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   Chapter 17 LAST YEARS IN THE SERVICE

Old Put" The Patriot" By Frederick A. Ober Characters: 16547

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


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Care sat lightly on Israel Putnam, who never went about looking for trouble, nor gave it more than a scant welcome as a guest. Possessed of sturdy common sense, an unblemished character, and a conscience "void of offence," Old Put did not long harbor the hasty words of Hamilton, nor dwell upon the tacit reprimand of his chief. He still sat astride his "hobby-horse," as Hamilton had contemptuously termed his desire for descending upon New York, and as soon as the latter had departed with the reenforcements for Washington, he resolved to take a look at the city, anyway. Taking some of his men down the east bank of the Hudson, he himself reconnoitered to a point within three miles of the enemy's outpost, and went to New Rochelle with the intention of invading Long Island. The British got wind of his intent, and hastily left their forts, having no relish for a brush with their dreaded enemy.

Although accused to Washington of being very lenient to Tories and other disaffected persons, Putnam knew how to be severe on occasion, and in reprisal for the repeated outrages committed by Governor Tryon's murderous marauders, he destroyed by fire several residences of noted loyalists, and fell upon Colonel DeLancey's infamous "Cowboys," taking seventy-five prisoners, including the Tory officer himself, who was drawn out from beneath a bed, where he had taken refuge at the approach of Putnam's scouts.

Washington himself had given Putnam the idea of descending upon New York, some time before; but circumstances had changed, and along with them the need for this diversion. Having satisfied himself with this reconnoitering expedition, however, Old Put went back very amiably to his post in the Highlands, and proceeded to carry out his commander's instructions respecting the selection of a new fort for the defense of the Hudson. In January, 1778, we find him at West Point, directing the men of Parson's brigade where to break ground-frozen ground, at that, with snow two feet deep above it-for the first fort at the picturesque post on the Hudson since become historic. It was subsequently named Fort Putnam, either after Old Put himself, or his cousin Rufus Putnam, whose great natural talents as an engineer were subsequently availed of here, as they had been before Boston, at Dorchester Heights.

About mid-February, Putnam wrote to Washington, who had been constantly and urgently pressing him to complete the work without delay, that "the batteries near the water, and the fort to cover them, are laid out. The latter is, within walls, 600 yards around, 21 feet base, 14 feet high, the talus two inches to the foot. This I fear is too large to be completed by the time expected." Even his placid disposition was by this time slightly ruffled at the scarcely veiled distrust of his capabilities by his chief, who had veered about with the wind blowing from New York, and seemed to trust him no longer. His letter begins stiffly: "The state of affairs now at this post, you will please to observe, is as follows," and after this business has been stated, he goes on to give some of the reasons for delay. One of his regiments was at White Plains, "under inoculation with the smallpox. Dubois's regiment is unfit to be ordered on duty, there being not one blanket in the regiment. Very few have either a shoe or a shirt, and most of them have neither stockings, breeches, or overalls.... Several hundred men are rendered useless, merely for want of necessary apparel, as no clothing is permitted to be stopped at this post."

No complaint was made, but merely a statement of facts; for Putnam must have known that many of the soldiers under his commander were at that very time half starved and half naked at Valley Forge. The day after writing this letter to Washington, having secured permission for a brief furlough, General Putnam went home to attend to private affairs which demanded his attention. He had applied for this leave of absence two months previously, but before receiving it had attended to the exigent matter of fortifying West Point, like the good soldier that he was.

Since he last left home much had happened to distract and break him down, including the loss of his wife by death, and the loss of Washington's friendly support, through no fault of his own. He was deeply grieved over the change in the commander's attitude toward him, as well as puzzled to account for it, knowing full well that he had done nothing to incur his displeasure, now so plainly manifested, not alone to General Putnam but to others.

The change was probably due to their radical differences of temperament, habits of life and education. While Washington the soldier recognized the sterling qualities of Old Put, the veteran fighter, yet Washington the aristocratic planter shrank from contact with Putnam the blunt, and at times perhaps uncouth-appearing, farmer. Writing about that time, a surgeon in the American army said: "This is my first interview with this celebrated hero, Putnam. In his person he is corpulent and clumsy, but carries a bold, undaunted front. He exhibits little of the refinements of a well-educated gentleman, but much of the character of the veteran soldier."

This was not the style of soldier that the Commander-in-Chief liked to have about him, and he allowed his personal prejudices to pervert his judgment.

"What shall I do with Putnam?" he breaks out in a letter to Gouverneur Morris. "If Congress mean to lay him aside decently, I wish they would devise the mode."

"It has not been an easy matter to find a just pretense for removing an officer from his command" (he writes to Chancellor Livingston on the 12th of March, 1778) "where his misconduct rather appears to result from want of capacity than from any real intention of doing wrong...." Livingston had written complaining of Putnam's "imprudent lenity to the disaffected, and too great intercourse with the enemy"-or, in other words, that he had not persecuted the people Livingston disliked, and had shown generosity to the foe when in distress. Yet he felt compelled to add: "For my own part, I respect his bravery and former services, and sincerely lament that his patriotism will not suffer him to take that repose, to which his advanced age and past services justly entitle him."

But Congress did not, fortunately, share the views of these white-fingered, thin-skinned gentlemen, to whom a man's personal appearance was vastly more than his distinguished services. They held, with the doughty hero of many battles himself, that, as a soldier's duty in war was to fight, it mattered not so much how he fought, nor in what garb, so long as he won the victories. As to lack of capacity, and being responsible for the loss of Forts Clinton and Montgomery, the court of inquiry, which sat in the spring of 1778, entirely vindicated him, holding that they fell, "not from any fault, misconduct, or negligence of the commanding officers, but solely through the want of an adequate force under their command to maintain and defend them."

Who was responsible for the lack of that "adequate force" none knew better than the Commander-in-Chief, who had withdrawn Old Put's veterans on six different occasions and compelled him to clothe the skeleton ranks with raw militia, so that it ill became him to write (in his letter to Livingston): "Proper measures are taking to carry on the inquiry into the loss of Fort Montgomery, agreeable to the direction of Congress, and it is more than probable, from what I have heard, that the issue of that inquiry will afford just grounds for the removal of General Putnam."

But the "issue of that inquiry" was in favor of Putnam, who demanded not only a court of inquiry, but a trial by court-martial, "so that my character might stand in a clearer light in the world." For, as he justly observed in a letter to Congress, "to be posted here as a publick spectator for every ill-minded person to make remarks upon, I think is very poor encouragement for any persons to venture their lives and fortunes in the service."

General Putnam received notice of this court of inquiry and of his suspension from command pending its proceedings, as he was returning from Connectic

ut, in March; but the month of July had arrived, the battle of Monmouth fought, and General Lee's court-martial had been ordered, before he was reinstated. Then Washington rather grudgingly gave him command of the right wing of the grand army, at White Plains, near or on Chatterton Hill, where he had vainly tried to reenforce McDougall, in the fierce fight that took place there not quite two years before. The three armies were then collectively of "greater strength than any force that had been brought together during the war," consisting, says Major Humphreys, of sixty regular regiments of foot, four battalions of artillery, four regiments of horse, and several corps of State troops. "But, as the enemy kept close within their lines on York Island, nothing could be attempted."

Putnam was afterward sent across the Hudson, where, notwithstanding the prejudices alleged against him in that region, where he had formerly commanded, he was retained until the army was ordered into winter quarters. These quarters were finally located in his own State, and were admirably chosen for the purpose at that time, which was to hold the troops together until the spring campaign should open. "The site for the winter cantonment became an important question," writes Charles B. Todd, a talented son of Connecticut, and an authority on her history, "and was long and anxiously debated. Many of the general officers were for staying where they were in the Highlands. Putnam pronounced in favor of some central location in western Connecticut, where they could protect both the Sound and the Hudson, and especially Danbury, which was a supply station, and which had been taken and burned by the enemy the year previous. General Heath's brigade had been on guard in Danbury during this summer of 1778, and while visiting him Putnam had no doubt discovered the three sheltered valleys formed by the Saugatuck and its tributaries which lie along the border line of what was then Danbury (now Bethel) and Redding. These valleys, open to the south, are warm, sunny, well watered, and in that day were well wooded, and so defended by dominating hills and crags, that a handful could hold them against an army. They were but three days' march from the Highlands."

Putnam himself superintended the laying out of the three camps, one for each valley, where, in log huts similar to those erected at Valley Forge the winter previous, the soldiers were quartered. Here the Army of the North, consisting of two brigades of Continental troops, two of Connecticut, one brigade from New Hampshire, with artillery and cavalry, wore away the long and weary winter of 1778-'79. There were two major-generals, including Putnam as commander-in-chief, and five brigadiers, so it will be seen that the cantonment was one of great importance.

"Putnam pilgrims" should by all means refresh their patriotism by a visit to the site of that winter camp in western Connecticut, for it has been carefully preserved by the State, which has laid out a magnificent park, erected a monument, restored some of the huts, and collected every relic available of that noble Army of the North. The house which Old Put occupied that winter, as headquarters, was on Umpawaug Hill and is still pointed out, while at a little distance stands the one-time residence of Joel Barlow, the Revolutionary poet, who, with Major Humphreys, Putnam's aide-de-camp and later his biographer, enlivened the camp that winter. From the summit of Gallows Hill, where General Putnam hung a spy, and had a deserter shot to death, one may see the sites of the original camps, the only visible remains of which are rude piles of stones, the ruins of the "chimney-backs."

In or near the camp preserved within the park, General Israel Putnam once performed a deed which some have called his greatest act. "Greatest if measured by results, and most typical of him. Who is not thrilled with the poem of Sheridan's ride-turning a panic-stricken army, and snatching victory from defeat; and here, near a century before, Putnam rode after a deserting army and brought them back to victory ... a victory over themselves."

These remarks refer to the defection of the Connecticut troops, that winter, who, half starved and half frozen in their narrow quarters, "badly fed, badly clothed, and worse paid," resolved to march to Hartford, lay their grievances before the General Assembly, and demand redress at the point of the bayonet.

"Word having been brought to General Putnam," says Major Humphreys, who was present, "that the second brigade was under arms for this purpose, he mounted his horse, galloped to the cantonment, and thus addressed them: 'My brave lads, whither are you going? Do you intend to desert your officers, and to invite the enemy to follow you into the country? Whose cause have you been fighting and suffering so long in-is it not your own? Have you no property, no parents, wives or children? You have behaved like men so far-all the world is full of your praise-and posterity will stand astonished at your deeds; but not if you spoil all at last. Don't you consider how much the country is distressed by the war, and that your officers have not been any better paid than yourselves? But we all expect better times, and that the country will do us ample justice. Let us all stand together, then, and fight it out like brave soldiers. Think what a shame it would be for Connecticut men to run away from their officers!'"

The gallant general's rude eloquence prevailed, the men saw their error, were indeed ashamed of it; they listened with attention, presented arms, as their beloved commander rode along the line to the din of the drums, and about-faced for camp, which they did not desert again during the winter. "Thus was a great and mighty battle fought and won. A battle fought with the British far away. A battle fought with hunger, want, cold, and banishment from home. A battle fought in the wilderness, where most of the world's greatest battles are fought."[3]

[3] From an historical address by Prof. George A. Parker, of Hartford, Conn., on the occasion of the visit of the famous Putnam Phalanx to Putnam Park and Camp, June 17, 1903.

This episode of the winter camp of 1778-'79 forms a fitting prelude to another feat performed by Old Put, this time a physical one, which, while not so worthy of renown, perhaps, as the great moral victory he achieved over his men, has brought him greater fame. Both taken together absolutely refute the insinuations of his enemies, to the effect that he had suffered a decline of mental, moral, or physical force. Washington wrote, commending him for his action in suppressing the mutiny; and as for the feat now to be mentioned, it may be said to speak for itself. In fact, it has been speaking, now, for a century and a quarter, since it is that famous ride down the stone steps of Horseneck Height to which reference is made.

It took place one morning in the last week of February, toward the close of the long winter's vigil at Redding. Putnam and his men were out as soon as the sap in the trees was flowing, and long before, in fact, keeping watch upon and trying to check the operations of the notorious Tryon and his crew. It chanced that he met the British, fifteen hundred strong, when on a visit to his outpost at Horseneck, now "Putnam's Hill," in Greenwich, Conn. Having but one hundred and fifty men and two old iron guns, which latter he had posted "on the high ground by the meeting-house," he was obliged to retreat. Ordering his men to seek shelter in a near swamp, Old Put waited till the British dragoons were almost within sword's length of him, when he put spurs to his horse and dashed over the brow of the hill, zigzagging down a rude flight of seventy stone steps set into the precipitous declivity.

The dragoons dared not follow after this intrepid horseman, but they sent a flight of bullets, one of which passed through his hat. Arrived on level ground he made no halt until he had reached Stamford, where he collected a force of militia in short order, with which he turned upon Tryon, compelling him to retreat, and chasing him to his lair, capturing forty prisoners and retaking a large amount of plunder.

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