If there was a rock-ribbed New Englander, a bold man of action among the founding fathers, it was General Israel Putnam. Unlike the political leaders, the Moses’ of America, “Old Put” was the Joshua, throwing himself headlong into the fight. Only five feet six inches tall but powerfully built, the only image of him, a Trumbull sketch, shows a bulldog look which reminds us of Winston Churchill. His taste for battle only reinforces that impression.
Massachusetts born, but Connecticut-settled as a farmer in his twenties, Israel Putnam joined up for the French and Indian War as II Lieutenant with the famous and feared Roger’s Rangers. In that war which lasted seven years, he led the attack on Fort Carillon in 1759, fought in the Montreal Campaign the following year, and joined the ill-fated attack on the island of Cuba. He was one of the few survivors of a shipwreck on that campaign, and some historians believe he had the prescience to carry home to Connecticut tobacco seeds which became the progenitors of “Connecticut shade”tobacco, now famous as the wrapper of premium cigars.
Putnam’s youth included little in the way of education and his extant writing reveals his near illiteracy. His second marriage, to a wealthy widow, providentially elevated his social status which, along with his hard-working and natural leadership skills, probably contributed to his officer status at the beginning of the war. After fighting in Pontiac’s War and helping to lift the siege of Fort Detroit, Putnam returned home, joined the Congregational Church in Brooklyn, Connecticut, opened a tavern named after the hero of Quebec “The General Wolfe,” and returned to farming. As the most renowned veteran in his community, Major Putnam led the protest against the Stamp Tax that was levied by Parliament on the colony. Not one to merely protest tyranny, he helped found the Sons of Liberty in his colony, and actively sought the defeat of the unconstitutional assault on liberty.
Tradition says he heard about the fight at Lexington and Concord on that spring day in 1775, stopped his plow in mid-furrow, unhitched the horse, gave command for the militia to follow to Boston and rode to the sound of the guns, a hundred miles away. However unlikely the story, it could very well be true, given his past character and subsequent service in the War for Independence. Upon joining the patriot forces near Boston, Putnam was commissioned Major General, planned the defenses of Breed and Bunker Hill, and led the fight in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Historian D. S. Freeman described him as “a rock and rallying post” throughout the battle.
That moment in history proved to be his most important “crowded hour.” When George Washington arrived with his congressional commission, Putnam graciously turned over the army and became the Colonel of the 3rd Connecticut Infantry. At Long Island he was out-maneuvered by the British and his subsequent career was served recruiting in his home state and defending the Hudson River posts. He was considered too old and too heavy and slow for future field command.
An assessment of his career proves that Israel Putnam was utterly “courageous, enterprising, active, and persevering.” He suffered a debilitating stroke in 1779 at the age of sixty one and retired from the war. His powerful leadership at the exact moment it was needed at Bunker Hill, saved the American cause, provided the very elevation of morale that was needed, and secured his reputation as one of the boldest, devoted, and persevering men among the founders of the Republic.