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   Chapter 13 HOLDING THE ENEMY AT BAY

Old Put" The Patriot" By Frederick A. Ober Characters: 12518

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


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The battle had been fought, and had resulted even better than the then enraged Putnam himself could have anticipated, for although technically defeated, the Provincials had achieved a real victory, the fruits of which were to be enjoyed by generations then unborn. For they had conquered themselves as well as the enemy, whom they had met with calm confidence; and had they been better supplied with ammunition, that enemy would never have seen the inside of the redoubt and the breastworks.

British bayonets defeated them finally, as opposed to clubbed muskets and stones cast by despairing men, whose very last thought was of retreat. Many and many a man besides Prescott and Putnam, Stark and Pomeroy, Knowlton and McClary, raged like wolves that day at its ending, to find themselves compelled to accept a retreat as the alternative of capture or death. Like lions making for their lairs in the hills, Prescott and Putnam gave way at last before the overwhelming forces of the enemy; and, after passing through the storm of cannon-balls still hurtling across the Neck, they had leisure to count up their losses; for the British were too exhausted, too much in awe of their prowess, even, to pursue.

It was a very good showing for green troops, that which told the respective losses of British and Americans: more than a thousand of the former, as against less than five hundred of the latter. Each side lost, in killed and wounded, about one-third the total number of its men, for the British brought about four thousand five hundred troops into the field; while the Americans in active conflict, including such reenforcements as reached the hill, scarcely exceeded fifteen hundred.

A very good showing, a "great victory"-yet purchased at fearful cost to both sides. A host of British officers, many of them bearing names distinguished for valor and honorable lineage, went down before the volleys of the Provincials, while the latter had also a sorrowful tale to tell. Warren had fallen, one of the last to leave the redoubt; old Pomeroy had his musket shattered, but drew off in good order, taking it along with him for repairs; McClary was killed by a cannon-ball, while boasting that the shot was not cast that would end his life; and so the story went.

One of the strangest happenings was the end of Major Pitcairn, who had ordered the first shots fired at Lexington, and who, one of the first over the redoubt, was killed by a negro soldier named Salem, falling into the arms of his son. It came about, some time after, that the pistols he had carried at Lexington (which were taken from his holsters when his horse was shot under him, and he lay on the ground feigning himself dead) were presented to General Putnam. He carried them through all his subsequent campaigns, and at present they may be found in the custody of the Library at Lexington.

One field-piece only was saved out of six guns taken by the Provincials into battle, and it was near the last one left in the field that the enraged Putnam took his stand, between his retreating men and the advancing foe, until "his countrymen were in momentary expectation of seeing this compeer of the immortal Warren fall."

That was Putnam: one of the first in the field, the last to leave it. We have seen (as all his biographers and many historians have agreed in stating) that he took a most active part throughout, exposing himself continually to the shots of the enemy, guiding, directing, leading; and that no man's commands were so eagerly received and so promptly obeyed as his. And yet there are cavilers who have raised the question as to whether he or Prescott commanded at the battle of Bunker Hill-as though it mattered much. Both were sons of Massachusetts, and Putnam an adoptive son of Connecticut, fighting on Massachusetts soil.

It is certain that neither he nor Prescott gave a thought to this matter, especially at the time the balls flew thickest.[2] They may have had differences of opinion, as, for instance, when Putnam attempted to take away some of Prescott's men from the redoubt to throw up earthworks on Bunker Hill. Subsequent events proved that Putnam's scheme of defense was the right one, and only lack of time and men prevented its being carried out.

[2] "Putnam," says Irving, in his Life of Washington, "also was a leading spirit throughout the affair; one of the first to prompt and the last to maintain it. He appears to have been active and efficient at every point, sometimes fortifying, sometimes hurrying up reenforcements; inspiriting the men by his presence while they were able to maintain their ground, and fighting gallantly at the outpost to cover their retreat."

As soon as once assured that the defeat of the Provincials was overwhelming, Putnam lost no time in entrenching at Prospect Hill, the first spot at which he could halt his fleeing troops. Here he stayed, working like a beaver and digging like a badger, and this strategic position, which he had seized and selected almost intuitively, he continued to occupy until appointed to the command of the center division of the army at Cambridge, where, on July 2, 1775, he for the first time met General Washington, who had come with his appointment as Commander-in-Chief recently received from the Continental Congress.

Not long after formally taking command of the army, beneath the historic elm at Cambridge, Washington made a tour of the fortifications and was astonished at the progress Putnam had made at Prospect Hill, as well as at the military skill he had shown in taking and fortifying it. Two days later he presented him with his commission as a Major-General in the Continental Army, which had been unanimously bestowed by Congress on the 19th of June, two days after the battle of Bunker Hill, and which he received on the 4th of July. Putnam's commission was the only one then presented in person by Washington, though three others had been appointed major-generals under him: Lee, Ward, and Schuyler. A great deal of jealousy and heart-burning resulted from the appointments, one of the brigadiers, General Spencer, over whom Putnam had been advanced, threatening to resign.

In these days began the friendship whi

ch existed between the Commander-in-Chief and Major-General Putnam during the remainder of their lives. Putnam's honesty, industry, frankness, and integrity interested General Washington, who was delighted with this bluff old soldier who wore his laurels so modestly. "You'll find," wrote a contemporary to a friend, "that Generals Washington and Lee are vastly fonder and think higher of Putnam than any man in the army; and he truly is the hero of the day!"

On the 6th of July, 1775, the Continental Congress sent out its formal Statement, which was read at headquarters in Cambridge on the 15th, and to Putnam's division, then at Prospect Hill, on the 18th. At the same time the new standard recently sent from Connecticut was unfurled, to the acclaim of a mighty "Amen!" and the thunder of cannon from the fort. The commotion aroused the British in their dearly-bought stronghold over at Charlestown. In the language of the Essex Gazette, proclaiming this event: "The Philistines on Bunker Hill heard the shouts of the Israelites, and being very fearful, paraded themselves in battle array."

Putnam's bold stand at Prospect Hill, so promptly taken and so stoutly maintained, kept the enemy within the territory they had purchased with the blood of their best soldiers, and they never advanced any farther into the country they coveted. The lines of investment around Boston were drawn closer and made more nearly impregnable, yet weeks and months went by without any material change in the relative positions of British and Provincials, save that Putnam still kept on digging, and creeping nearer and nearer to the foe. By fortifying Cobble Hill, an elevation that more completely commanded the Charles than his main fortress at Prospect Hill, Putnam was enabled to open fire upon the British men-of-war and floating batteries, and soon silenced and drove them away. Not satisfied with this achievement, a few days later his men were at work upon an entrenchment within half a mile and under the fire of a British man-of-war, a squad of these intrepid soldiers being commanded by his eldest son, Israel.

The British were now alarmed, and doubtless believed, in the language of a writer commenting on these events, that "every fort which was defended by General Putnam might be considered as impregnable, if daring courage and intrepidity could always resist superior force."

Still, while the British feared to advance upon the Americans, the latter, though eager to drive them out of their stronghold, were unable to do so from lack of artillery and ammunition. This lack was to some extent supplied by the capture of some ordnance ships by our gallant privateers, though as late as January, 1776, one of the Provincial colonels wrote to another: "The bay is open; everything thaws here except Old Put. He is still as hard as ever, crying out for powder-powder-ye gods, give us powder!"

Cannon-balls, several hundred of them, he had secured (if we may credit a story told at the time) by conspicuously posting some of his men on an elevation in front of a sandy hill in sight of a British war-ship, from which by this ingenious ruse he drew a rain of shot, which supplied his needs for the time being, as they were afterward easily dug out of the sand!

Among the captures by the privateers was a 13-inch brass mortar weighing nearly three thousand pounds, which was taken to Cambridge, where (according to the same veracious narrator of the "powder cry," the witty Provincial colonel), it was the occasion of a great jubilation. "To crown the glorious scene," he says, "there intervened one truly ludicrous, which was Old Put mounted on the large mortar, which was fixed in its bed for the occasion, with a bottle of rum in his hand, standing parson to christen, while godfather Mifflin, the quartermaster-general, gave it the name of Congress!"

Old Put never lost a chance for fun and frolic, though he was as stern a disciplinarian as Washington himself, who, however, must have been greatly shocked at this horse-play in which his favorite General took part. But the rank and file were delighted; and it was the possession of just such qualities, of hilarious good-humor combined with sturdy common-sense, that made Old Put a universal favorite. For dignity he cared nothing at all; for discipline he was a "stickler"; and, as the men hated the one as much as they disliked the other, yet loved and admired their rough-and-ready General intensely, Putnam proved the coherent factor in the combination that held the army together. At another "truly ludicrous" scene, somewhat later, in which Putnam was one of the participants, the dignified Commander-in-Chief is said to have laughed until his sides ached. Looking from a window of his chamber in the Craigie mansion, one morning, Washington perceived Putnam approaching on horseback, with a very stout lady mounted behind his saddle, and riding as if for dear life. The woman was an accessory of a British spy, whom Putnam had arrested, and had brought to his commander to be disciplined. It was a long while before Washington could recover his countenance sufficiently to proceed with the business.

At last, after months of waiting, the arrival of General Knox with fifty-five cannon and a quantity of ammunition, which, with magnificent daring, he had collected and brought from the forts on the frontier, put the Provincials in possession of the means they needed for compelling the British to retire. Following a council of war, Dorchester Heights were occupied on the 4th of March, the attention of the enemy being first diverted from the real object by a two-days' cannon-fire upon the other side of the city, and after a futile attempt by General Howe to assault the works erected by the Americans, on the 17th the British hastily took to their ships.

Had this intended assault by the British taken place, Washington was ready to make a direct attack upon Boston with the troops in two divisions, under the command of General Putnam. At the last council of war, it is narrated, when General Washington had requested Putnam to give more attention to the matter in hand, he replied: "Oh, my dear General, plan the battle to suit yourself, and I will fight it!"

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