Reconsidering Two Colorful Revolutionary Reputations

Today, I am going to speak about two of our more colorful, but controversial revolutionary leaders. One is well known and one is not. Both of them entered the Revolutionary War with the deep seated respect of their fellow citizens but one emerged the Revolution with an enhanced and maybe unwarranted reputation and other one with a tarnished, but unduly diminished reputation. And further, I will point out how historians have distorted the historical contributions of both. It is only recently that more accurate assessments of their contributions have been discerned.

The first Revolutionary leader was best known at the outset of the Revolution as an intrepid backwoodsman, a champion of the rights of the small land owners and as a political agitator. He gained national and international prominence during the revolution for making the first capture of a British fort, for surviving a brutal captivity and for serving as a militia general protecting his vulnerable neighbors. Today his name adorns one of the largest furniture manufacturing companies in America. Of course, I am speaking of Ethan Allen, an important contributor to the existence of Vermont as a separate state.

US Capitol

Ethan Allen US Capitol

And by the way, there is no connection between Ethan Allen and the furniture company. Ethan Allen was a land speculator and farmer; neither he nor his descendants made furniture. In the 1930’s, the furniture company appropriated his name to trade on the Vermont location of one of its manufacturing facilities.

The second founder I want to contrast emerged from the French & Indian War with the reputation of a courageous warrior. He became a prominent farmer, a highly successful inn keeper and a well-respected community leader. In the Revolution’s first pitched battle, he served as the most senior American commander on the Bunker Hill battlefield, was one of the first four major generals in the Continental Army and personally commanded the largest force of Americans on any Revolutionary battlefield. I am speaking of Israel Putnam, a name that is much less known today than is deserved.

Without being too judgmental, I’ll argue that Ethan Allen’s reputation today is far better than it should be and that Israel Putnam should be more prominently remembered for his Revolutionary War contributions.


Israel Putnam

However, historians have distorted both Allen’s and Putnam’s historical record for various reasons including to create a founding story for Vermont, to focus the acclaim on others and to pursue political offices. Some things don’t change….

Before the Revolution both Allen and Putnam served in the Connecticut provincial forces during the French and Indian War. While Allen did not see combat, Putnam fought in numerous battles developing a reputation of an able and courageous infantry commander. He served with the famed Robert Rogers, the innovative leader of a feared ranger company employing unconventional Native American tactics against the French.

During one of the Rogers Rangers’ raids, a group of Native Americans captured Putnam. Upon reaching their encampment, Native Americans twice staked Putnam to the ground in preparation for burning him alive. Both times providence intervened – the first time a fortunate rain storm quenched the flames and the other instance a French officer intervened to save Putnam. As a survivor of Native American captivity and the associated brutality, Putnam’s courageous warrior reputation grew further. Later we will see that surviving brutal captivity also enhanced Allen’s reputation.

Just as Putnam warrior reputation emerged during the French and Indian War, Allen developed his fighting reputation as the leader of the Green Mountain Boys, an innocent sounding but in reality a vigilante group which defended the New Hampshire grant land owners at the expense of competing New York land claims. In the area we call Vermont today, the royal governors of New York and New Hampshire issued overlapping land grants to settlers who found that they had competitors for their land titles. King George the III, initially ruled the New York governor had the sole right to make further land grants, but left cloudy the resolution of existing over lapping New York and New Hampshire grants.

Under Allen’s leadership, the Green Mountain Boys employed brutal but not lethal methods to intimidate Yorkers to leave the territory we now call Vermont. In one fabled episode, Allen placed a Yorker on a stuffed catamount (mountain lion) and hoisted him high in the air in front of a tavern in Bennington Vermont and left him in this elevated position overnight. As the story goes, this Yorker never again set foot in Vermont. Many of the Allen’s other intimidation tactics were not so benign. When the New York authorities placed a 20 lb. bounty on Allen’s head, he famously boasted, “The Gods of the Valleys are not the God’s of the Hills!”

In the opening months of the Revolution, both Allen and Putnam engaged in military actions, one which really enhanced a reputation and one that diminished a reputation. On the Bunker Hill battlefield, Putnam served as the most senior officer. He outranked the famously resolute Colonel William Prescott who led the Massachusetts Militia on Breed’s Hill and Colonel John Stark who led the New Hampshire militia which secured the eastern flanks of Breed’s Hill. Although the only general officer on the battlefield, Putnam only personally commanded a small company of Connecticut Militia on Bunker Hill, which was to the rear of the main fighting. Putnam unsuccessfully attempted to rally reinforcements for Prescott and Stark. For this failure, some participants (including Stark) and many subsequent historians severely criticized Putnam as lacking battlefield commander abilities. However, one must remember that there was no official command and control system as the Continental Army did not exist at this time. Each militia commander answered to his state and not to anyone else. Even Putnam’s detractors do not question his Bunker Hill bravery or personal actions to try to rally reinforcements. In the end, he prevented the vastly superior British from following up on their victory and moving on the main patriot forces in Cambridge.

While Putnam’s reputation suffered, Allen’s exploded becoming a national hero overnight. Along with Benedict Arnold, Allen led the Green Mountain Boys and some Connecticut militia to capture the “Gibraltar of North America”, Fort Ticonderoga. Many people envisioned this fort as impregnable and were enormously impressed when Allen and his small band of backwoodsmen were able to force the surrender of this vaunted fortress. However, in actuality, Fort Ticonderoga was guarded by only a few sickly garrison troops. There was only one sentry on guard duty that night, Allen and Arnold just walked in the main gate and received the British surrender. No battle ensued and one was killed. And Allen likely did not say that he demanded the garrison’s surrender “in the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!” In a letter to the Continental Congress, Allen did claim total credit for the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, not mentioning Arnold’s role. However, Allen may have more in common with Arnold than that joint conquest. But more on that later….

Back to Putnam…

Over the heads of more senior Connecticut militia officers and before the news of Bunker Hill was known, Congress appointed Israel Putnam as one of the first four Major Generals in the Continental Army. When Washington moved the Continental Army to defend New York City in 1776, he assigned Putnam to an important combat divisional assignment. In fact, when MG Nathanael Greene, turned ill, Putnam became the most senior commander of patriot forces on Long Island. Four days, later, 30,000 British forces attacked Putnam’s 14,000 men at the battle of Brooklyn. After action accounts criticize Putnam for falling for the ruse of a big right hook and leaving a strategic pass open to a surprising British flanking attack. In reality Putnam did not even have the time to survey the strategically untenable battlefield and in any case his forces were outnumbered by over 2 to 1 and faced being trapped by the British Navy. To his and the patriot army’s credit, they fought well enough to retreat to Brooklyn Heights and then withdraw all of their forces to Manhattan in a daring night time crossing of the East River. Again Putnam faced a superior force in a strategically indefensible location, but preserved most of his army to fight another day.

While Putnam fought battles commanding a budding army, Allen led a ragtag group of volunteers in a rash attempt to capture Montreal in advance of the invading Patriot army. In a short, but bloody battle, British forces thoroughly defeated Allen’s ragtag outfit and captured Ethan Allen and 30 of his men. As the hero of Ft. Ticonderoga, the British were giddily delighted to capture the celebrated Allen. The British commander harshly treating Allen by locking him in chains. Following past practices of trying and hanging traitors in London, British authorities placed Allen along with 30 or so fellow captives on a ship in chains and transported them to England for a traitor’s justice.

Famously Abraham Lincoln tells a story about Allen’s British captivity. Apparently Allen was invited to a dinner party at a gentleman’s estate outside of London. During the dinner, Allen requests to visit the outhouse and returns without any comments. The host, when observing Allen’s failure to remark about his “necessary visit”, asked Allen if he noticed anything unusual about his visit to the outhouse. Allen replied no, and continued in the party revelry. Finally the host, could not contain himself any longer and asked Allen if he was offended at seeing a picture of the venerated George Washington above the toilet in the outhouse. Allen, quickly reply, “Well, I thought it was appropriately placed. George Washington certainly scares the shit out of Englishman!” A great story. We do know that Lincoln told this story on several occasions but it is a complete fabrication. In England, Allen was closely confined in irons and jail. There were no parties in his honor. These type of stories contribute to Allen’s reputation as a larger than life folk hero.

Back to reality. Allen was one of the few patriot captives to be sent to England. When King George III, realized that if he hung Allen, then Washington would hang captured British officers in retaliation. So Allen was sent back to America and eventually exchanged for a British officer and returned to Vermont. Allen wrote a book about his captivity which became the second best seller after Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. His fame soared and he became a national hero. As we shall see, this is the apex of his career.

Back to Putnam. Washington assigned Putnam to lead the patriot forces guarding the strategic Hudson Highlands in 1777. When British forces under Henry Clinton attacked Putnam’s forces, they perfectly executed a ruse and captured Forts Clinton and Montgomery and opened up Albany to attack and the potential to link up with General Burgoyne who was invading from Canada. However, the British did not move on Albany and retreated back to NYC when they learned of Burgoyne’s surrender. Especially the New Yorkers heavily criticized Putnam’s command decisions and defense tactics. They labelled him befuddled and ineffective. However, again he was faced by a vastly superior enemy who controlled the Hudson River and Putnam had to defend 4 locations with too small a force. In the end, Washington understood Putnam’s weak hand and strategic disadvantages. Putnam was exonerated by a court martial and returned to command. However, in 1779, he suffered a debilitating stroke which effectively ended his military career.

It was about that time that Ethan Allen’s reputation took a major turn for the worse. On an Arlington, VT street, Allen was handed a letter. It turns out this letter was from loyalist Col. Beverly Robinson, with an offer for Allen and his Vermonters to make peace with Britain in exchange for recognition of Vermont as a separate British colony. By the way, Robinson also attempted to entice Putnam to become a turncoat during the Hudson Highlands campaign.

The British offered Allen and the Vermonters recognition of their land claims and the establishment of separate colony of Vermont in return for re-joining the British Empire. This offer started secretive and even now murky negotiations called the Haldimand Affair. What is clear is that the negotiations were real and that Allen, like Arnold embarked on traitorous activities. However, Yorktown occurred before the Haldimand negotiations could be concluded and unlike Arnold, the traitorous actions were not pinned on Allen. In 1791 and two years after the US Constitution Vermont entered the union and the Haldimand affair was forgotten.

So as the Revolution ended both Putnam’s and Allen’s reputations were declining. However, starting with 19 century historians, their post revolution reputations quickly diverged. One went up and the other down.

Believe it or not, 40 years after Putnam’s passing, his reputation became fodder and sullied during a Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign. Col. Henry Dearborn attacked the Federalists candidate using Putnam as a whipping boy. The campaign mudslinging did hurt Putnam’s revolutionary war reputation but lost Dearborn the election. Subsequent biographers and historians have not been kind to Putnam – calling him “old Put” something that I have not found in contemporaneous sources and derisively assessing his military activities during the Revolution.

On the other hand, Ethan Allen’s reputation was augmented, some would say invented by 19th Century historians. They glossed over or excused the Haldimand negotiations, his defeat at Montreal and his vigilante tactics leading the Green Mountain Boys. These fawning historians turned Allen into a fabled story book hero with larger than life accounts of his back woods exploits and his actions against the British and the Yorkers. In the late 19th Century, this veneration culminated in Ethan Allen’s statute being placed by Vermonters in the US Capitol. And in many early American and state histories, Allen became revered as the principal founder of Vermont.

In terms on how to really assess the reputations of historical figures, I recommend first looking to contemporaries and their views. Putnam’s soldiers and contemporaries commemorated Putnam’s contributions by naming towns, counties and geographical features after him in 9 states, more so than any other of the three other initial Continental Army Major Generals.

By comparison, after the Revolution, Vermonters named a non-descript, tree covered mountain top that few see or visit today after Ethan Allen. It is the 25th highest peak in Vermont and 33,422 highest in the US. In terms of what revolutionary participants really thought, the tallest nearby mountains were named for Generals Benjamin Lincoln and John Stark, the most impactful protectors of Vermont during the Revolution. I think this says it all…

On the other hand, Putnam deserves a much stronger reputation than he is credited with today. Yes, he lost the three major battles in which he commanded (Bunker Hill, Brooklyn and the Hudson Highlands). But in all three, Putnam faced vastly superior British forces who held significant strategic advantages including unimpeded support of powerful naval forces. Like Washington and Greene, Putnam lost battles, but fought valiantly and preserved his army to fight another day.

In contrast, Allen’s reputation as a military leader is vastly overblown. In his only revolutionary accomplishment, he walked in and assumed control over an undefended fort. In his only military battle, Allen demonstrated horrible military judgment in attacking Montreal without proper scouting and with an inadequate force. Yes, Allen agitated for Vermont independence and would seek it from whomever would grant it – American or British. Allen was certainly critical to the founding of Vermont, but he was not critical to the founding of the United States. In many ways, his reputation was made up to create a founding story for Vermont but was not backed up with courageous actions. Some Allen descendants have indicated that my assessments of his contributions are too harsh, but increasingly scholarship is reinterpreting evidence which points to his self-serving, traitorous motives and brutal extra-legal actions.

If you would like to learn more about the lives, contributions and reputations of Ethan Allen or Israel Putnam, please see my articles which are published on line in the Journal of the American Revolution.

If you are not familiar with the Journal of the American Revolution, it is a wonderful resource for insightful and interesting articles written by some very knowledgeable historians.

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