Ready and willing was Putnam--of that there is no doubt. Too willing, some of his enemies declared, when in September, 1774, news coming from Boston that American blood had been shed, without waiting to verify the report, he started out to alarm the country. This proved a false alarm, and he was strongly censured by those who had not kept a close watch on happenings in Boston; but he defended himself so sturdily that his critics were silenced. Two things were proved by this false alarm: that the people were ready to be aroused on the slightest provocation, for they filled the highways and flocked by thousands in the direction of Boston; again, that the British intended to stay where they were, for they extended their fortifications. Both sides were warned, and the lines of demarcation began to be visible where before they had seemed hardly to be distinguished, between loyalists and patriots. It was now either for England or for America, even the common people felt, while the leaders, like Israel Putnam, saw in the closer approach of warlike preparations only the fulfilment of their predictions.
The very next month, October, 1774, the militia of Putnam's State were ordered to provide themselves with an increased supply of powder, bullets and flints for their muskets. More vigorously than ever now he applied himself to the training of the sturdy militia; hoping for continued peace, perhaps, but preparing for nothing less than war. When war broke finally, with the first blood shed at Lexington, it found the minutemen of New England better prepared than their enemies believed, and when the news of this epoch-making event reached Israel Putnam, this great exemplar of the minutemen proved a model worthy their emulation.
The messenger with the doleful tidings found him plowing in the field back of his house at Brooklyn Green. His son Daniel was with him driving the oxen, and when the patriot had gathered the full meaning of the news he left the boy to unyoke the team, and himself hastened to his barn, where he saddled and mounted his best horse and started out to arouse the country again, as he had done seven months before. He had no doubts this time as to the truth of the rumor, for it had come direct and contained its own confirmation on its face.
The British, eight hundred strong, had left Boston for Concord, where they hoped to find some military stores. Encountering a small body of militia at Lexington, Major Pitcairn, in command of the British soldiers, called out to them to throw down their arms and disperse; but as they did not do so he ordered his men to fire, killing eight of the sturdy Americans, who even then did not run away, but joined themselves to other minutemen now assembling, and again came in contact with their foes at Concord Bridge. Just how many were slain the first message did not accurately report; but it was enough that blood had been shed, and it mattered not whether that blood was from ten men or a thousand.
The die was cast, the moment for armed resistance had arrived, and Israel Putnam tarried not for details, but sped straight for the home of Governor Trumbull, at Lebanon (the same who was afterward known as Brother Jonathan), and receiving from him mandatory permission to proceed to the scene of strife, hastened back to Brooklyn, arriving at his tavern home late in the afternoon. He had already been in the saddle for hours, as the news reached him between eight and nine in the morning, but before sunset the tireless warrior was again on horseback and galloping for Cambridge and Concord. He probably had received refreshment, food and drink at intervals, but he had not stopped to change his working clothes for better, and went off on both long rides in the farmer's frock which he wore when plowing in the field behind his house.
Though the Putnam mansion at Brooklyn Green is no longer in existence, the great trees that stood in front of it in his time still cast their grateful shade upon its site, and the walled field, sloping toward a verdant meadow, may be seen by the visitor, much as it lay to the sun on that lovely morning in April, 1775, when the farmer-patriot was peacefully running his furrows.
The distance to Cambridge was nearly ninety miles, yet Putnam covered it in an all-night's ride, going pretty much over the same ground he had traversed when, a young man of twenty-two, he had taken his wife and child to their new home in Connecticut. Thirty-five years had elapsed since the young pioneer had made his first venture in the world, ten of which he had passed in fighting for the King against whose soldiers he was soon to lead his fellow countrymen in war. Trained to fight the battles of Britain, yet those ten years of experience in warfare with the Indians were to prepare him for a wider, vaster field. He must now have felt this, his patriot friends must have believed it, for their eyes were turned expectantly toward Israel Putnam, as soon as the first blood was shed at Lexington and Concord.
See that sturdy figure, hurrying on horseback over the rough roads, through the darkness of the night, toward the goal of duty! The British had marched out of Boston at night, on the eighteenth of April, their purpose and their route foretold by Paul Revere (who, by the way, was in the campaign at Lake George, if not a comrade of Israel Putnam at that time). At or near daybreak of the nineteenth, at Lexington, the shots were fired heard round the world; at noon the British were in retreat from Concord, where they had been routed by the minutemen, and by night, exhausted, disgraced, defeated, they had reached Charlestown, under the escort of Lord Percy and his 1,200 reenforcements, where they were protected from the enraged militia by the guns of the fleet.
With such celerity traveled the news, that Putnam heard it on the morning of the twentieth; and with such celerity traveled Putnam, that he was at Cambridge _on the morning of the twenty-first_, and that same day at Concord, wonderful as may seem the feat performed by gallant horse and rider.
In the custody of the Connecticut Historical Society, at Hartford, the original of the following letter may be found, which attests to Putnam's arrival at Concord on the twenty-first, and to the use he made of his time:
Concord, April 21, 1775.
Col. Williams, Sir
I have waited on the com'tee of the Provisional Congress and it is there Determination to have a standing Armey of twenty-two thousand Men from the New England colonys of wh'h it is soposed the coloney of Conecticut must raise Six Thousand and beg they would be on Parade at Cambridge as Speedy as may be with conveniency together with Provisions and Sufficiency of amonition for there own use, the Battle hear is much as represented at Pomfrett--Except that there is more killed and a Number taken Prisoners--The accounts are at Present so confused that it is Impossible to assertain the number exact. Shall inform you of the Prossedings from Time to Time as we have New occurencys.
mean Time I am Sir yr very Humble Servt
N.B. The Throop of Horse is not Expected to come on till further notice.
Sir. Being in hast and cannot write Disire a copy of this to be transmitted to Governor Trumble.
A true copy, Ebenezer Williams.
Pomfret, April 22, 1775.
In the Lexington-Concord fight, the first engagement between British and native Americans, the former lost two hundred and seventy-three, and the latter about one hundred, in killed and wounded, twenty-three towns being represented among the wounded and slain. It was not a great fight in itself, but it was great, and even grand, in its consequences. On that day a nation was born. Then the American learned for the first time how to stand and fight for their own liberties.
The rallying minutemen flocked to the scene of the encounter, springing to arms without a thought of consequences, rising to the defense of their homes as one man, and within a week there were sixteen thousand men investing the demoralized enemy at Boston. Their alacrity in assembling at the common rendezvous has been a matter of wonder ever since, for nearly all marched on foot, without the assistance of horses or steam. The writer of these lines had an ancestor who was foremost among those minutemen hurrying to the defense of liberty, and who, it is a tradition in his family, ran nearly all the way from Beverly, twenty miles distant, with his flint-lock on his shoulder. Hence, as all were equally prompt in leaping at the enemy's throat, Putnam's remarkable feat was not at the time considered extraordinary.
In a few days our hero was at home again, having been called to Hartford by the legislators, who were desirous of consulting with their most experienced warrior, and bestowed upon him the rank and title of brigadier-general. All these events took place within the space of a week's time, and before another week had passed Brigadier-General Putnam was in headquarters at Cambridge, occupying a house which stood within the present grounds of Harvard University. General Artemus Ward, of Massachusetts, was commander-in-chief of the forces, having been commissioned by the Provincial Congress; but Putnam was the greater favorite with the soldiers, in whose vocabulary (to paraphrase a saying common at the time) the British were the Philistines, and Putnam, the American Samson, a chosen instrument to defeat the foe.
It is a matter of record that General Ward relied upon the advice of his old friend, with whom he had fought, under Abercrombie, at Ticonderoga, and kept him always within call at headquarters. Had he followed his advice more closely, however, it would have been better for their sacred cause, as was shown in the crucial test at the battle of Bunker Hill, when Putnam's repeated requests for reenforcements were at first denied, then so hesitatingly granted that they proved of small avail.
To Putnam, then, and not to Ward, the officers and men of the assembled militia looked for advice and encouragement. They were quite naturally doubtful as to the result of their hasty action, and as most of them had never been under fire they were timid and even down-hearted. But Putnam was continually engaged in arousing both their patriotism and their hopes. When General Warren asked him (wrote Putnam's son Daniel, many years later) if 10,000 British troops should march out of Boston, what number, in his opinion, would be competent to meet them, the answer was, 'Let me pick my officers, and I would not fear to meet them with half that number--not in a pitched battle, to stop them at once, for no troops are better than the British--but I would fight on the retreat, and every wall we passed should be lined with the dead!'
Our men, the General said on another occasion, would always follow wherever their officers led--I know this to have been the case with mine, and have also seen it in other instances. And as Putnam's record had long since proved that he always led, and asked no man to approach nearer the foe than he himself was willing to go, the soldiers were enthusiastic for Old Wolf Put, the fighter, though lukewarm in their feelings toward the commander.
They did not admire the methods Putnam employed to keep them out of mischief--these raw and undisciplined militia, accustomed to do as they liked and to take orders from no man--for he kept them actively employed all the time. It is better to dig a ditch every morning, and fill it up at evening, than to have the men idle, said Old Put, and though the men grumbled the results soon showed that he was right.
What they also needed more than anything else was confidence, and, in order to inspire that, he paraded some two thousand of them through Charlestown over the hills soon to become world-famous, and right in sight of the enemy. He did this several times, and on one occasion took with him his son Daniel, who wrote of it afterward: I felt proud to be numbered among what I then thought to be a mighty host destined for some great enterprise.
Daniel was then only fifteen years of age, yet he performed a man's work, proving himself worthy of his parentage, and was his father's aide-de-camp and companion. During the progress of the battle at Bunker Hill he acted as the guard and defender of a British refugee's wife and family, and stoutly did his duty, boy that he was.
Perhaps the highest tribute paid to Putnam's prowess was the offer of his old-time friend and comrade, General Gage, the British commander-in-chief, to pay him a large sum of money, and secure him a major-generalcy in the British army, if he would desert the rebel cause and come over to that of the King. Putnam spurned this offer, of course, as did sturdy Colonel Stark, another comrade of the Indian wars, and several others. He was all the more active, if possible, in seeking out the enemy's weak points and in attempts to reduce his supplies.
An opportunity offered, some time in the last week of May, both to annoy the enemy and gain substantial recompense for a somewhat hazardous adventure. Several hundred sheep and cattle were in pasture on Hog and Noddles islands (the latter now East Boston), and as it was feared that the British might secure them before the Colonials did, a small force was sent to drive them to the mainland. It was sent by Putnam, whose great and burning desire for a brush with the enemy was now about to be gratified, and as a party of marines on guard over the live-stock fired on the Americans, Putnam hastened to their rescue with a larger force.
A British sloop and schooner then joined in the fight; but the Colonials turned their single cannon upon the craft, and soon disabled the larger vessel, which drifted ashore and, after the crew had been either shot or driven away, was set on fire. In this engagement ten or fifteen British were killed and wounded, but no Provincial lost his life, though two or three of Putnam's men were wounded. They fought with great spirit, wading in water from knee to waist deep, and not only brought off all the live-stock in safety, but also took away the guns, rigging and sails of the schooner, as well as some clothes and money left by the sailors in their flight. This brisk engagement gave the raw soldiers just the confidence they needed, and they returned in high spirits to their camp.
I wish we could have something of this kind to do every day, remarked Putnam to Ward and Warren, as he reached his headquarters, where they were waiting for him to appear. It would teach our men how little danger there is from cannon-balls; for though they have sent a great many at us, nobody has been much hurt by them. He was wet from head to foot, and covered with mud to his waist; but he did not mind that at all, and was as hilarious as a boy just let out from school.
The British were greatly chagrined at this second defeat, the first engagement after the Concord-Lexington fight, but at an exchange of prisoners, conducted, on the one hand, under Putnam and Warren, and on the other under Majors Small and Moncrief, the sixth of June, no ill feeling was shown. Putnam and Small (whose life the former was instrumental in saving at Bunker Hill, and who were old companions-at-arms), embraced, and one eye-witness said, kissed each other, in the excess of their joy at meeting; yet less than two weeks later they were opposed in a fight to the death.