It was at the retreat of the Americans before the British, who had landed at Kip's Bay, that the unique spectacle was afforded of both Washington and Putnam acting in unison, both in a towering rage, and both attempting with all their might to turn their cowardly soldiers face-about to stand against the foe. But all their efforts were in vain, though Washington, in his endeavors to stem the tide of retreat, came near being made prisoner, and would have been, probably, if one of the soldiers had not taken his horse by the bridle and turned him in another direction.
In the actual retreat to Harlem Heights that then followed, brave Putnam took the post of danger again, and, while nearly everybody else was heading northward, he himself went the other way in search of his detachment, which, fortunately, his aide-de-camp, Major Burr, had taken the liberty of setting on the move. He and his men were the last to gain the Heights, barely escaping the British as they tried to hem them in, and reaching the rendezvous long after dark.
It was a current rumor in camp, later, that his escape was not altogether due to celerity of movement, nimble as he was, but to the clever ruse of a fair Quakeress, Mrs. Murray (mother of Lindley Murray, the renowned grammarian), who, being known to the British officers, invited them in, as they filed past her door, to refresh themselves with cake and wine. Being fatigued with their labors, and considering the Americans as good as captured by their clever flanking movement, they accepted the invitation gladly and remained enjoying her hospitality about two hours, or just long enough for Putnam and his men to slip out of the trap and scamper along the North River roads to the rendezvous.
Their joy at their escape when (as Major Humphreys, who was with them, said) they had been given up for lost by their friends, was tempered next day by the death of Colonel Knowlton, who had been sent out with his rangers to reconnoiter the enemy. In the ensuing engagement, known as the Battle of Harlem Heights, the gallant Knowlton was killed, besides about one hundred and seventy of his men. Knowlton, who had taken a prominent part in the battle of Bunker Hill, was an old friend and comrade of Putnam in the Indian wars, as well as at Havana, and the latter felt his loss most keenly.
There was no time for vain regrets, since the enemy were pushing after the Americans, giving them no pause for a while. When at last there was a cessation in their endeavors at direct assault, Washington was more uneasy than before, and did not rest until he had discovered what it meant. In short, General Howe was about trying the second in his remarkable series of flanking movements, by which he hoped to get in the rear of the Americans, and, with his overwhelming force, bottle them up and compel a general engagement. But, with a force far inferior to the British, Washington not only succeeded in avoiding a pitched battle (for which he was wholly unprepared), but finally extricated his army from the net which his enemy had spread on two sides and was now attempting to sweep around to cut off his retreat.
Sending several war-vessels up the North River, or Hudson (which had no trouble in breaking through the barrier stretched across it), General Howe embarked the main body of his troops in flatboats for Westchester, landing at a point about nine miles above the Heights of Harlem. The enemy's object was then apparent, and Washington set about defeating it by one of the most complicated and ingenious military movements on record.
Leaving General Greene in command of Fort Washington, on the Hudson, not far from Kingsbridge and the Heights, Washington hastened northward toward White Plains, seizing upon every naturally strong position by the way, and establishing a chain of entrenchments on the hill-crests that commanded all the roads leading from the North River to the Sound. The last week in October the opposing forces came in collision at Chatterton Hill, where was fought the so-called Battle of White Plains, at which, wrote Rufus Putnam, who had planned the defensive works, the wall and stone fence behind which our troops were posted proved as fatal to the British as the rail-fence with grass hung on it did at Charlestown, June 17, 1775.
General Putnam was ordered to reenforce General McDougall, who was in command at the hill; but before he arrived the British had flanked the Americans and driven them from their position. Putnam's men covered their retreat by firing at the British and Hessians from behind fences and trees, Indian and Ranger fashion, and that night Washington practically began his famous retrograde movement to Fort Washington and Manhattan Island. By folding one brigade behind another, in rear of those ridges he had fortified, he brought off all his artillery, stores, and sick, in the face of a superior foe. He took position, first, at North Castle Heights, which he deemed impregnable; but after a few days the British left for the Hudson, with the purpose (as was afterward ascertained, and at the time divined by Washington) of attacking forts Washington and Lee and invading New Jersey. In anticipation of this move Putnam was detached with about four thousand men and ordered into New Jersey. Crossing the Hudson, he penetrated inland as far as Hackensack, near which place he encamped and awaited developments.
General Lee was left at North Castle Heights with seven thousand men to watch the movements of the foe, while Washington followed after Putnam to Hackensack. He was shortly recalled to the Hudson by a despatch informing him that the British were before Fort Washington in overwhelming force, and had demanded a surrender. Brave Colonel Magaw, in command of the garrison, refused a reply until he had consulted his superior officers, and as General Greene, in charge of both forts, was of the opinion that they could be held, the result was the storming of the fort and the loss of more than two thousand men.
The assault of the British, who had threatened to put the garrison to the sword, was witnessed by Washington, Greene, and Putnam from the west bank of the Hudson. Their distress may be imagined at beholding the slaughter that ensued, and there must have been some searching self-questioning by the Commander-in-Chief as to the wisdom of his policy, by which his divided forces became such an easy prey to the foe.
Lee could hardly be induced to leave his secure retreat, from which he departed only after repeated requests from Washington, whose great reliance at this time was sturdy Israel Putnam. He assisted at the evacuation of Fort Lee (now rendered useless by the loss of its sister fort across the river), and piloted the commander and his friends to his camp at Hackensack.
British troops under Lord Cornwallis had landed above Fort Lee at the base of the Palisades, and were now coming down to attempt to cut off the Americans before they could extricate themselves from the marshes lying between the Hudson and the Hackensack rivers. The latter left so precipitately that their fires were burning, with camp kettles over them, and tents still standing, when the British reached Fort Lee.
Parallel with the Hackensack River runs the Passaic, and across country between the two Washington was compelled to hasten, lest he be hemmed in again by the pursuing enemy. It was now late in November, the weather was cold, and gloomy were these dark days of the Revolution, when the militia left the army by hundreds, their terms of enlistment having expired, and no others took their places. While the little army of less than four thousand men was constantly depleted, it seemed as if its foes increased, in that country of loyalists and British sympathizers. It was with only the skeleton of an army that Washington, on the eighth of December, crossed the Delaware at Trenton, less than three thousand troops remaining by him then. Cornwallis and his soldiers were not far behind, during a portion of that gloomy retreat, a few days measuring the distance between the rival armies; but they did not catch up with the Americans that time.
The very day after his arrival at Trenton Washington ordered Putnam to Philadelphia, where he was placed in absolute command, and where he displayed the same energy and integrity of purpose that had always animated him hitherto. He had been a sustaining force to the Commander-in-Chief on that march across New Jersey, and of the few generals who had stood by him, no one had endured with less complaint or performed with more alacrity than Old Put. He was one upon whom to rely in the proposed scheme of fortifying the city, and his long experience at entrenching made him peculiarly fit for the work.
His sturdy nature, good sense, and ready wit made him at once a favorite with the Continental Congress and the Committee of Safety; though the former, acting on his advice, soon left the city for the greater security of Baltimore. Putnam soon placed the city under martial law, drafted all the citizens, except the Quakers, into the military service, and put the place in the best posture for defense of which it was capable. There were foes within the city as well as foes without, for the Tory element was strong in Philadelphia, and it was because of it that Putnam was unable to cooperate with Washington when he dealt the enemy the first of those telling blows at Trenton and Princeton. He dared not withdraw his men from the city, even for a short absence, in order to create a diversion while his Commander-in-Chief made the direct attack. Had he done so, and also the other generals to whom were entrusted the details of this affair, the Hessians might have been entirely cut off in their retreat from Trenton and practically destroyed. As it was, Putnam held to his command in Philadelphia, and soon had the pleasure of entertaining some of the Hessian captives, for whom he was obliged to provide quarters while passing through the city.
It must have fretted him vastly to be kept in Philadelphia while Washington was pursuing the very tactics he himself would have used against the enemy. After his first success Washington ordered Putnam out to Crosswicks, a small place southeast of Trenton, a very advantageous post for him to hold while his superior was planning his descent upon Princeton. On the 5th of January, after Washington had launched his thunderbolt at Princeton (of his intention to do which Putnam had been informed by a letter from his adjutant, written at midnight preceding that eventful third of January, 1777), he wrote at length to his trusty friend and General: It is thought advisable for you to march the troops under your command to Crosswicks, and keep a strict watch upon the enemy in that quarter. If the enemy continue at Brunswick you must act with great circumspection, lest you meet with a surprise. As we have made two successful attacks upon the enemy by the way of surprise, they will be pointed with resentment, and if there is any possibility of retaliating they will attempt it. _You will give out your strength to be twice as great as it is._ Forward on all the baggage and scattered troops belonging to this division of the army as soon as may be.
In accordance with Washington's suggestion as to the augmenting of the number of his men, Putnam availed himself of the request of a wounded British officer, who was his prisoner, that a friend in Cornwallis's army might be sent for to make his will, to practise a ruse. It was in Princeton, whither he had been ordered from Crosswicks. As he had but a few hundred men, in order to prevent his weakness from being known to the military visitor he was brought in after dark, all the windows in the college buildings and private houses were lighted up, and the handful of troops paraded about to such effect during the night that the visitor, on his return to the British camp, reported the force under the old general to be at least five thousand strong! In this manner the shrewd but kind-hearted Putnam complied with his prisoner's request, and at the same time turned it to his own and his soldiers' advantage.
Having failed in his attempt to bag that old fox (Washington), Lord Cornwallis had scurried back to protect his baggage and communications at New Brunswick, while Washington ensconced himself in the rugged country about Morristown, and Putnam was left to protect the lowlands and harass the enemy. So effectually did he perform the latter that his aggregate of prisoners taken during the winter exceeded the number captured by Washington at Trenton, and his captures of wagons laden with provisions for the enemy were highly important.