A Historiography of the published works on Revolutionary War General Israel Putnam
Historians in the first half of the 19th Century hotly debated the effectiveness of Putnam’s military career. First to print, David Humphrey, an officer on Putnam’s staff published a flattering 1788 biography. The first part of Humphrey’s biography is complied with the assistance of Dr. Albigence Waldo, a former army surgeon who interviewed Putnam about his French and Indian War experiences. Also Humphrey’s interviewed Putnam to collaborate Waldo and to fill in details about his Revolutionary War experiences. Humphrey’s text remained the authoritative biographical source until the emergence of a political fight 30 years later.
During the 1818 election campaign, Henry Dearborn, a candidate for governor of Massachusetts and participant in the Battle of Bunker Hill wrote an essay challenging Putnam’s leadership role and labeling him as incompetent and a coward. This attack sparked rebuttals from Putnam’s son and other supporters. In the end, Dearborn’s attack on Putnam’s character did not help him politically, and he was defeated. However, the controversy over Putnam’s reputation continued to simmer.
In an 1843 book, John Fellows pens another attempt to debunk or downplay Putnam’s Revolutionary War contributions as well as almost all of his pre-Revolutionary War accomplishments. Fellows, a member of the Massachusetts militia who served at Roxbury, MA during the Battle of Bunker Hill is particularly critical of Putnam’s warrior reputation and ability to command men under combat conditions.[i] In the mid 20th Century, Howard Parker Moore espoused these same themes in his biography of Gen. John Stark who served with Putnam in many battles in the French and Indian War as well as Bunker Hill. Stark was reputed to be highly critical of Putnam’s battlefield performance at Bunker Hill stating that with proper generalship that the Patriots could have thoroughly defeated the British.[ii]
In the next 70 years after the Fellows’ book, three biographers chronicled Putnam’s life. Of these, William Livingston’s biography written in 1901 is the most comprehensive and contains the highest supporting scholarship. Siding with Humphreys and Putnam’s family, Livingston generally provides a positive view of Putnam’s Revolutionary war performance and takes the side of Putnam and his family in the Dearborn-Fellows controversies. The four subsequent 20th Century biographies are written principally for young adults, relying mostly on secondary sources and containing fictionalized narratives. The last of these romanticized accounts was published in 1967.
Listed below is an annotated list of important works on Israel Putnam. The historiography is divided into biographies, young adult biographies, and other important sources.
David Humphreys. An Essay on the Life of the Honourable Major General Israel Putnam: Addressed to the State Society of the Cincinnati in Connecticut, and First Published by Their Order. 1788, later published (Boston: Samuel Avery, 1819), 276 pp.
An aid to both Putnam and Washington, Humphrey’s composed the first Putnam biography at while visiting at Mt. Vernon after the Revolution. The first half of the book covers Putnam’s service in French and Indian War. Humphreys’ sources are letters and notes from Dr. Albigence Waldo, a former army surgeon who interviewed Putnam. This part is mostly fable and romance. Reportedly, Humphrey’s also interviewed Putnam to collaborate Waldo’s recollections.
The second half of the book covers Putnam’s participation in the American Revolution. He focuses on the travails of the American Army and the lack of resources provided to the army. Humphrey portrays Putnam as a heroic military commander overcoming deficits in supply and pay. However, in the end, his sacrifices lead to a crippling stroke, symbolic of the fate of many soldiers in the Continental Army.
Oliver W. B. Peabody, “Life of Israel Putnam” in Library of American Biography (Boston: Hilliard, Gray, 1834-48, Volume 7. Also publish separately by (Boston: Marsh, Capen, Lyon and Webb, 1839), 107 pp.
Peabody, a lawyer, poet, journalist, editor, college professor and preacher penned an admiring account of Putnam life with many unsupported embellishments. It is written in the form of an essay with no footnotes, primary sources or references. Peabody also wrote brief biographies of General John Sullivan and Cotton Mather.
John Fellows, The Veil Removed: Or, Reflections on David Humphrey’s Essay on the Life of Israel Putnam (New York: J. D. Lockwood, 1843), 231pp.
John Fellows, who served in the Massachusetts militia, attempts to completely discrete Israel Putnam’s life stories from the wolf story, to his French & Indian War service and his entire Revolutionary war service. Primary sources are embedded into the document. Fellows, who was nearby the Battle of Bunker Hill, but not in the fighting, writes in an extremely negative tone and casts aspersions on military abilities, courage and character. Subsequent biographers are more balanced in their views.
William Cutter, The Life of Israel Putnam, Major-General in the Army of the American Revolution (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1859) 383 pp.
Cutter penned a comprehensive biography that emphasizes the positive aspects of Israel Putnam’s Revolutionary War contributions. He cites mostly secondary sources with several primary sources reproduced within the text.
Increase N. Tarbox, Life of Israel Putnam (“Old Put”): Major-General in the Continental Army (Boston: Lockwood, Brooks, and Company, 1876), 389 pp.
Tarbox’s biography is of similar form and content to that of Cutter. While not the first person to use “Old Put”, Tarbox popularizes the nickname. Not withstanding, this, Tarbox publishes the second most authoritative Putnam biography.
William Farrand Livingston, Israel Putnam: Pioneer, Ranger, and Major-General, 1718-1790 (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1901), 442 pp.
The Livingston biography is the most comprehensive and scholarly in nature. It relies heavily on primary sources, especially diaries and letters. Unique among the biographies, Putnam’s participation in a British invasion of Havana is described. There is a comprehensive bibliography and a detailed index. This is a “must have” reference for anyone wanting to know about Putnam.
Young Adult Biographies
George Canning Hill, The Life of Israel Putnam. (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1903), 265 pp.
Hill write the first book aimed at young adult readers. Hill’s purpose is to hold up Putnam as a individual that youth can admire and emulate. The book starts with an overview of what it was like to live in Revolutionary America and the lack of “modern conveniences”. The author devotes the first third of the book to Putnam’s life before the Revolution and the last two-thirds to his Revolutionary experiences. At the end, Hill pens a concluding chapter on Putnam’s character and reputation. Hill writes in a conversational style without fictionalized narratives. He includes footnotes to better explain historical events and sources. However, there is no bibliography or index.
Leon W. Dean, Old Wolf: The Story of Israel Putnam (New York and Toronto: Farrar & Rinehart, 1942), 274 pp.
Dean writes for a younger audience than Hill by including fictionalized narratives and several illustrations. Dean glorifies Putnam’s exploits, especially those before the Revolutionary War. Only in the last quarter of the book, Dean describes Putnam’s Revolutionary War experiences and omits the controversies identified by Fellows and Dearborn. Sources include prior Putnam biographies, especially Livingston and selected additional secondary sources. There is a bibliography but no index or footnotes.
Allan Dwight, Soldier and Patriot: The Life of Israel Putnam (New York: Ives Washburn, Inc., 1965), 184 pp.
Writing the shortest of the young adult books, Dwight’s publisher provides a dashing picture of Putnam riding a horse with a drawn sword on the cover. Dwight begins his book with an interesting author’s note on his sources. He laments the fact that there are gaps in our knowledge of Putnam due to the burning of his diary by his son Daniel. Again Dwight heavily relies on Livingston and secondary accounts of the French and Indian Wars as well as the American Revolution. About half of the book is devotes Putnam’s pre-Revolutionary life. Dwight provides fictionalized narratives to make events more approachable to younger readers. He concludes as many biographers with a recitation of Dr. Timothy Dwight’s eulogy and depiction on Putnam’s gravestone.
Fredrika Shumway Smith, Old Put: The Story of Major General Israel Putnam. (US: Rand McNally, 1967), 296 pp.
Smith authors the last of the Putnam biographies focused on young adult readers. Like Dwight, about half of the book is devoted to Putnam’s pre-Revolution life. Interspersed in the narrative are fictionalized quotes. Young readers are drawn to the book by a cover with Putnam in his Revolutionary War uniform riding a horse leading soldiers through snow-covered territory. For accessibility, Smith provides fictionalize narratives and numerous pictures and illustrations. She acknowledges heavily relying on Livingston and Humphrey’s. In addition, she used contemporary newspaper accounts as sources principally the Connecticut (currently the Hartford Courant). Unlike the other young adult biographies, Smith provides a comprehensive index.
Other Important Sources
Henry Dearborn, “An Account of the Battle of Bunker Hill with De. Berniere’s map corrected by General Dearborn” Portfolio March 1818.
Dearborn fought as an officer in the New Hampshire militia at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He penned this battle account principally to discredit the role of Putnam at Bunker Hill and to impinge his character. Clearly this essay was politically motivated as Dearborn was running for Massachusetts’s governor and sought to discredit those who still had fond affection for Putnam. This effort backfired as he lost the election. However, it did spark a decades long debate among Putnam supporters and detractors. In many instances, the questions raised by Dearborn, have not been resolved today.
Daniel Putnam, “A letter to Maj.-Gen. Dearborn, repelling his unprovoked attack on the character of the late Maj.-General Putnam, and containing some anecdotes relating to the Battle of Bunker Hill, not generally known” (Philadelphia, 1818).
Putnam’s son pens a point-by-point refutation of Dearborn’s essay published in the Portfolio. Daniel Putnam offers some testimony and facts that support a more generous view of his father’s performance in both the French and Indian War as well as the Revolution. However, Daniel’s response further elicits additional controversy from others.
David Lee Child, An Enquiry into the Conduct of Gen. Putnam (Boston: Thomas G. Bangs, 1819), 56 pp.
David Lee Child, a journalist and lawyer supported Dearborn’s view of Putnam and further claimed that Putnam was not even at the redoubt on Breed’s Hill. Child also calls into doubt Putnam’s efforts to rally the troops during the Patriot retreat. Further, he concludes that there is no collaboration for Trumbull’s story that Putnam caused a soldier to misfire as to save British Col. John Small from death or injury.
Daniel Putnam, “Colonel Daniel Putnam’s Letter Relative to the Battle of Bunker Hill and General Israel Putnam to the President and Directors of the Bunker Hills Monument Association, 1825, published (Hartford, CT: Connecticut Historical Society, 1860), 38 pp.
For the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, Putnam’s son Daneil, writes a strongly worded refutation of the Dearborn/Child’s accounts.
Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., General Orders Issued by Major-General Israel Putnam, When in Command of the Highlands, In the Summer and Fall of 1777 (Boston: Gregg Press. 1972), 86 pp.
First published in 1893, much of the materials in this short volume are derived from the orderly books of Sergeant Daniel Ware and Major Richard Platt. The orders describe the disposition of troops guarding the Hudson River highlands and their supply. In the run up to the British attack, it is evident that George Washington had ordered much of the manpower to reinforce other commands and that their was only a skeleton force to confront the British attack.
Alfred P. Putnam General Israel Putnam and the Battle of Bunker Hill: A Critique, Not a History (Salem, MA: Self-Published. 1901), 64 pp.
Not a descendant of Israel Putnam, Alfred Putnam wrote an assessment of Putnam’s role in the Battle of Bunker Hill and addresses the Dearborn-Fellows controversy. Alfred P. Putnam, a Unitarian minister in Danvers, Massachusetts was also an historian and founded the Danvers Historical Society in 1889. Given the original Israel Putnam house was in Danvers, he became interested in the legacy of Israel Putnam. Originally delivered as a speech to the Putnam Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and published in the Danvers Mirror in 1896, Alfred Putnam sides with Putnam and Putnam’s family in the Dearborn-Fellows debate. Putnam provides an excellent overview of the scholarship on Israel Putnam’s participation and role at Bunker Hill. He pleads to end this debate in favor of Putnam and ending the “threshing of old straw”.
“Israel Putnam; Rufus Putnam. The Two Putnams, Israel and Rufus: In the Havana Expedition, 1762, and in the Mississippi River Exploration, 1772-73, with Some Account of the Company of Military Adventurers, Connecticut Historical Journal (Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 1931), 279pp.
While not having a big connection with the American Revolution, this account provides insights into the life and character of Israel Putnam. Many historians overlook his volunteering for the Havana Expedition and Putnam’s strong support of British interests before the American Revolution.
Daniel Cruson, Putnam’s Revolutionary War Winter Encampment: The History and Archeology of Putnam Memorial State Park (Charleston and London: History Press, 2011), 160 pp.
Cruson provides an archaeology view on the history of Gen. Israel Putnam’s winter encampment for his last command. As to Putnam’s character and personality, one of the most interesting parts of this book is the sections on the mutiny and subsequent breakdown in camp discipline. While Putnam successfully put down the mutiny, his subsequent leniency, led to further discipline issues. Eventually the discipline got so far out of hand, that executions took place. This is an exceptional book for those readers who wish to learn more what it was like to live as a Continental Soldier in a winter encampment.
Dearborn-Putnam Controversy, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dearborn-Putnam_Controversy
This Wikipedia article is a valuable starting place for those interested in the Dearborn-Fellows-Putnam controversies. Containing a good description of the Putnam legacy controversy that brewed during the first half of the 19th Century, it is well researched with copious citations.
George Washington Warren, The History of the Bunker Hill Monument Association During the First Century of the United States of America (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1876), 499 pp.
Warren provides a summary of the Dearborn-Putnam controversy. Unlike most leaders, who are criticized during their lives, Putnam was only criticized after he died.
[i] See www.fold3.com for pension application dated July 18, 1838. John Fellows should not be confused with his uncle General John Fellows. For a genealogy of the Fellows family see, http://www.genealogy.com/ftm/f/e/l/Mark-D-Fellows/GENE-0021.html
[ii] Moore quotes a conversation between Stark and a Dr. Bentley on May 10, 1810, “He (Putnam) was a poltroon. Had he done his duty, he would have decided the fate of his country in the first action.”
From Howard Parker Moore, A Life of General John Stark of New Hampshire (New York: Published by Howard Parker Moore, 1949), 151.