Israel Putnam (1718-1790), American soldier, was a Revolutionary War general. Although known for his courage and energy in combat, he was an incompetent commander.
Israel Putnam was born in Salem Village, Mass., on Jan. 7, 1718. He had very little education and remained nearly illiterate all his life. In 1738 he married Hannah Pope and the following year moved to Connecticut, where he bought land and farmed successfully, soon becoming a man of substance. When the French and Indian War broke out in 1756, Putnam was commissioned a lieutenant in the Connecticut militia and served throughout the conflict, rising steadily in rank until he reached a colonelcy by the time it ended in 1763. He fought in numerous engagements, earned a reputation for bravery and resourcefulness, and gained valuable military experience.
With the coming of peace, Putnam returned to farming and also operated a tavern. He took part in the developing conflict between England and the Colonies, helping organize the Sons of Liberty in 1765. He participated in the political life of Connecticut as a representative to the General Assembly in 1766 and 1767. In 1774 he headed the local Committee of Correspondence and accepted appointment as lieutenant colonel of a regiment of Connecticut militia. When the fighting began in the spring of 1775, Putnam entered active service and in June was appointed by the Continental Congress one of the four major generals under George Washington's command. It was not a wise appointment, for although Putnam was a good soldier and an inspiring and able leader, he did not have the qualities needed for planning major operations, commanding large units, or executing grand strategy.
Putnam was at Bunker Hill, at the siege of Boston, and in New York to plan the defenses there. He was in command at the Battle of Long Island in August 1776 until Washington's arrival, and that American defeat has been blamed by one historian on "the incapacity of Israel Putnam." In subsequent assignments his performance was no better. Washington ordered him to Princeton early in 1777, but Putnam delayed. He was then sent to command an important post on the Hudson River, but in December 1777, after 7 months of inefficiency, he was removed. A court of inquiry convened to investigate his record in one action, but he was exonerated. It was clear, however, that he was unfit for a command. Washington sent Putnam to be chief of recruiting in Connecticut in 1779. In December of that year, a paralytic stroke ended his military career. He returned to his farm in Connecticut, where he died on May 29, 1790.
Further Reading on Israel Putnam
The best account of Putnam's career is William Farrand Livingston, Israel Putnam, Pioneer, Ranger, and Major-General, 1718-1790 (1901). Two other biographies are useful: David Humphreys, The Life and Heroic Exploits of Israel Putnam (1835), and I. N. Tarbox, Life of Israel Putnam ("Old Put" ), Major-General in the Continental Army (1877).
Additional Biography Sources
Humphreys, David, An essay on the life of the Honorable Major-General Israel Putnam, New York: Garland Pub., 1977.
Niven, John, Connecticut hero, Israel Putnam, Hartford: American Revolution Bicentennial Commission of Connecticut, 1977.