It Was 300 Years Ago When a State Hero Was Born
“Passenger, if thou art a soldier, drop a tear over the dust of a Hero, who ever attentive to the lives and happiness of his men dared to lead where any dared to follow.” – inscribed on Israel Putnam’s tomb in Brooklyn
On this day in 1718, in Salem Village (now Danvers), Mass., a baby boy named Israel Putnam was born. He would grow up to be one of Connecticut’s best-known participants in the war for independence. The name Putnam is synonymous with the Connecticut hero and can be found throughout the state, with parks named for him as well as the town where I proudly reside. In fact, along with Putnam, Conn., and Putnam, N.Y., there are at least seven counties named after our very own Israel Putnam.
The list of Putnam’s lifetime feats of daring and bravery read like an action superhero movie script. The old saying “actions speak louder than words” rings true for Israel Putnam. A young man with minimal formal education, Putnam’s legendary status began during his life and was retold and expanded after his passing in 1790.
Soon after his marriage to Hannah Pope, Putnam, 22, and his new wife moved to a section of Pomfret, which is today a part of Brooklyn. There they raised 10 children and Putnam enjoyed the life of a prosperous farmer.
His feats of military bravery began during the French and Indian Wars when he was a second lieutenant with volunteers from Connecticut. His service included several forays with Robert Roger’s Rangers, as well as expeditions to Fort Ticonderoga, Fort Edward, Quebec, Montreal, Havana, Detroit and New Orleans. His celebrity built not only upon his capable service, but also his remarkable survival of a shipwreck in Cuba and his capture at the hands of the Caughwangas Indians, who nearly burned Putnam at the stake if not for a last-minute rescue.
After returning home to his life of a country farmer, Putnam was elected in 1774 to the Connecticut Committee of Correspondence, which played an important role in fostering the mounting Colonial pre-war opposition to Britain, and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel of the 12th Regiment of Connecticut militia. His celebrated exploits during the Revolutionary War included his commanding role during the Battle of Bunker Hill where he valiantly led his men, and is said to famously have urged the marksmen “don’t one of you fire until you see the white of their eyes.” His leadership at Bunker Hill impressed Gen. George Washington, who promoted him to major general. Putnam fought in the Battle of Long Island and later assumed command of the troops in the Hudson Highland.
The best way to learn about the remarkable Israel Putnam is to travel to his hometown of Brooklyn where you’ll encounter a most remarkable equestrian statue and tomb in the center of town. This equestrian statue and tomb may be the largest statue in one of the smallest towns in the entire state – at least it seems as such to me. The statue, over 20 feet high, is the final resting place of Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam.
A short distance from Putnam’s tomb is the Brooklyn Historical Society, which has two excellent exhibits about Putnam — Israel Putnam: Facets of a Hero, and Israel Putnam Remembered. The Brooklyn Historical Society is open 1 to 5 p.m., Wednesdays and Sundays from May 25 to Oct. 9 or by appointment by calling (860) 774-7728.
I hope celebrations of Putnam’s life and programs about him will be offered to the public in 2018. I have been in touch with the State Historian’s office and will provide follow-up information in this column when I hear if events and celebrations about Israel Putnam are planned.
Author Robert Hubbard has written a new Putnam biography called “Major General Israel Putnam: Hero of the American Revolution.” He also maintains an interesting website, the General Israel Putnam Website at https://sites.google.com/site/generalisraelputnamwebsite/. I asked Hubbard what was the one thing that stood out in his research on Putnam, and he said it was the great respect and devotion his soldiers had for him.
Accounts tell of an amiable officer with a combination of bravery and kindness for those under his command. His troops gave him the name “Old Put,” perhaps more as a term of endearment than derision (though he was one of the oldest officers during the Revolutionary War).
In December 1779, Putnam suffered a stroke, ending his military service. He returned to his farm, where he lived out his life. Founders Online preserves a letter to Washington from Putnam, written from his home on May 29, 1780. A portion of the letter said:
“Altho I should not be able to resume a command in the Army; I propose to myself the happiness of making a visit, and seeing my friends there sometime in the course of the Campaign – And however incapable I may be of serving my Country to my latest hour my wishes and prayers will always be most ardent and sincere, for its happiness and freedom: As a principal instrument in the hand of Providence for effecting this, may Heaven long preserve Your Excellencys most important and valuable life.”
Putnam died in 1790 and was buried in an aboveground tomb in Brooklyn’s South Cemetery. Due to souvenir hunters chipping off fragments of his headstone, the tomb was determined to be unsuitable for a military officer of Putnam’s status.
Sculptor Karl Gerhardt was commissioned to create a monument and tomb for Putnam’s remains, and the monument was dedicated in 1888. Putnam was placed in a sarcophagus in the base and his original headstone inscription was recreated on the monument, with the original headstone on display at the state capital in Hartford.
An interesting feature of the monument is a pair of wolf heads attached to the front and back of the base. This references the legend that as a young man in 1742, Putnam crept into a wolf’s den and shot the wolf who for years had preyed upon the local farms’ sheep and poultry. The wolf den is located at Mashamoquet Brook State Park in Pomfret and can be visited today.
Putnam’s military career and energetic feats of daring make him an almost mythological figure. Today is the 300th anniversary of his birth and hopefully there will be opportunities during the year ahead for the state and region to celebrate his remarkable life and service.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in the region for more than 35 years and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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