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   Chapter 16 DEFENDING THE HUDSON HIGHLANDS

Old Put" The Patriot" By Frederick A. Ober Characters: 13322

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


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Snugly and safely entrenched in the Morristown hill-country, Washington left to Putnam the post he so dearly loved, that of real danger, within fifteen miles of New Brunswick, where the enemy lay in strength. At Princeton, thirty miles from headquarters, Putnam remained until May, when he was detached and sent into the Hudson Highlands. The British had lost fewer men at Trenton and Princeton than the Americans had lost at Fort Washington, yet the former were singularly dispirited. With the Commander-in-Chief withdrawn to the hills, the road to Philadelphia lay open to the enemy, and only Old Put opposing them, like a lion in the path; but for some reason they did not avail themselves of the situation.

Putnam's division formed the right wing of the American army in cantonment that winter, with the center at Morristown and the left wing on the Hudson. At the opening of the spring campaign of 1777 Washington was uncertain whether the British would leave their winter quarters in New York for New England, the Hudson Highlands, or for Philadelphia. He was inclined to believe that Philadelphia would be the first and chief objective, and wished to hold himself in readiness for marching thither at a moment's warning; but again there were rumors of an invasion from Canada by way of the lakes and the Hudson, so this region must be protected.

Existing forts must be strengthened, others erected, a boom stretched across the Hudson to impede the passage of British ships, and obstacles of all kinds placed in the path of the British, should they advance northward. Needing a reliable man in this emergency, Washington sent Putnam to Peekskill, on the Hudson, preceded by a letter to General McDougall, then in command there, which was, to say the least, not very flattering to the gallant soldier who had been his right-hand man in the various retreats through the Jerseys. "You are acquainted with the old gentleman's temper," he wrote; "he is active, disinterested, and open to conviction," etc.

Washington would have been more fortunate if all his officers had been as "active, disinterested, and open to conviction" as Old Put-for instance, Lee, Arnold, Gates, and others-but he had allowed his prejudices to warp his former opinion of Putnam's sterling qualities.

Hardly had Putnam begun his work on the Hudson before there was a mighty movement in the port of New York, and, fearing there might be an attempt upon Philadelphia, Washington drew upon the old soldier's command until he had scarcely a thousand men at call. Then followed the commander's magnificent strategy at Middlebrook, whereby he finally defeated the British plans and brought about the complete evacuation of New Jersey, after which Putnam was strengthened in his position; only to be weakened again, the process being repeated until he felt called upon to protest.

Putnam was later accused by Hamilton, Washington's aide-de-camp, of making a "hobby-horse" out of his desire to march upon New York, and of riding it on all occasions; but it was no less a hobby-horse with him than the defense of Philadelphia was with his Commander-in-Chief, who many times imperiled the safety of other sections by withdrawing troops in hot haste and flying to the succor of a city which was captured and occupied by the British notwithstanding.

Washington rode his hobby-horse full-tilt at the unfortunate Putnam and threw him to the ground. With one hand, as it were, he wrote him to keep an eye on the movements of the enemy and be fully prepared to meet them; but with the other he signed an order for the weakening of his force. The consequences came when Burgoyne, having descended from Canada and invaded northern New York, Putnam found himself between two fires, that of the former and that of Sir Henry Clinton, who finally set out on the long-meditated trip up the Hudson in order to cooperate with the southward-marching army.

Putnam had learned of the successive moves on the military chess-board as Burgoyne progressed in his triumphal march. First, of the fall of Ticonderoga, in June; then of Fort Edward; finally, of the glorious victory achieved by his former comrade in the Indian wars and at Bunker Hill, the redoubtable General Stark, at Bennington. He was called upon to furnish reenforcements not only to Washington, unfortunate in his defense of Philadelphia, but to Schuyler and Gates in the north.

The post of danger, as usual, Old Put occupied in the Highlands, and he was delighted; only repining that whenever he was nearly ready to do something, away went his troops on some wild-goose mission, of which he knew neither the end or aim.

Washington surmised that Howe's scheme of sailing southward with an army aboard his ships was for the purpose of luring him away from the real point of attack, which was to be in the Highlands, so he wrote Putnam to be on the alert and to send spies down to New York to ascertain Clinton's plans. "If he has the number of men with him that is reported, it is probably with the intention to attack you from below, while Burgoyne comes down upon you from above." Thus wrote Washington in August, but still the depletion of the perplexed Putnam's command went steadily on. When he protested he was recommended to hurry up the militia from Connecticut, or some other New England State, and thus supply the place of the seasoned troops he had trained, with raw recruits.

"The old general, whose boast it was that he never slept but with one eye, was already on the alert. A circumstance had given him proof positive that Sir Henry was in New York, and had aroused his military ire," writes Washington Irving. This paragraph refers to one of Clinton's spies, who was captured while gathering information in Putnam's camp at Peekskill. When Clinton heard of it he sent a war-vessel up the Hudson with a flag of truce, claiming the man as one of his officers. This was Old Put's reply:

Headquarters, 7th August, 1777.

Edmund Palmer, an officer in the enemy's service, was taken as a spy lurking within our lines. He has been tried as a spy, condemned as a spy, and shall be executed as a spy; and the flag is ordered to depart immediately.

I have the honor to be, etc., etc.,

Israel Putnam.

P.S.-Afternoon. He is hanged!

The last week in September, Washington drew upon the patient commander in the Highlands for more soldiers, so that he had only eleven hundred men left with which to meet and withstand the British invasion of his territory, which began on the 5th of October. Putnam was fully cognizant of the situation, for he wrote to Governor Clinton

, his coadjutor in the defense of the Highlands, on the 29th of September: "I have received intelligence on which I can fully depend that the enemy received a reenforcement at New York last Thursday of about 3,000 British and foreign troops; that General Clinton has called in guides who belong about Croton River; has ordered hard bread to be baked; that the troops are called from Paulus Hook to Kingsbridge; and the whole are now under marching orders. I think it highly probable that the designs of the enemy are against the posts of the Highlands, or of some parts of the counties of Westchester or Duchess. P.S.-The ships are drawn up in the river, and I believe nothing prevents them paying us an immediate visit but a contrary wind!"

Within a week the enemy were in force on the river near Putnam's position, and within ten days they had completely outmaneuvered both Putnam and Clinton, and had taken forts Montgomery and Clinton, their chief defenses, with great loss to the Americans. Clinton had made a feint on Tarrytown and Peekskill, and after this diversion, under cover of the river mist, landed troops on the west shore of the Hudson, and marched rapidly through ravines and dense woods to the rear of the two forts, which were carried by the bayonet, the defenders being taken by surprise.

The British had twice the number of men that Putnam commanded in this attack, and also the advantage of ships of war in the river, but it is thought that results would have been different from what they were had a despatch for reenforcements from Governor Clinton reached him. It was sent by a messenger who proved a traitor and carried it within the enemy's lines. As it was, however, the British have the credit of consummate strategy on this occasion, and poorly as he was equipped, Old Put was greatly mortified over the defeat. He had good occasion for writing to Washington, as he wrote on the 8th of October: "I have repeatedly informed your Excellency of the enemy's design against this post, but from some motive or other you always differed from me in opinion. As this conjecture of mine has for once proved right, I can not omit informing you that my real and sincere opinion is that they mean to join General Burgoyne with the utmost despatch."

Further proof of British intentions was afforded by the capture of a spy, who, on being arrested, was seen to swallow a silver bullet which, being recovered, was found to contain a message written on very thin paper and dated October 8th-the day before. This message read: "Here we are, and nothing between us and Gates. I sincerely hope this little success of ours will facilitate your operations." It was from Sir Henry Clinton to General Burgoyne, and showed conclusively that the former had set out to join with the latter. But events had so shaped in the north that poor Burgoyne was then past all aid, General Gates then having him at bay. Within a few days was fought the decisive battle that brought about Burgoyne's surrender, and when the news reached Sir Henry Clinton he immediately set about returning to New York, there being no longer any incentive for action in the Highlands. Putnam and Clinton, after blowing up their two vessels in the river, had effected their retreat to Fishkill, where they entrenched; but on learning of the British retreat they moved down to their former positions.

The saying that "troubles never come singly" proved true for General Putnam that month of October, 1777, for on the 14th he lost by death his faithful wife, who had been with him at headquarters. Washington wrote him, on being informed of the bereavement: "I am extremely sorry for the death of Mrs. Putnam, and sympathize with you upon the occasion. Remembering that all must die, and that she had lived to an honorable age, I hope you will bear the misfortune with that fortitude and complacency of mind that become a man and a Christian."

The surrender of Burgoyne left the north free from foes, and consequently with no use for great numbers of soldiers, so that Putnam was soon in command of more than nine thousand men, mainly drafts from Gates's army. He was then determined to carry out his twice-frustrated scheme of marching upon New York, and was pushing forward his plans with great confidence, when there appeared a marplot on the scene in the person of Colonel Alexander Hamilton, at that time aide-de-camp to General Washington, who peremptorily ordered Putnam to forward all the new arrivals to the Commander-in-Chief and fill their places with militia.

The order was a verbal one and delivered by a slender "snip of a boy" scarcely out of his teens, so it received scant attention from Old Put, who went on with his plans, while Colonel Hamilton mounted a fresh horse and posted off to Albany, where he had also great difficulty in impressing General Gates with the need of Washington for the best men in his command. But he succeeded in detaching a few regiments, and then hastened back to Peekskill, there to find, to his surprise and indignation, that Putnam still had all his men-and what was more, seemed inclined to keep them with him.

"I am pained beyond expression," wrote this precocious youth to Washington on the 10th of November, "to inform your Excellency that, on my arrival here, I find everything has been neglected and deranged by General Putnam.... Not the least attention has been paid to my order, in your name, for a detachment of one thousand men from the troops hitherto stationed at that post. Everything is sacrificed to the whim of taking New York.... By Governor Clinton's advice, I have sent an order, in the most emphatical terms, to General Putnam, immediately to despatch all the Continental troops under him to your assistance, and to detain the militia instead of them."

This order "in the most emphatical terms" finally moved the general to compliance; but it quite naturally excited his just resentment, and he sent it to the Commander-in-Chief, with his comments. It would have been a serious matter-detaching such a large body of troops on a mere verbal order from a hot-headed stripling; yet Washington in effect reprimanded the honest veteran by writing:

I can not but say, there has been more delay in the march of the troops than I think necessary; and I could wish that in future my orders may be immediately complied with, without arguing upon the propriety of them. If any accident ensues from obeying them, the fault will be upon me, not upon you.

Death, defeat, a reprimand-all within one short month-might have affected a stouter heart than Old Put's. But was there ever a stouter one?

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