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Old Put" The Patriot" By Frederick A. Ober Characters: 13238

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

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The British had been forced out of Boston; they had embarked aboard their fleet; but for more than a week they lingered in the outer harbor, as if uncertain whither to go. While Washington was in doubt as to their next movement, he shrewdly guessed that the city of New York, being so advantageously situated, especially commanding communication with Canada by the valley of the Hudson River, would be their ultimate, if not immediate objective. He had already despatched thither General Lee, who was planning defenses for the harbor; but as he desired Lee to command in the South, he looked around for another man to take his place. Troops were on the way, also, under Generals Heath and Sullivan, to be followed by many more, and there was every indication that soon a large army would be concentrated in and around New York.

Who to trust with this important command was a serious question for the Commander-in-Chief, but he finally pitched upon Putnam, in whom he seemed to have confidence, though with some misgivings which foreshadowed the accuracy of his final estimate of the man. In a letter treating of a similar situation, two months previously, Washington had written to Congress: "General Putnam is a most valuable man and a fine executive officer; but I do not know how he would conduct in a separate department."

But he resolved to entrust him with the command, and on the 29th of March, only twelve days after the British had left, gave him his orders, which concluded with this expression of confidence: "Your long service and experience will, better than my particular directions at this distance, point out to you the works most proper to be raised; and your perseverance, activity, and zeal will lead you, without my recommending it, to exert every nerve to disappoint the enemy's designs."

With his customary expedition, General Putnam lost no time in getting to New York, arriving there on the 4th of April, whither he was followed by Washington nine days later. The Commander-in-Chief found, when he arrived, little to criticize and much to commend in what Putnam had done, for he had already stopped the Tories from furnishing supplies to the British fleet, had commenced to fortify Governor's Island and Red Hook, increased the efficiency of the works on Brooklyn Heights, barricaded the streets of New York with mahogany logs from the West Indies, and organized a "navy" of schooners and whale-boats, to cruise in the North and East rivers.

As Washington was absent much of the time in consultation with Congress at Philadelphia, Putnam was practically in supreme command; yet his arduous and important duties did not prevent him from attending a dinner on the first anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. In a letter written by an American officer describing this event, it is more than intimated that he was ever ready to accommodate when called upon for a song or a speech on such an occasion, for he says: "Our good General Putnam got sick and went to his quarters before dinner was over, and we missed him a marvel, as there is not a chap in the camp who can lead him in the 'Maggie Lauder's song.'"

When in New York, Putnam's headquarters were on Bowling Green, where he later had with him members of his family, including his wife, who had also visited him at Cambridge, and had dispensed a generous hospitality at the Inman mansion; while Mrs. Washington (with whom both Putnam and his wife were in high favor) was at the Craigie house. His son Israel was a member of his military family, which also included Major Humphreys (who afterward wrote his biography) and Major Aaron Burr, his military secretary. His justifiable severity in proclaiming martial law, and in punishing Tories found guilty of harboring or assisting the enemy, incurred the ill-will of New York's inhabitants, and militated against his fortunes when later he fell into disrepute.

Plots against his life were formed, among them most conspicuous for its scheme of wholesale assassinations being that in which one of Washington's own guards was concerned, and for complicity in which this same man, Thomas Hickey, paid the penalty with his life, being executed on the 27th of June. Two days later a large British fleet was reported off Sandy Hook, and by the 1st of July there were more than a hundred of the enemy's war-ships and transports in the bay. The presence of this immense fleet did not prevent the proper reception of the immortal Declaration of Independence, proclaimed by the Continental Congress at Philadelphia on the 4th of July, 1776, and which was read to the troops, amid loud acclaim from officers and common soldiers, on the 9th.

Israel Putnam.

From a painting by Trumbull.

The arrival of the vast fleet, the subsequent landing of an army of nearly twenty-five thousand men, and the warlike preparations which the British were feverishly making looking to the capture of the city, did not alarm Old Put, with his total force of scarcely seventeen thousand. He went on as calmly and as determinedly as though himself commander of the larger army, for the hero of Bunker Hill never anticipated defeat. He always fought to the last, after making every needful preparation for whatever event, and at New York, although the chances were all against him, he did his utmost to bring about success. He had fortified Governor's Island and Red Hook in order to prevent the enemy's ships of war from ascending the Hudson; he now sank several old hulks in the channel for the same purpose; but, notwithstanding, two war-vessels succeeded in getting up the North River, which they afterward descended, without injury to themselves.

It having been recommended by Congress that "fire-rafts be prepared and sent among the enemy's shipping," Putnam acted in accordance with the suggestion by fitting out fourteen fire-ships for the purpose, though nothing was accomplished with them. Still persistent in his endeavors to drive off the enemy, he adopted the invention of David Bushnell, a native of his own State, which the inventor called the "great American Turtle," and which, in fact, was a submarine torpedo, probably the first one thus used in warfare. It was to be guided by one man, and that man was to have been Bushnell himself; but, unfortunately, he fell sick, and the "turtle" boat with its infernal machine was entrusted to a Connecticut sergeant named "Bije" Shipman, who promised to row the "submarine"-diminutive prototype of all those which have committed such destruction since-down the bay and attach the torpedo to the bottom of

the British admiral's ship. He reached the ship without being observed-strange to say-and attempted to attach the torpedo; but the attaching screw struck against an iron plate and caused great delay. Coming up to get a breath of fresh air, "Bije" was seen and fired upon by a sentinel, and at once rowed away as fast as his oars could carry him. The torpedo, the explosion of which was regulated by clockwork operating on a gun-lock, actually exploded about half an hour after, sending up a great geyser of water, which frightened the British admiral so that he gave orders to up anchor and seek another mooring-place.

The Yankee navigator of the submarine declared that when he struck the iron plate he got "narvous," and couldn't affix the screw properly; but that if he had had a fresh "cud of terbacker," he would have been all right and the admiral's ship would have gone "a-kiting" into the air. The attempt was not repeated, for some reason or other, probably because the British got wary and kept farther away from shore. The next year, however, inventor Bushnell succeeded in blowing up a British schooner with his torpedo; but neither he nor quaint "Bije" Shipman ever received the credit that was their due, the latter being one of the forgotten heroes of the Revolution.

About this time the Putnam family entertained as guest the pretty daughter of a British officer, Major James Moncrieffe, the same one to whom, at the siege of Boston, "Old Put" had sent a present of provisions, even though they were opposed as enemies. This young lady was received by the family with affection, presented to General and Mrs. Washington, and afterward provided with a pass through the lines and sent to her father, accompanied by a letter of which (as she wittily said to a friend) "the bad orthography was amply compensated for by the magnanimity of the man who wrote it." Here is the letter: "Ginrale Putnam's compliments to Major Moncrieffe, has made him a present of a fine daughter, if he don't lick [like] her he must send her back again, and he will provide her with a good twig [Whig] husband."

General Putnam's humor, like his generosity, was never-failing; but, as "Josh Billings" once remarked of himself, "he was a bad speller" to the end of his life. But he could spell f-i-g-h-t as well as anybody; and what is more, he could forgive his enemies, not only after the fight was over, but while it was going on-as witness his generous actions on many occasions.

Though kept busy as a bee from morning to night, yet General Putnam found life in New York irksome, and was glad enough when ordered by Washington over to Long Island, to command at Brooklyn Heights and to supersede Sullivan, who had superseded Greene, then sick with fever, who had planned and erected the fortifications on the island. It was perhaps this "lightning change" of commanders that was responsible for the bitter defeat of the Americans in that encounter known as the "Battle of Long Island." By the third week of August, when this battle took place, the British were near New York with more than three hundred ships and thirty thousand troops, including those of Clinton, Cornwallis, and Howe. The last named was in command, and on the 22d of August he landed twenty thousand troops, including five thousand hireling Hessians, at Gravesend Bay, with the intention of flanking the Americans out of their positions at Flatbush and the Heights and then advancing across the island to East River and New York.

It was not until two days later that (in the words of a soldier writing to his wife at that time) "General Putnam was made happy by obtaining leave to go over-the brave old man was quite miserable at being kept here," in New York. Only three days after his arrival the battle was fought, which (in brief) was brought about by the British surprising an outpost at one of the three passes to the American rear, on the night of the 26th of August and thus turning the patriots' position. With more than three times the numerical strength of the Americans, the British were successful, and the former lost more than a thousand men, most of them made prisoners, including Generals Sullivan and Stirling.

Washington hurried over reenforcements, until there were nearly ten thousand men at the Heights; but Putnam soon found it impossible to conduct its defense against twenty thousand of the enemy, with ten thousand more in reserve, and, with Washington's sanction and cooperation, he withdrew his men from their perilous position by a night retreat across the river, which was a triumph of military sagacity and achievement. The more than nine thousand men, with their ammunition, arms, provisions, etc., were safely over the river before the British became aware of what was going on. Then it was too late, and notwithstanding that the Americans had been outflanked and defeated by the most skilful strategy, the British lost the chief fruits of their victory by procrastination.

The loss of Long Island meant, of course, the evacuation of New York, since the city could now be commanded by the enemy's guns on the Heights. This movement was decided upon by Washington and his generals at a council of war; the garrison was withdrawn from Governor's Island, and after the surplus ammunition and military stores had been forwarded to a point of safety, the troops leisurely followed after toward the north. Putnam, Heath, and Spencer were placed in command of the three grand divisions into which the army was divided preparatory for retreat and stationed along the East River, Putnam, as usual, having the most perilous situation, at the lower end of the city. To him was committed the removal of the troops and military stores, so that he had no more time at command than formerly.

Yet the British did not move upon the city with precipitation. Commander-in-Chief Howe had learned his lesson by heart at Bunker Hill, and was no longer in haste to attack his brave opponents unless with overwhelming numbers, whether entrenched or otherwise. He had resolved upon a series of flank movements, for the purpose of cutting off the American retreat northward, and on the 15th of September put the first in execution. Washington was at his new headquarters, the Jumel mansion, at Harlem Heights, and Old Put was busy hurrying off the last of the detachments down in the city, when both heard the booming of cannon at Kip's Bay. They met at Murray Hill, and together galloped toward the sound of firing, but before they reached East River were met by their own troops fleeing before the British advance.

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