By: Paul Pryor
In the year 1740, the people living in Pomfret, a small town in the State of Connecticut, had their sheep and goats killed by a huge wolf, who avoided all the traps set to catch her. In the summer she would fly to the woods, and returning in the winter, again kill the farmers’ stock. At length five farmers agreed to chase the wolf, and not to stop until she was killed. They tracked her through the snow to a cave, and here they used dogs, guns, straw and sulphur, to draw her out ; but she would not come from her den. The dogs that were sent in, came out badly wounded, and would not return, and the burning straw and sulphur had no effect. Then one of the farmers agreed to enter. Ile tied a rope to his feet, so that in case of danger he could be drawn out, for the entrance to the cave was too small for him to turn round ; and, taking in his hand a lighted torch, he crawled in on his hands and knees. By its light he slowly entered into the den, and soon he saw the eye-balls of the wolf shining like two diamonds. The old wolf gave a loud growl when she saw the torch, and the bold farmer having found her, gave the signal to be drawn out, which his friends did so quickly, fearing the wolf had attacked him, that they tore the shirt from his back. Loading his gun with nine buck-shot, and with it in one hand, and his torch in the other, he went back into the wolf’s den. Thu wolf saw him, and with a terrible howl, gnashing her teeth, and rolling her eyes, was about to jump upon him, when he raised his gun and fired. The noise of the gun in the little cave almost made him deaf, and the smoke nearly choked him, so that he was again drawn out by his friends. Waiting for the smoke to escape, he entered the cave for the third time, until he came where the wolf lay. Placing his torch to her nose, he found she was dead, and taking hold of her by the ears, and giving the signal on the rope, they were dragged out together.
This brave man, who dared the wolf in her own den, was Israel Putnam, who was afterwards called Old Put, or The Iron Son of ’76.
He was born at Salem, in the State of Massachusetts, and was twenty years of age when this event took place.
When a boy, he always tried to do more than the other boys of the village, and in the games of that time, such as running, jumping, wrest-ling, and pitching the bar, he was always ahead. Farming was then his delight, and he was often known to do the work of a man.
In the village of Pomfret there lived, (luring the youth of Putnam, a boy who was the terror of the neighborhood, and of whom all the young people of the town were in constant fear. He was tall for his years, strong and muscular, cruel, bitter, and unmerciful. Many a younger and smaller boy felt the weight of his fist, and if they replied to his insults, or vexed him in any way, they were beaten almost to a jelly. He did not wait for cause to attack anyone against whom he entertained a hate, but would trump up some false story, accuse his intended victim with having uttered it, and when he met a denial would fall upon him and whip him. He combined the treachery of the panther with the strength of the lion. For years had he thus continued the bully of the village, and no boy was found brave or reckless enough to attempt to put him down. This was the state of affairs when Putnam reached that period of boyhood, bordering on manhood, when one has not entirely ceased to be a boy, but yet has not become a man in strength, namely, about the age of fourteen years. Work on a farm had brought into splendid development the muscles of the arms, legs, and shoulders of Putnam ; exposure to the sun had bronzed his face and hands, and taken altogether, he was a splendid specimen of the youth who declared themselves in favor of our early liberties, and maintained their declarations and principles on the many battle fields of the Revolutionary War. As he had now reached an age when he could be safely sent to the village to transact such business as his employer once had to attend to in person, he was brought in contact with the boys of the village, and at once the glaring eyes of the village bully had marked him for a victim. Many were the methods resorted to, to exasperate Putnam, but he was of a peaceful disposition, and took no notice of them, outwardly, though perhaps he did not entirely forget either the remarks, or the person who uttered them. This word-war failing to have the effect he intended, the bully waited until Putnam again came to the village, and calling a number of boys around him, he waited until Putnam, who was in the village store making his purchases, came forth with his arms full of bundles, when he approached and struck him. This was too much for Putnam, and dropping his bundles he threw off his coat, his eyes meanwhile glistening like twin-stars, and rushed upon his antagonist, the victor of a hundred pitched battles. Long and bitterly they fought, and from all parts of the village the boys gathered to witness the contest. The blows of Putnam fell upon his adversary thick and fast, and with the strength of a sledge hammer.
Again and again was the bully knocked to the earth, and again would he rise to his feet and resume the fight, until a well-directed blow, delivered with terrible fury, brought the bully to his knees, and he piteously cried for mercy. Putnam never struck a fallen foe, and turning away contemptuously, he left the beaten and bleeding bully among his village companions, who rejoiced at his defeat. For this act, Putnam endeared himself to his associates, and thereafter the village bully was as quiet as a mouse when the cat is on the watch.
Soon the war between France and England broke out, and Putnam was made a Captain. To show how he never left a friend, even at the risk of his own life, it is stated, that with a small party of soldiers he was sent to examine the fort at Crown Point, and to find out the number of guns and men it had, and to bring back word to the Commanding General. They could not all get close enough to the place without being seen, as the woods was filled with Indians, so Putnam left his men at a safe dis- tance, and with Captain Rogers, he carefully crawled forward, hiding in the tall grass, and behind the forest-trees, till they got so close to the fort as to be able to report all that was needed. They were then about to turn back, when Captain Rogers, who was a little distance from Putnam, met a stout Frenchman, who at one seized his gun with one hand, and tried to stab him with the other, at the same time calling for help, which call the French soldiers heard and answered. At this time, if Putnam had run, he could easily have saved himself, for he had not been seen ; but he scorned to fly. He would not fire his gun, for that would alarm the French camp and the Indians but seeing the danger of his friend, who was struggling with his enemy, he ran rapidly to them, and with the butt end of his musket laid the Frenchman dead at his feet.
Running rapidly, they soon joined the party they had left behind, and returned to the Commanding General with a full report. He, on another occasion, when acting as a scout, found himself surrounded by the sentinels of the enemy. They fired upon him, and he fled, and when he had reached a safe distance be laid down by the side of a log to sleep. Feeling thirsty he raised his canteen, in which he had some rum, to take a drink, but found it empty. It was pierced with the balls the enemy had fired at him, and not a drop of rum was left. The next day he found fourteen bullet holes in his blanket.
As will be seen, Israel Putnam bore a charmed life. He was always ahead of his men, and where the balls fell around him like hail, and yet he escaped unhurt. He did not stay in the rear and send his soldiers on to fight, but he always led them, and they followed where he led.
Soon, however, an event happened which nearly put an end to his life. When marching through the woods with his troops, he was fired upon by a large body of Indians, who had hidden themselves behind rocks, and trees, and Putnam was taken prisoner, and tied by the Indians who captured him to a tree. The Indians drove – Putnam’s soldiers back, and were driven back in turn, so that at one time Putnam was between both fires. The balls flew from both sides ; Many struck the tree to which he was tied, while some passed through the sleeves and skirts of his coat. In this state, unable to move his body, to stir his limbs, or even avert his head, he was kept for an hour. Soon an Indian came along. Ile could have killed Putnam with a blow of his tomahawk, but he wished to frighten him, and standing a short distance from the tree, he threw his tomahawk at him, to see how near his head he could come. Many times he came within a hair of it, and at last when he left, a brutal French soldier, who was even worse than the Indian, pressed his gun against Putnam’s breast, and pulled the trigger. It missed fire. Again and again he tried it, but every time it failed to discharge, and maddened at his failure to kill him, he struck him on the cheek with it, and left him. In the battle the Indians had won, and when they returned to where Putnam was tied to the tree, they set up a shout, and danced around him, shaking their tomahawks. Soon, however, some of them came with wood, which they piled around him. Poor Putnam now saw that his hour had come, and that he must die. He thought of his home, and his wife and children, and his old friends, but his check did not turn pale, nor did his limbs tremble, for his heart was as brave as the day he faced the wolf in her den. They set fire to the brush, the flames began to rise, and Putnam could feel the heat, slight at first, but soon terrible to bear. He turned his eyes to Heaven. It was at this very moment that a heavy rain cloud passed over, and the rain fell upon the burning wood and nearly put it out. Still, the fire burned slowly, the Indians bending down and blowing it, to hasten the death scene ; but the wood, damp and wet from the rain, would not burn briskly, and before the Indians could make further preparations, a French officer, who had been told of what they were doing, rushed upon them, scattered the fire, cut the cord which fastened him to the tree, and Israel Putnam was saved.
He was taken a prisoner to Canada, but was exchanged. The war was soon ended, however, and Israel Putnam cast aside the sword for the plough, and tilled his farm again. In all the battles of the war, then ended, he was well known for his courage, and when he gave up his military life and retired to civil life, he carried with him the love of all his countrymen.
The first battle of the Revolutionary War took place in April, 1776, at Lexington, and the news of the shedding of blood spread through the land with the speed of the wind. Everywhere, swords that had rusted for years were taken down and polished, old muskets were cleaned, pistols were examined, and everything was done to fight, and drive the English troops from our shores. Israel Putnam, who was working in his field when he heard the news, left his plough in the middle of the field, unyoked his team, and without even waiting to change his clothes, set off for the scene of the battle : but finding that the English had fled to Boston, he went back to his own village, and raising a regiment of men, marched to the front. He was then made a Major General. To show how much his services were valued, the English General offered him a large sum of money, another position of Major General in his army, if he would leave the Americans and join him, which offer he refused with scorn. When the Battle of Bunker Hill took place, Putnam commanded a part of the troops. Many of them had never been in battle before; they were armed with such guns as they could pick up in their homes, and they had no uniform, each one being clad in their own clothes, of all colors and .styles. When the English soldiers marched up the hill, Putnam said to his men, ” Do not fire, boys, until you see the whites of their eyes ;” and right well did they obey. Onwards and upwards marched the enemy, and when they were close enough, Putnam’s men rose to their feet, and firing upon them, drove them pell-mell to the foot of the hill. Again they marched up the hill, and again were driven back with great loss. The powder and balls of the Americans had now been exhausted, and as General Warren, who commanded them, had been killed, they were obliged to fly, the English soldiers not following, however. It was in this fight that Putnam’s coolness showed itself, and ever after, during the war, he was never at a loss how to act, as will be seen from the following anecdote. At the battle of Princeton, a Captain McPherson was badly wounded and taken prisoner by Putnam’s men. Fearing he might die, he sent for Putnam, and begged him to allow a friend of his, who was in the English army, to come to him, and draw up his will. Putnam did not wish to refuse a dying man’s request, and at the same time, as he had but fifty mein, he did not desire that his enemy should know how few he had. It was then he thought of a method by which he could grant the dying soldier’s request. He sent a flag of truce, with strict orders that it should not return until dark. He then had lights placed iii all the rooms of the college, and when the English officer returned with the flag, Putnam had his fifty soldiers paraded in front of the officer’s window every few minutes during the night. The officer thinking they were different companies of soldiers, and not the same one, reported, on his return to the English camp, that General Putnam had five thousand men in his army at the very least. His. caution in regard to this officer was needed, for it was well known that the American army was filled with English spies, who carried back to their Generals a full report of what they saw. If caught, they. were hung, and many lost their lives, but the English Generals paid so well for men to perform this duty, that they were never at a loss for them.
A Lieutenant, named Palmer, belonging to the English army, was caught in the American camp at Peekskill. He was tried and sentenced to be hung. Governor Tryon, who commanded a division of the English army, claimed him as an officer, and threatened to hang the prisoners in his hands if he was harmed. To this General Putnam answered as follows :
Sir: —Nathan Palmer, a lieutenant in your king’s service, was taken in my camp as a spy—he was condemned as a spy—and you may rest assured, sir, he shall be hanged as a spy.
I have the honor to,
His Excellency, Governor Tryon.
P. S.—Afternoon. ” HE IS HANGED.”
In order to protect the country near Long Island Sound, and to support the soldiers at West Point in case of an attack, Putnam was stationed at Reading, in Connecticut. About the middle of the winter, while on a visit to his outpost, he heard that Governor Tryon was marching with fifteen hundred men to attack him. As he had but one hundred and fifty men, and two iron field guns, without horses to drag them, he planted them on the top of the hill, and fired on Tryon’s men, to delay his march. Soon, however, lie saw the horsemen coming to attack him, and knowing that to stay longer would only result in defeat, he sent his men to a swamp near by, where no horse could go. He delayed his own flight so long, that lie found himself nearly surrounded, and but one way of escape open. Before him lay a precipice so steep, that steps had been cut in the solid rock, so that the people of the village might pass to the plain below. In a moment, the English horsemen were almost at a sword’s length from him, when, turning his horse’s head towards the precipice, and thrusting his spurs into the sides of his steed, he galloped down the stone steps. The horsemen looked on in horror, expecting every moment to see him killed by being thrown from his horse but on he sped, nor did he slacken his pace until he reached the level ground below. So surprised were the English soldiers, that they (lid not fire until Putnam was almost out of range, and then one ball of the volley went through his hat. No one was daring enough to follow him, and before they could go around by the road he was in a place of safety. When Governor Tryon heard of this daring feat, he sent Putnam a new suit of splendid clothes, to replace the injury done to his hat. This was a graceful tribute from an enemy. That Putnam was equally thoughtful of the safety of those who were against him is proved by his actions at the Battle of Bunker Hill. When the British troops marched the second time up the hill, Colonel Small, with other officers of the English army, was in front of the line leading their men. They had nearly reached the works, when a severe fire was poured upon them, which was terribly fatal. The English troops fell back, and as Colonel Small turned to the right and left, he saw there was no one standing but himself. As he looked towards the American line, he saw several guns pointed at him, and knowing how well these men could shoot, he gave himself up for lost. At this moment, Putnam rushed forward, and striking up the muzzles of their pieces with his sword, cried out, “For God’s sake, my lads, don’t fire at that man. I love him as I do my brother.” He was obeyed. Colonel Small bowed, thanked him, and walked away.
After an eventful life, such as but few know of, loved by his neighbors; adored by his countrymen, and honored by his enemies, Israel Putnam died at Brooklyn, Connecticut, in the seventy third year of his age. Born poor, living by his labor, patient, but persevering, Israel Putnam rose from an humble farm-boy to be the senior Major General of the Army of the United States of America. When we feel that we have not courage to fight the battles of the world, when hope is dying out, and friends desert us, let us think of The Iron Sox of’76.