old Put," long before, and doubtless was accustomed to be regarded as elderly, despite his jolly countenance and ever-cheerful disposition.

His kind and affectionate nature was displayed at its best on the journey home, which was long and wearisome, when he took charge of a lady, Mrs. Howe, whose husband had been killed and scalped three years previously. She had been in captivity ever since, and had endured untold outrages from her captors. Her seven children were dispersed, but five of them were recovered, and accompanied her back to her home in New Hampshire. Colonel Schuyler had rescued her from captivity, and Major Putnam constituted himself her protector during the long and toilsome journey, leading her little ones, assisting the sorrowful mother over the rough places, and sharing his meals with the unfortunate family.

What a welcome the hero received on his home-coming, from his loving, constant wife and children! They had heard of his vicissitudes, had almost given him up for dead; but at last he was with them again, and the dismal past was buried. The joy of the family at meeting again was clouded by sorrow, however, for death had entered the family circle since the father and husband's departure. Israel, the eldest son, was there, and the daughters; but the second son was absent, never to return.

On an old tombstone in the graveyard at Brooklyn, Connecticut, is this inscription:

"In Memory of Mr. Daniel Putnam, son of Colo. Israel Putnam & Mrs. Hannah his wife, who died Aug. 8th, 1758, Aged 17 Years."

Also of David Putnam, Son of ye above Colo. Israel & Mrs. Hannah Putnam, who died Nov. 21, 1761, aged 1 month."

The first death, of Daniel, his pet and pride, occurred, it is said, on the very day (August 8, 1758), at the close of which Major Putnam was in direst peril, tied to a tree in the forest, environed by fire and within a circle of whooping, yelling savages. The demise of David, whom he never saw, took place while the father was away on the Amherst expedition, or just before his return from that campaign. Sturdy Israel, the first-born son, had taken charge of the farm while his father was off on his various campaigns-or at least had done his best to do so, and the family had not wanted for provisions during the enforced absences of the head of the family. As he was now a robust young man of nearly twenty, and possessed all the home-loving traits of his father, Israel was considered perfectly competent to carry on the farm at least another season, and in the spring of 1759 his father, now advanced to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, went away again to the wars.

Israel Putnam seemed never to know when he had enough of fighting; or else his sense of duty to the king and his country was paramount to all other considerations else. At all events, one of his bravery and force could not be omitted from the great expedition that General Amherst (who had been sent by Pitt to supersede Abercrombie) was then organizing. In July, 1759, we find him with his command at Lake George, where the second expedition against Ticonderoga set forth, following the route taken by Abercrombie, over the lake to Ticonderoga, which was reached on the 22d. On the 23d, the French officer in command of the fortress suddenly departed down Lake Champlain with nearly all his men; but Amherst did not know it, and kept on with his preparations for bombardment, having his batteries in position before he was made aware, by French deserters, that the place had been abandoned. Soon the powder magazine blew up, having been left by the French with a lighted slow-match attached for the purpose, the barracks caught fire, and Ticonderoga, which had held out so well against British and Provincial assaults, was at last laid low. It was reconstructed, as we know, and served both British and Patriots in the Revolutionary War; but is now in ruins, picturesque and imposing in their decay.

Crown Point was also evacuated by the French, and thus at last the main object of so many months' toil in the wilderness with such woful waste of life and vast expenditure of treasure, was accomplished. While Putnam and his comrades were engaged in restoring the fortifications of Crown Point, they heard the news of British victories on every hand: of the fall of Fort Niagara; and of the storming and capture of Quebec, when, on that fateful thirteenth of September, 1759, Wolfe and Montcalm found death and fame, the former at the hour of victory, the latter in defeat.

Israel Putnam met nearly all the great British commanders, with the possible exception of Wolfe, and had assisted with all his might at the upbuilding of English power in America, so it was not strange that when, later, the Revolution opened, he was looked upon by them more as a friend than an enemy. The next year, when Amherst moved upon Montreal, then the chief, almost sole possession of the French in Canada, Colonel Putnam went along, as a matter of course, and, it is gravely related by his first biographer, he assisted the general at a critical moment and in a very novel way. Two armed vessels of the enemy were likely to cause trouble to the British on the St. Lawrence, and Amherst was anxious to put them out of the way before they could sink his boats. Putnam proffered his services, declaring he could take the vessels in short order.

"How?" asked the General, somewhat amused as well as surprised.

"With beetles and wedges, and a boat-load of men," answered "Put." And, the story goes, he rowed out to the vessels, in the dead of night, drove wooden wedges in behind their rudders, and left them helpless, for when the wind came up they would not answer the helm and were driven ashore, where their crews were easily taken by the English.

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