Major General Israel Putnam
Hero of the American Revolution
Robert Ernest Hubbard
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2017, 256 pages
Book Review published on: April 27, 2018
Robert Ernest Hubbard’s biography of Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam is a well-written and well-detailed history. Hubbard is a retired professor from Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut, and the author of numerous books that focus on events, people, and communities around Connecticut. He has also been the webmaster of a Putnam website for over twenty years. Hubbard’s main purpose in writing Major General Israel Putnam: Hero of the American Revolution is to reintroduce a heroic leader of eighteenth-century America in an era when most Americans may only be able to recall the names of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.
This book relates stories of Putnam as both a citizen and a soldier, portraying him as a fascinating individual who readers would love to meet if one could travel back in time. Putnam was noted for climbing headfirst into a forty-foot cave to kill a large wolf that was preying on local livestock. However, his most impressive military feats were when he fought in the French and Indian War along with Robert Rogers and other notables in the 1750s. He managed to survive torture and nearly being burned alive. After his release, Putnam went on to be part of the force that captured Montreal, and he was later part of an invasion force that laid siege to and then captured Havana from Spain. Later, he was active with the Sons of Liberty, and the book also recounts his part in exploring the Mississippi River in 1773.
The first part of Major General Israel Putnam recounts many stories as a background to his participation in the Revolutionary War. The story then moves quickly to the bloodiest battle of the Revolutionary War—Bunker Hill—where Putnam had a major role in leading and in fighting valiantly. There seems to be disagreement amongst historians as to whether it was Putnam or Col. William Prescott who made the well-known quote “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” as well as the guidance to aim low. It seems likely that both of these leaders would provide a similar type of guidance to their inexperienced and poorly trained militiamen in preparing for battle. Hubbard covers this issue fairly and makes a case for Putnam, but he leaves the issue open to historical debate.
After his exploits at Bunker Hill, Putnam’s fame began to ebb. Hubbard continues to cover Putnam’s role in the battles of New York in 1776 through the battles around Philadelphia and New Jersey in 1777 and 1778. The book provides a view of Putnam as a very solid leader at the tactical level who went on to struggle at a higher operational level of warfare. He suffered personal tragedy when his second wife died but then was able to return to command in 1778. His last notable event was his escape at Horseneck (today, part of Greenwich, Connecticut) in 1779 while being pursued by British dragoons. It is just one of the many exciting stories that the author relates throughout this fascinating book. It is shortly after Horseneck that Putnam suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on his right side and, although he remained mentally sharp, he was no longer able to command.
Hubbard conducted extremely detailed research for this book. There are 732 citations that reference 124 different sources, many of which are first-person accounts. The major weakness of this book is that it provides little detail of many battles and campaigns such as Dorchester Heights and the events around Philadelphia and New Jersey. Although the author was focused on increasing interest and knowledge, his book misses the mark for the key target audience of people with limited knowledge of the American Revolution.
Overall, the book is fascinating and very interesting. Putnam was truly an American hero of the eighteenth century. He was known as a soldier’s general. He was a tough fighter, but his lack of formal education and the fact that he was barely literate limited him in managing large formations. Hubbard relates how successful and skilled Putnam was in small-unit tactics as a peer of Rogers in the French and Indian War. At the same time, Hubbard honestly describes Putnam’s challenges and shortcomings at coordinating larger formations and struggling at the operational level as a senior leader. This book will be of interest to those seeking a greater understanding of military leadership during both the French and Indian War, and the American Revolution.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Wesley L. Girvin, U.S. Army, Fort Belvoir, Virginia