J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Why Israel Putnam?

Someone using the handle “richmond va” has sent in this question:

I’d like to ask if you could tell me why a Petersburg, Va. foundry in the early 1800’s would create a number of andirons in the likeness of Israel Putnam, rather than someone else more famous like G Washington. Thanks
Questioning the fame of Israel Putnam (1718-1790) shows that you’re not from Connecticut. I’m not, either, so I can answer the question.

In the early republic, Gen. Putnam was to Connecticut what Stonewall Jackson was to the Old Dominion after Reconstruction, except that the state didn’t also have a Robert E. Lee to share the attention. Connecticut’s modern household-name Revolutionary heroes hadn’t yet been discovered: Nathan Hale was still nothing more than an agent caught and hanged on his first mission, and the legend of Sybil Ludington was unknown outside her immediate family (if it was known there).

Putnam had been famous before the Revolution began because of his personal bravery, both in fighting against French and Indians and in bagging a wolf on his farm. Private soldiers also seem to have remained fond of “Old Put,” who could never act as aloofly as Washington. (He was also popular with a small coterie of British officers he had befriended during the earlier wars.) As a result, Connecticut and areas settled by folks from that state provided a strong market for Putnam memorabilia. The Petersburg foundry might also have made souvenirs of Washington and other Revolutionary heroes, of course.

Putnam’s actual record during the Revolutionary War never matched those early expectations. In the early 1800s there was an ongoing and sometimes vituperative argument over whether he or Col. William Prescott was in command at Bunker Hill. Now historians agree that Putnam spent most of his time riding around behind the lines unsuccessfully urging more provincial troops to join the fray.

Putnam didn’t have the strategic sense to match his personal bravery. He was forced into retreat at the Battle of Long Island in 1776, and abandoned Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery to the British in 1777. Washington then assigned him to recruiting duty and later to regional commands. In 1779, Putnam suffered a bad stroke and had to retire to his farm.

Despite that record, early U.S. historians treated Putnam very well, listing him among the Continental Army’s most important commanders. Col. David Humphreys, a former aide (who was also from Connecticut), wrote a laudatory biography of the general in 1818. The general’s hasty retreat from British troops in Greenwich was turned (with a little massaging of the facts) into a legend. Even now, admirers and descendants of “Old Put” can be fervently loyal.

1 comment:

cgd said...

Israel Putnam is buried in Brooklyn, CT. His epitaph reads like a checklist of all the things that eighteenth-century men were supposed to be:

To the memory
Israel Putnam, Esquire,
Senior Major General in the Armies
The United States of America
Was born at Salem
In the Province of Massachusetts
On the seventh day of January
A.D. 1718:
And died
On the twenty ninth day of May
A.D. 1790:
If thou art a Soldier
Drop a Tear over the dust of a Hero
Ever attentive
To the lives and happiness of his Men
Dared to lead
Where any Dared to follow;
If a Patriot
Remember the distinguished and gallant services
Rendered thy Country
By the Patriot who sleeps beneath this Monument;
If thou art Honest, generous & worthy
Render a cheerful tribute of respect
To a Man
Whose generosity was singular
Whose honesty was proverbial
Raised himself to universal esteem
And offices of Eminent distinction
By personal worth
And a
Useful life