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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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Gen. Putnam’s Cannons

During the Battle of Bunker Hill, Gen. Israel Putnam didn’t just order an artillery officer back into battle. He actually took over the operation of an abandoned cannon or two.

When I first read about that incident in histories by Thomas Fleming and Richard Ketchum, it seemed somewhat outlandish, but it turns out there were quite a few witnesses. In his History of Bunker Hill Battle, published shortly after the fiftieth anniversary of the fight, Samuel Swett quoted the deposition of Ezra Runnels of Middleborough about the event:
I belonged to Capt. [Samuel] Gridley’s artillery company. Went on to the Hill with the company, and 2 small pieces, the evening before the battle; and was at and near the redoubt during the battle, until our party retreated. I well remember of seeing Gen. Putnam at the breastwork during the battle. Before that time, residing in Groton, Connecticut, was personally acquainted with him. I repeatedly saw him during the action walking upon the breastwork and animating the men to exert themselves.

Capt. Gridley, having received some [gunpowder] cartridges which were too large for our pieces, said that nothing could be done with them, and left his post, and our company was scattered. General Putnam came to one of the pieces, near which I stood, and furiously inquired where our officers were? On being told our cartridges were too big, and that the pieces could not be loaded, he swore, and said they could be loaded, taking a cartridge, he broke it open, and loaded the pieces with a ladle, which was discharged; and assisted us in loading two or three times in that manner.
A couple of other recollections from the same book appear to refer to the Gridley company’s cannon in the redoubt:
Joshua Yeomans, Norwich, Putnam’s own regiment: I saw Gen. Putnam split a field-piece in the fort; he could not get the ball into the piece. He went to his saddle-bags [haversack] and took a canvas bag of musket balls [grape], loaded the cannon, and fired it at a number of officers who were consulting under a row of trees.

Amos Foster, Tewksbury: Two of our field-pieces were near me and fired a number of times. Hill, a British deserter, said we fired too high. The pieces were lowered; he said, with an oath, “you have made a furrow through them.” He watched British field-pieces, and, when they were about to fire, we all laid down. One man was burned very badly by a cannon cartridge.
I wish I could identify that deserter.

Other veterans said that Putnam also brought a cannon from Capt. John Callender’s company forward to the rail fence on the American left and had Capt. John Ford’s men operate it:
Alexander Davidson, Edgecombe, Ford’s company: Putnam ordered our company to carry the cannon, deserted by Callender, to the rail fence; he accompanied the pieces himself, saw to the placing them and until they commenced firing them. I well recollect his expression at the second firing of one of the pieces, it was loaded with cannister and seemed to make a lane through them [i.e., the enemy].

Israel Hunt, Dunstable, Bridge’s regiment: Gen. Putnam and Capt. Ford brought an iron field-piece to the rail fence, and fired it a number of times.

William F. Wade, Ipswich, captain in Little’s regiment: One of our cannon, deserted by Callender, was fired a number of times at rail fence very near me; two men in our Regt. Halliday and Dutton, of Newburyport, fired one of the cannon 3 or 4 times and hurraed very loud.

Benjamin Peirce, Hillsborough, Ford’s company: went on to the Hill about 11; Putnam requested our company to drag Callender’s cannon down Bunker Hill; at Capt. Ford's persuasion, drew them to rail fence; thinks he saw Gen. Putnam at that place, looking for some part of his sword
What had happened to Putnam’s sword? According to the general’s son, he broke it swiping at a non-commissioned officer in Callender’s company.

Benjamin Pierce
was an eighteen-year-old soldier during the battle. He grew up to be governor of New Hampshire (as shown above) and father of President Franklin Pierce.


Derek Beck said...

I first posted a question on the sword here, but it seems best to continue the thread on this page, given the add'l information you have here...

I stumbled upon this, in Dawson's "Historical Magazine" for 1868, ser 2 vol 3 pg 434:

"Judge Winthrop saw him at the rail fence, just before the action. His testimony is confirmed by General Peirce [sic], one of Dearborn's witnesses, who, to detract from his merit, most ridiculously intimates that he [Gen. Putnum] was looking for some part of his sword. Almost every witness General Dearborn has produced thus endeavors to cast a ridicule on this illustrious veteran; still he was compelled to admit he was on the battle-ground."

Interesting, that some think the sword story ridiculous. It might be one of those unreliable stories that came out of the arguments between Dearborn and Daniel Putnum.

J. L. Bell said...

That passage initially appeared during the debate over whether Putnam was in command of the American forces in the battle. John Lowell, a Boston lawyer, published it in the Columbian Centinel in 1818.

It's rather selective, isn't it? Lowell accepts Pierce's claim to have seen Putnam at the rail fence, leaving out the note of doubt in Pierce’s word "thinks.” But Lowell dismisses the detail about the sword—something Pierce mentioned only in passing and made nothing of—as a ridiculous attempt to disparage Putnam.

That argument misses the fact that Putnam’s own son told Samuel Swett that the general broke his sword while chastising Callender’s artillery company. That detail was meant to show Gen. Putnam in a good light, not to cast ridicule on him.

Pierce’s full letter appears on pp. 414-5 of that issue of The Historical Magazine. I don't think it shows any animus toward Putnam. Swett summarized it briefly but accurately.

Derek Beck said...

I found the Swett note you refer to, which is of course just a summary of a note from Putnam's son. (sorry about the misspellings of his name... can't see what I'm typing in this little blogger window...) Too bad we cannot see the original. But strange that no 1775 statement refers to it. Is there any other reference to the sword that you know of, besides Pierce, Putnam's son in Swett, and Barker's statement on p. 434 as just given?

J. L. Bell said...

I don't see a reference to Putnam’s sword in Abel Parker's remarks on p. 434 or John Barker's remarks on p. 435.

But other witnesses of the 1800s did mention Putnam using his sword to (take your pick) urge on his horse, wave overhead, poke reluctant men toward the battle, and strike a black soldier several blows on the head.

As you know, there are very few statements about the battle from 1775 that go into such detail. No one seems to have cared much then about the questions of command and where exactly Putnam was that consumed the writers of the early 1800s.

Derek Beck said...

Yeah, the other notes of Putnam waving his sword is what I find somewhat hard to rectify with the broken sword. I figured some of those other comments would've said he waved around his broken sword. Maybe he didn't break much of it, say just the tip, or maybe the scabbard even. Of course, this is all conjecture.

Just to clarify for future readers, the quote above, beginning "Judge Winthrop saw him at the rail fence..." is that of John Barker, which runs from p. 433-435.

Thanks again for all of your time and thoughts!

Derek Beck said...

In fact, I wish we knew which son made this claim to Swett! Old Put had two I know of: Daniel and Junior.

J. L. Bell said...

In his 1827 book, Samuel Swett credited the letter to "Col. Putnam." But it appears that both Daniel and Israel, Jr., eventually became colonels.

Derek Beck said...

How did the sword break? I don't think any man could be hard enough to withstand being slapped by a sword and it breaking a part off, do you? The terminology is strange: "broke a sword over them". My theory: he slammed his sword onto one of the guns, a shard breaking off, and one of the men dodged out of its way, falling. Maybe you have a different take?

J. L. Bell said...

Israel, Jr., died in the early 1810s while Daniel participated in the debate over their father’s role in the battle, so Daniel seems more likely.

J. L. Bell said...

Gen. Putnam’s son couldn’t have actually seen his father swing the sword on the battlefield, but he could well have seen the broken sword at the end of the day and heard a story about when it had been damaged. I agree that, unless the sword was in poor shape to begin with, it wouldn’t have broken over a mere sergeant’s head.

There’s the other story about Putnam hitting a black soldier, who almost certainly wouldn’t have been a sergeant. But it’s possible that that storyteller found it easier to remember/describe the general hitting a black man than a white one.

Derek Beck said...

I'm afraid I'm not familiar with that story of hitting a black man. Do you by any chance have a post on it? (Or maybe you'd consider one if not :)

J. L. Bell said...

Thomas Davis of Holden told that story, summarized in Samuel Swett’s 1827 book. I assume there’s an earlier version, but I haven’t found it.

I sense that by that time it was easier for people to ascribe cowardice, hotheadedness, or other undesirable qualities to black men. Examples I've seen include blaming the Emersons’ slave Frank for hatcheting the redcoat near North Bridge, blaming a black man for recklessly shooting at the regulars when they came onto Charlestown peninsula at the end of that day, blaming a black man for starting the fight at the ropewalk in 1770. So I'm not convinced Davis's story is accurate.

Derek Beck said...

Interesting, thanks for sharing, and agreed, it seems dubious.