This Day in History: Israel Putnam, a legend in his own time
On this day in 1718, Israel Putnam is born. He was a Major General in the American Revolution, but you may best recognize one quote sometimes attributed to him: “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”
Putnam was a bit of a legend in his time. In fact, he was extolled to such a great extent that it can be pretty hard to tell which stories are true and which stories are myth.
A few facts that can be verified: Putnam served in the French and Indian War. Afterwards, he opened a tavern that proved to be very popular: Putnam would regale listeners with tales of his exploits. (Hmmm. Great entrepreneurial idea, but maybe also contributed to the mythology surrounding him?!) He helped found the Connecticut Sons of Liberty, and he was made a Major General in the new American army only two days after the Battle of Bunker Hill. He was put in charge of troops in New York and bore some responsibility for the American defeat in the Battle of Long Island. He had to retire in 1779 when he suffered a stroke that resulted in partial paralysis.
Stories that may have become exaggerated over time: Putnam was nearly burned at the stake by Indians during the French and Indian War, but he escaped with only minutes to spare when he received the assistance of a French officer. Another time, he may have crawled into a wolf’s den to kill a wolf that was threatening local farmers. (Whether the story is true or not, the den is a protected historical site today.) Another story claims that Putnam literally left his plow in the field when he heard about the Battle of Lexington. He took off on his horse, still in his work clothes, and joined the army the next day.
His bravery and leadership at Bunker Hill may be one of his best moments, although it is not known if “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” is fairly attributed to him. The phrase has also been attributed to William Prescott. Either way, his leadership was important during that battle. Or was even some of that embellished? To be fair, some academics have wondered. Historian Nathaniel Philbrick, for example, describes Putnam as a “brave and inspiring fighter,” but then adds that “focus and strategic thinking had never been his strong suits.”
Putnam’s legacy has really changed, hasn’t it? When our country was founded, he was such a legend that people were extolling and exaggerating his feats. Now, most Americans have never even heard of him.
This seems true of too many heroes of the American Revolution. How interesting . . . and sad.
Frederick A. Ober, “Old Put” The Patriot (1904)
Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (Monday, June 19, 1775)
Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution (2013)
William Farrand Livingston, Israel Putnam: Pioneer, Ranger, and Major-general, 1718-1790 (1901)
William Cutter, The life of Israel Putnam, Major-General in the Army of the American Revolution (1848)