The Negative Championed by Henry Johnston
Historians have been vocal in their summation of Major General Israel Putnam’s actions and command decisions during the American Revolutionary War. The leading authorities such as Fellows, Dawson, Gordon, Ramsay, Stiles, Bancroft, Field, Lossing, Trevelyan, Ward, and Johnston (to name a few), have all offered evaluations and explanations of what occurred prior to and during the battles in which Maj. General Putnam played a keen role. Some of these historians tout Putnam as a hero, examining the battle in detail and quoting eyewitness accounts to solidify their opinion. Others have painted Putnam as an incompetent who was more qualified to smash a company of troops onto his enemy’s steel than lead an army. They also used eyewitness accounts and studied events that surrounded the time before, during, and after the battle to prove their assumption. Was Putnam a rock of determination, a true warrior standing tall in the face of death and meticulously guiding his army to victory, or a bumbling hothead who reacted to events rather than initiate them?
This article, part one of two parts, uses the Battle of Long Island to examine Putnam’s competence as a commander. The Battle of Long Island, fought on August 27th, 1776, was a dismal defeat for the Americans resulting in over a thousand casualties and a crushing blow to the Continental Army’s moral. Afterwards, droves of troops and entire companies gave up on the struggle and deserted for home. General Putnam was in charge of the American army on Long Island that confronted the British and Hessian forces that eventful day. Just days before the battle, Putnam had replaced Major General Greene who had come down with the fever and was forced to return to New York City.
Part one accepts Putnam as the competent, knowledgeable leader who was well versed in military maneuvers and use of terrain to guide an army to success. This writer has found an excellent essay that champions this opinion. This well researched essay can be found buried in the appendix of Henry Johnston’s 1878 comprehensive text of events around New York in 1776; The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn Including the Battle of Long Island and the Loss of New York, 1878. The following is this account written in Johnston’s own words.
Responsibility for the Defeat —According to some of our more recent versions of this battle, the disaster is to be referred to the willful disobedience, criminal inattention, and total incapacity of General Putnam. Several writers make the charge so pointedly and upon such an array of fact, that the reader is left to wonder how all this should have escaped the notice of the commander-in-chief at the time, and why Putnam was not immediately court-martialed and dismissed the service, instead of being continued, as he was, in important commands. The charge is the more serious as it is advanced by so respectable an authority as Mr. Bancroft. Mr. Field, Mr. Dawson, and Dr. Stiles, following the latter, incline strongly in the same direction.
Mr. Bancroft first assails Putnam for sending Stirling out to the right when word came in that the enemy was advancing and our pickets flying. This is criticized as “a rash order,” because it sent Stirling to a position which was “dangerous in the extreme,” with the Gowanus marsh in his rear. But as to this, it only needs to be said that Putnam’s written instructions from Washington were imperative to prevent the enemy from passing the hills and approaching the works. It would have been a clear disregard of Washington’s intention had Putnam not sent Stirling out precisely as he did. The enemy were coming up from the Narrows and must be checked “at all hazards.” Furthermore, the position Stirling took up at about Nineteenth Street was actually safer than any other on the outpost line. His right could not be turned, for it rested on the bay, and he could see every movement of the fleet. His left was well covered by Parsons, and no one could have imagined his rear in danger with the other outposts guarding it for more than three miles. As a matter of fact, Stirling was nearer the lines than either Miles or Wyllys.
Again, it is charged that when Putnam and Sullivan visited the extreme left on the 26th “the movements of the enemy plainly disclosed that it was their intention to get into the rear of the Americans by the Jamaica Road,” yet nothing was done. The foundation of this is probably a statement of Brodhead’s and another by Miles to the effect that these generals might have themselves observed that the enemy was preparing for the Jamaica move. But if the intentions of the latter were so obvious at that time, it is proper to ask why it was not equally obvious on the next morning that they were actually carrying out their intentions, and why Miles and Brodhead did not so report at an early hour. These officers were rightly impressed with the conviction that the enemy would come by way of Jamaica, but it is certain that the enemy made no observable move in that direction from Flatlands, where they had been for three days, until nine o’clock that night. So says Howe. It was clearly in the plan of the British to give our outposts no ground for suspecting a flanking maneuver. Their movements were far from being “plainly disclosed.” The quotation given by Mr. Bancroft in this connection, namely, that “Washington’s order to secure the Jamaica Road was not obeyed,” unfortunately appears as original in a “Review of the War” published in 1779 and written by some irresponsible individual in England, who could neither have known what Washington’s orders were, nor whether any attempt was made to carry them out.
A further charge is this: “Early in the morning, Putnam was informed that infantry and cavalry were advancing on the Jamaica Road. He gave Washington no notice of the danger; he sent Stirling no order to retreat.” This is doubtless on the authority of a letter in Force, 5th Series, vol. i., p. 1195. But how early was Putnam informed? The writer of the letter who brought the word was probably one of Miles’ or Brodhead’s men, for he tells us that his regiment was dressed in hunting-shirts, and he makes the very important statement that on his way back to his post he met the enemy! The information came too late, for the British were now marching down towards the lines. Sullivan had gone to the Flatbush Pass, where he could understand the situation better than Putnam, and he was the proper officer to give directions to the outposts at that moment.
The charges made by Mr. Dawson have still less foundation. General Putnam is stated never to have reconnoitered the enemy’s position. Brodhead, however, states distinctly that he did. “It is also a well-established fact,” says this writer, “that no general officer was outside the lines at Brooklyn on the night of the 26th.” What is the authority for this? Nixon, Stirling, and Parsons had been successively officers of the day, and presumably did their duty. Parsons, on the morning of the 27th, was on the lower road trying to rally the pickets before Stirling appeared with reinforcements. “The mounted patrols which General Sullivan had established, as well as the guards at some of the passes established by General Greene, were withdrawn.” The fact that all the passes were well guarded and a special patrol sent out, is a complete answer to this assertion, so far as the night of the 26th is concerned. In this light the general conclusion arrived at by Mr. Dawson, that “General Putnam paid no attention to the orders of General Washington,” cannot be sustained.
With regard to General Sullivan, it is but just to give his own explanation. A year after the battle, he wrote: “I know it has been generally reported that I commanded on Long Island when the actions happened there. This is by no means true; General Putnam had taken the command from me four days before the action. Lord Stirling commanded the main body without the lines; I was to have command under General Putnam within the lines. I was very uneasy about a road through which I had often foretold the enemy would come, but could not persuade others to be of my opinion. I went to the Hill near Flatbush to reconnoiter the enemy, and, with a piquet of four hundred men, was surrounded by the enemy, who had advanced by the very road I had foretold, and which I had paid horsemen fifty dollars for patrolling by night, while I had the command, as I had no foot for the purpose, for which I was never reimbursed, as it was supposed unnecessary.” In another letter he adds: “I was so persuaded of the enemy’s coming the [Jamaica] route, that I went to examine, and was surrounded by the British army, and after a long and severe engagement was made prisoner.” These letters were written when Sullivan was restless under charges brought against him in connection with the defeat at Brandywine—charges which were properly dropped, however—and are not conclusive as to the Long Island affair. His statements are no doubt strictly true, but they in no way affect the main point, namely, did we or did we not have a patrol out on the Jamaica Road on the night of the 26th? We have seen that there was such a patrol, and probably the best that had yet been sent out, and sent out, according to Lieutenant Van Wagenen, by General Sullivan himself.
There are but few references to the question of responsibility in contemporary letters and documents. Gordon blames Sullivan as being over-confident. Miles and Brodhead leave us to infer that this general had much to do with the plan of action, and must be held at least in part responsible. Sullivan, on the other hand, according to Brodhead, blamed Miles for the defeat, as Parsons did. When these officers wrote, they wrote to defend their own conduct, and their testimony is necessarily incomplete so far as others are concerned.
In brief, the case seems to be this: On the night of the 26th we had all the roads guarded. On the morning of the 27th Putnam promptly reinforced the guards on the lower road when the enemy were announced. The arrangements were such that if an attack was made at any of the other points he and Sullivan were to have word of it in ample time. No word came in time from the left, for the reason that those who were to bring it were captured, or surprised, or failed of their duty. Hence the disaster. The dispositions on Long Island were quite as complete as those at Brandywine more than a year later, where we suffered nearly a similar surprise and as heavy a loss. Suppose the very small patrols sent out by Washington and Sullivan to gain information before that battle had been captured, as at Long Island—we should have sustained a greater disaster than at Long Island.
Under this state of facts, to charge Putnam with the defeat of the 27th, in the terms which some writers have employed, is both unjust and unhistorical. That misfortune is not to be clouded with the additional reflection that it was due to the gross neglect and general incapacity of the officer in command. No facts or inferences justify the charge. No one hinted it at the time; nor did Washington in the least withdraw his confidence from Putnam during the remainder of the campaign.
Bancroft, George. History of the American Revolution in Three Volumes. 1852: Richard Bentley Publisher, London, United Kingdom.
Chauncey, Ford, Edited by. General Orders Issued by Major General Israel Putnam When in Command of the Highlands, In the Summer and Fall of 1777. 1893: Historical Printing Club, Brooklyn, NY.
Cutter, William. The Life of Israel Putnam, Major General in the Army of the American Revolution. 1847: Published by George F. Cooledge & Brother, Booksellers, New York, NY.
Dawson, Henry B. Battles of the United States by Sea & Land, Revolutionary and Indian Wars…In Two Volumes. 1858: Johnson, Fry & Company, New York, NY.
Drake, Samuel Adams. General Israel Putnam, The Commander at Bunker Hill. 1875: Nichols & Hall, Boston, Mass.
Fellows, John. The Veil Removed or Reflections on David Humphrey’s Essays on Israel Putnam. 1843 James D. Lockwood Printers, New York, NY
Humphreys, David, Col. An Essay on the Life of the Honorable Major General Israel Putnam… 1818: Published by Samuel Avery, Boston, Mass.
Johnston, Henry. The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn. 1878: Long Island Historical Society, New York, NY.
Livingston, William Ferrand. Pioneer, Ranger, and Major General 1718-1790. 1901: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, The Knickerbocker Press, New York, NY.
Lossing, Benson J. Our Country, A Household History of the United States…in Three Volumes. 1877: Jones & Stanley, New York, NY.
Moore, Frank. Diary of the American Revolution from Newspapers and Original Documents. 1855: Charles Scribner Publisher, New York, NY.
Putnam, Alfred P. A Sketch of General Israel Putnam. 1893: Printed by Eben Putnam, Salem, Mass.
Ramsay, David, M.D. The History of the American Revolution in Two Volumes. 1789: Printed by R. Aitken & Son, Philadelphia, PA.
Steadman, C. The History of the Orgin, Progress, and Termination of the American War in Two Volumes. 1794: Printed for the Author and sold by J. Murray, London, United Kingdom.
Tarbox, Increase. Life of Israel Putnam (Old Put) Major General in the Continental Army. 1876: Lockwood, Brooks & Company, jBoston, Mass.
Trevelyan, Sir George Otto. The American Revolution. 1921: Longmans, Green, & Company, New York, NY.
Resources for further reading. Most of these earlier texts may be found in the Archives by going to: https://archive.org/details/texts