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   Chapter 9 A CAMPAIGN IN CUBA

Old Put" The Patriot" By Frederick A. Ober Characters: 12844

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


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It can not be denied that Israel Putnam was already quite a traveler; but it must be added that he had so far traveled mainly within a circumscribed area. Over and over again this faithful soldier had plodded the trails and military roads, and pushed his way through the swamps, morasses, forests, of the wilderness region of New York, which by the end of 1761 he should have known almost as well as the woodland pastures of his own farm. But he was destined to extend his travels and make a foreign voyage, still in the service of the King of England, whom he had served so long and so well.

He was present at the capitulation of Montreal, one September day, 1760, and had the pleasure of meeting the Indian chief who had taken him prisoner two years previously. He lived near Montreal, at the Indian village of Caughnawaga, where he received his former captive with pride, and was highly delighted to see his old acquaintance, "whom he entertained in his own well-built stone house with great friendship and hospitality; while his guest did not discover less satisfaction in an opportunity of shaking the brave savage by the hand and proffering him protection in this reverse of his military fortunes."

Returning home at the end of the 1760 campaign, Putnam remained on his farm all winter, and the next spring set out again for what proved an uneventful season, with much hard work on fortifications and entrenchments, but no fighting of account. For, so far as the mainland of North America was concerned, the long struggle between France and England was nearly at an end. France had been shorn of her possessions in Canada, and she was losing her islands in the West Indies, where, early in 1762, beautiful Martinique (to become famous as the birthplace of the Empress Josephine, and a rich land of sugar and spices) was captured by the British.

In fact, the theater of war was transferred to the more southern regions of the Caribbean Sea, and the New Englanders took a long breath and congratulated themselves that at last they were at liberty to pursue their callings unmolested. But in this they were somewhat premature, as England was still engaged in fighting, and, no matter where her battles were fought, she seemed to expect the loyal American colonists to furnish soldiers for her wars. Connecticut, Putnam's home State, was again called upon for the same number of able-bodied men she had furnished year by year, and promptly proffered her bone and sinew to fight the wars of King George the Third.

A thousand men, besides fifteen hundred from New York and New Jersey, embarked at the port of New York, in the month of June, 1762, bound for Havana in Cuba, where British regulars were dying by hundreds of pestilence, and sorely needed those colonial reenforcements. On this, his first sea voyage, Colonel Putnam had a rough experience all the way down, and off the north coast of Cuba the transport containing himself and five hundred of his men was wrecked on a coral ledge. "Old Put" was calm and collected, never more so, though unused to life at sea, and preserved strict discipline among his men, thus aiding the mariners in their endeavors to get out rafts and boats, on and in which the entire company finally reached the shore. To his perils by fire, twice incurred, brave Putnam could now add that by flood, thus giving the spice of variety to his various adventures.

"As soon as all were landed," wrote the biographer who knew him best, "Putnam fortified his camp, that he might not be exposed to insult from inhabitants of the neighboring districts.... Here the party remained unmolested several days, until the storm had so much abated as to permit the convoy to take them off. They soon joined the troops before Havana, who, having been several weeks in that unhealthy climate, had already begun to grow extremely sickly. The opportune arrival of the Provincial reenforcement, in perfect health, contributed not a little to forward the works and hasten the reduction of that important place. But the Provincials suffered so miserably by sickness afterward, that very few ever returned to their native land again."

This is all that Colonel Putnam's contemporary, Humphreys, has to say of the most eventful episode of his hero's career, but it seems to the present writer (who has personally investigated the British and Colonial invasion of Cuba "on the spot") that the subject is worthy of more extended notice. The English expedition against Havana was occasioned by the King of Spain, Charles III, having entered into what was known as the "family compact" with Louis XV of France, by which the Bourbons were to support each other against British rapacity and aggrandizement, as they styled it.

England had long looked covetously upon Havana, which the Spaniards themselves called the "Key of the New World," situated at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico and (in the hands of a strong power) then controlling the seaboard of territory at present comprised in the South Atlantic States of our Union. So she hastened to seize the capital of Cuba, the "Pearl of the Antilles," and early in June, 1762, the surprised and frightened inhabitants were informed that a fleet of sixty ships-of-war had landed more than 20,000 men at the little port of Cogimar, a few miles to the east of picturesque and formidable Morro Castle.

Quickly, then, the Captain-General assembled the "Junta of Defense," composed of men most eminent in military affairs in Havana, and placed before them the situation.[1] They resolved upon a spirited defense, even though their soldiers were insufficiently armed and they had no defensive works save the Morro, then about a hundred years old, and its companion fortress called the Punta, between which two forts lay the deep and narrow entrance to the harbor. This harbor was blocked by some big war-ships, and a chain was stretched across the mouth, but the English did not even essay an entrance, having landed their troops to the east, and first marching upon the Morro from Cogimar and the town of Guanabacao, which they took quite easily, and then sweeping over the Caba?as hills, where the Spaniards later built the vast fortifications which they should have constructed sooner for the defense of their capital city.

[1] From Nociones de Historia de Cuba, by Dr. Vidal Morales; Havana, 1904.

The Provincial

s arrived the last of July, and landed to the west of Havana, where stands a small fort known as the Torreon of Chorrera, which was defended with much valor, but compelled to surrender. Afterward, however, they were transported to the Caba?as hills, and there, on the site of the fortifications (above which, in 1904, the American flag last waved in token of possession in Cuba), Israel Putnam and his Provincials joined the British troops. And they were welcome, beyond a doubt, for nearly half the British army was incapacitated through fevers, and many men had died.

Fort near Havana where the Colonials landed.

The arrival of the sturdy Colonials gave the besiegers of the Morro new strength, and fresh courage, and within a few days they were called upon to assist at carrying the castle by storm. The English had been a long time sapping toward the fortress walls, and a breach having been opened near the bastion, the combined assailants poured through in an invincible flood. The Duke of Albermarle, who commanded the British forces, had informed the comandante of the castle that he had mined the bastion and demanded a capitulation. But the heroic commander, Don Luis de Velasco, spurned the proffer, and as a consequence the castle was stormed, and he was included among the five hundred slain on that occasion. A tablet to his memory may be seen affixed against the seaward wall of the Morro, and from the parapet may be traced the British and Provincial line of approach.

The bastion they breached was afterward repaired; but nothing could repair the terrible losses sustained by both armies through sickness caused by exposure and bad water. More than one-third of the Colonials died of disease; but nothing seemed to trouble sturdy Old Put, who was everywhere among his men, with comfort and consolation, carrying water to the wounded, supporting the dying. The chaplain of the Connecticut troops one day recorded in his diary: "Col. Putman and Lt. Parks went off into ye country to buy fresh provisions." Two days later he noted the death of Putnam's companion in this trip into the country; and that was in October, only a few days before orders were given for the Colonials to embark for New York.

Havana capitulated soon after its only real defense, Morro Castle, was taken, and the English entered into possession. But imagine the feelings of the surviving soldiers who had gone so far and been exposed to so great peril, when they learned, less than a year later, that the city and fortress that had cost so dear had been given up, in exchange for Florida and other Spanish territory east of the Mississippi.

In Havana, where he was one day roaming about unarmed, Colonel Putnam met with an adventure which nearly cost him his life and made him the involuntary owner of a negro slave. Seeing a Spaniard beating a black man with a bamboo cane, he darted in with his old time impetuosity, and seizing the stick, wrenched it away from its owner, who, joined by other exasperated Cubans, turned upon the American and compelled him to flee to a vessel for safety. Here he was followed by the negro, who so successfully appealed to the soldier's tender sensibilities that he allowed him to accompany him home to Connecticut. There he served him faithfully, and when his master died he bequeathed to "Old Dick"-as he was called-the "Havana cane," of which the colored Cuban exile was inordinately proud.

Israel Putnam was now a man of substance, more than ever looked up to by his neighbors and honored by the community in which he dwelt. Taking up his duties of citizenship where he had left them on being summoned to war, he threw off the military habit as he might an old garment now no longer of service, and became again the contented, humble farmer. In 1763, about the time the treaty of peace between England and France was signed, he was elected "selectman" of the town in which he lived, and the ensuing spring appointed to receive the heads of such crows as should be killed in the township, for which a bounty was offered of sixpence each! Such humble offices as these he by no means despised, always lending a hand to whatever appeared in the guise of duty.

It became his duty, he thought, to go to war again, in the year 1764, when the Indians, neglected by both French and English, who had now no further need of their services, found themselves in danger of being ground between the upper and the nether millstones. They looked with apprehension upon the forts the English were erecting on every hand, and finally rose in rebellion, under the leadership of Pontiac, chief of the Ottawas. He organized a widespread conspiracy among the Indian tribes, believing he could eventually exterminate "those dogs dressed in red," as he called the English. The rising was appointed for the 7th of May, 1763, and no less than eight English garrisons were massacred, a five-months' siege ensuing at Detroit, where Pontiac himself commanded the Indians. The attacks were intermitted in the winter, but as they were sure to be renewed in the spring, a call was sent out for colonial troops. Appointed to command the Connecticut troops raised for this service, Putnam took a prominent part in suppressing the uprising, going out in the Bradstreet expedition. At Fort Ontario he met many old friends, including Sir William Johnson and his band, also the Indian chief who had captured him at Fort Ann in 1758, and who was now fighting on the side of the English with as much zeal as he had previously served the French.

On his return from this wearisome campaign, Colonel Putnam again settled down to the chosen occupation of his youth and the solace of his latter years, on the farm. Having given ten of the best years of his life to soldiering, he felt that he was entitled now to the rewards of peace. But alas! within five months of his arrival home he lost two of his dear ones by death: his daughter Elizabeth, only seventeen years of age, who died in the winter of 1764-'65, and his beloved wife, Hannah, who passed away in the April following. Of the ten children born to Israel and Hannah Putnam in the twenty-six years of their happy married life, seven were living at the time of the mother's death, the youngest only three months old, and bearing the name of Peter Schuyler, in honor of the New Jersey colonel who had befriended his father when a captive in Canada.

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