Israel Putnam, an American soldier, born in the part of Salem now constituting the town of Danvers, Mass., Jan. 7,1718, died in Brooklyn, Conn., May 19, 1790. He was the 11th in a family of 12 children, and in his boyhood was noted for his physical strength and bravery; but he had few educational advantages. On coming of age he bought a farm in Pom-fret, Conn., and fixed his residence there. Here occurred his famous encounter with a she wolf that had for several years preyed upon the flocks and cattle of the neighborhood. Having discovered her den, Putnam entered it alone by creeping into a narrow opening, and shot and killed the wolf as she was advancing to attack him. This adventure, which gave him a wide reputation for courage, took place when he was 25 years old. The next 12 years he spent as a careful and successful farmer. In 1755 he was appointed by the legislature a captain in Col. Lyman's regiment, and formed a strong company from among his neighbors, who were employed chiefly on special service as rangers. His first expedition was under Sir "William Johnson against Crown Point. In 1756 he was reappointed under his old commander Lyman, and in 1757 the legislature of Connecticut gave him the commission of major.
Perhaps the most important service rendered by him during that year was the saving of the powder magazine of Fort Edward at the conflagration of the barracks. For an hour and a half he contended with the fire, and he was severely burned in his efforts to arrest its progress. In 1758, to escape from a strong party of Indians he descended with a few men the falls of the Hudson at Fort Miller in a bateau. The savages with admiration beheld him unharmed by their balls steering his boat down rapids never before passed. The same year, when returning to Fort Edward from an expedition to watch the enemy in the neighborhood of Ticonderoga, his corps was surprised by a party of French and Indians, and he himself captured and bound to a tree. While in this situation a battle between his own party and the enemy raged around him for an hour, the tree being for part of the time in the hottest fire. At length the French and Indians were forced to retreat, but carried with them their captive, whom the savages determined to roast alive.
He was tied to a tree, and the fire was already blazing, when his life was saved by the French commander, Molang. The next day he was taken to Ticonderoga, and after-ward to Montreal, where among other prisoners he met Col. Peter Schuyler, through whose intervention he was treated according to his military rank and exchanged. In 1759, having meanwhile been made lieutenant colonel, he served under Gen. Amherst. In 1762 he commanded a Connecticut regiment in the expedition against Havana. In 1764 Putnam, now a colonel, at the head of 400 Connecticut men accompanied Col. Bradstreet to Detroit in the Pontiac war. For some years afterward he kept an inn at Brooklyn, the capital of "Windham county, and during the same period frequently represented the town in the legislature. In 1773 he was engaged in the expedition that went up the Mississippi to survey a tract above Natchez for settlement. In the revolutionary war Putnam from the beginning embraced zealously the cause of the colonists. In April, 1775, at the alarm occasioned by the battle of Lexington, he left his plough in the field, turned loose the oxen, and rode to Boston in one day, a distance of 68 m. Learning that the British were besieged in Boston, he went to Hartford to meet with the legislature, of which he was a member.
Being elected by that body brigadier general, he promptly gathered and organized a regiment, and after drill-inf them for some days marched to Cambridge. The British officers offered him a commission as major general in the royal service and a large sum of money, both of which he indignantly rejected; In May he led a battalion of 300 men to Noddle's island, now East Boston, and burned a British schooner, captured a sloop, killing and wounding 70 of the enemy, and brought off several hundred sheep and cattle. It was in great measure through his wish to bring on a general engagement while the spirit of the troops was high, that the determination was taken to fortify Bunker hill. In the battle which followed he acted a conspicuous part. When Washington arrived at the camp to take command in July, he brought with him commissions from congress for four major generals, one of whom was Putnam; and to him alone did he deliver his commission, the others being withheld on account of the general dissatisfaction attending these appointments.
In March, 1776, Washington being about to take possession of Dorchester heights, Putnam was ordered to attack Boston with 4,000 men in case the enemy should attempt to dislodge the Americans. Soon after the evacuation of that city he was ordered to take command in New York. He participated in the battle of Long Island, Aug. 27, and afterward went to Philadelphia to prepare for the defence of that place. After completing the necessary fortifications, he was stationed at Crosswick and subsequently at Princeton. In May, 1777, he was ordered to take command in the highlands of New York. While there he sent the following famous reply to Sir Henry Clinton, who claimed a lieutenant of a tory regiment as an officer in the British service: "Edmund Palmer, an officer in the enemy's service, was taken as a spy lurking within our lines; he has been tried as a spy, condemned as a spy, and shall be executed as a spy, and the flag is ordered to depart immediately. Israel Putnam. P. S. He has been accordingly executed." In the summer of this year the British troops surprised and took Forts Montgomery and Clinton, and obliged Putnam to retire to Fishkill. Subsequently he was removed from his command in the highlands, as Washington says, "on account of the prejudices of the people," and the dissatisfaction of Hamilton and other officers, and also from the fact that a court of inquiry had been ordered to investigate the causes of the loss of Forts Montgomery and Clinton. This court decided unanimously that no blame could be attributed to Putnam, who not long afterward was stationed in Connecticut. In March, 1779, a corps of 1,500 British troops under command of Tryon made an incursion into that state and approached Horseneck, one of Putnam's outposts.
To oppose him were 150 men with two pieces of artillery, and with these Putnam took his position on the brow of a steep hill. After exchanging shots, as he saw the enemy's dragoons were about to charge, he ordered his men to retire to a swamp inaccessible to cavalry. He himself was hotly pursued, and finding that the dragoons were gaining upon him, he rode down a steep declivity, receiving on his passage a ball through his hat. Riding on to Stamford, he called out the militia, and effecting a junction with his little party he hung upon the rear of Tryon in his retreat and took about 50 prisoners, whom he treated with a humanity customary on his part, but so unexpected that the British general sent him a letter of thanks. During the summer of 1779 Putnam held command of the Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia troops in the- highlands of New York, and, assisted by his cousin Rufus Putnam and others, completed the fortifications at West Point. After the army went into winter quarters, he returned home, and on setting out again for camp was attacked by paralysis of his left side. He then took up his residence on his farm in Brooklyn, and there remained until his death.
He was of medium height and of great physical strength; and decision and personal daring were his most marked characteristics. "He dared to lead where any dared to follow," is the inscription upon his tombstone. His life is contained in the "Miscellaneous Works" of Gen. David Humphreys (New York, 1790), and in Sparks's "American Biography," vol. vii., by O. W. B. Peabody.