This brave general was born in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1718. He was only a farmer boy and so had very little chance to learn the many things about the wide, wide world that you boys and girls are learning every day. He was a plucky little fellow though, and was the leader among the boys of his town in all sorts of things—mischief as well as other things I have no doubt.
At school he learned easily all there was to be taught him; and if he knew nothing but the "three r's," that was not his fault, for that was all little folks were taught in those days.
Do you know what people mean when they speak of the "three r's?" Perhaps I shall not tell you the story just right, but this is something like the way it is told.
Once, in a country village, a school-board was holding a meeting. One man, rather more educated than the rest, arose and said, "I think, gentlemen, we might put a few more studies into our schools. I should like to see our boys and girls studying about the flowers and the stars; I should like to have them know about the different countries and the different people of this world. I move that a committee be appointed to see what can be done about making the course of study bigger, and better, and broader for our children."
Then a hot discussion followed. One man said it was all bosh; another said there was no need of knowing about countries or people that were thousands of miles away; another said he had no money to waste on such foolishness; another said the stars and flowers wouldn't help a boy to earn his bread and butter half as much as potatoes and squashes would. At last one man arose and said, "I don't care nothing about these new fangled notions and what's more I don't want to know about 'em. You and me was brought up in the deestrick school where we learned our readin' and 'ritin' and 'rithmetic. Mr. Chairman, move that we stick to the old way. The three 'r's was good enough for me and it's good enough for my boys. Yes, sir! 'the three r's'—by that I mean readin' and 'ritin' and 'arithmetic."
Well, what has all this to do with Israel Putnam? Not much after all, perhaps. Only to give you an idea of the kind of schools there used to be in those days. It was to this sort of a school where they taught nothing but the "three r's" that Israel Putnam was sent to get his "larnin'" as his old father used to call it.
But, as I said before, he was a plucky boy, and took the lead in all sorts of sports. He could climb like a squirrel, run like a hare, leap like a frog. He could, in short, do all sorts of things that boys admire to do. He was very generous and just; but he wouldn't take an insult from any other boy if he could help himself.
One time, while yet quite a little lad, his father took him to Boston. As he stood admiring this new city, which to the little country boy looked so very, very big, another boy across the way called out, "Hello, country, ain't it about time to milk the caows?"
Quick as a flash, the hot-headed lad fell upon the rude city boy, and gave him a thrashing that lasted him for many a day.
When Israel Putnam was a young man, living on a farm in Connecticut, he was very much troubled by wolf thieving.
Morning after morning he would find the number of his sheep and lambs lessened.
His neighbors, too, often found their chickens and hens gone, and only a few scattered feathers left to tell the story.
One morning finding a lamb which was to the farmer the pride of his flock among the missing, he started forth, gun in hand.
"There is a time," said Israel to his neighbors, "when even a wolf had better be taught that the way of transgressors is hard. I propose that we leave our farm work for to-day, and give this thief a good chase."
Several of the farmers, ready, I suspect for a good time as well as anxious to catch the wolf, joined in a party; and with Israel, who was always full of dry, "cute" sayings as we Yankees call it, at their head, they started out.
They were soon upon the track, and at last, with the aid of their keen-scented dogs, found the wolf's den.
It was a deep hollow in a rock, the opening of which was so small that the farmers could only enter one by one crawling on their hands and knees.
"Now we've lost him," said one farmer.
"Let's smoke him out," said another. So they built a fire of leaves and brush just inside the cave; but no wolf appeared.
"Set the dogs upon him," said another farmer. But the dogs came skulking out yelping with pain.
"We're not going to be beaten in this way," said Putnam; "I'll go in there myself." And so, tying a rope round his legs, that the men might draw him out, he crawled slowly in, his gun in one hand, and a torch in the other.
He soon saw the eyes of the wolf glaring at him from a corner of the cave. Bang! went the gun, and half-blinded by the smoke and half deafened by the noise, Putnam was dragged out by the farmers. Reloading his gun, back he went and fired again—and again was he pulled out.
For the third time he entered, and finding the animal was dead he hauled her out by the ears, while his companions pulled him by the rope round his legs. His clothes were all torn off his back, and his face black with smoke and powder, but he had killed the wolf, and kept her skin as a trophy.
During the whole time of the Revolution, Israel Putnam was one of the foremost in every danger.
After one battle, he found that fourteen bullets had passed through his clothing, not one of which had injured him in the least. At another time when the fort was on fire he would not give up; but worked away at the burning timbers till his hands were burned nearly to a crisp.
At another time, he was taken prisoner by the Indians and bound to a tree. The bullets and the arrows flew on every side of him; one officer shot at him for the fun of it—but neither bullet or arrow struck him, although many of them struck the tree to which he was bound. It seemed indeed, as if he bore a "charmed life."
When the British began to land in New York, "Old Put" led one division of the colonial army out of the city by way of the Hudson River road. He was to meet Washington not far up the river, and then together they intended to retreat.
Now it happened that at just the time Putnam was going up the river road, a British division was coming down. Mrs. Robert Murray, a good Quaker woman, who, although she did not believe in war and fighting, was nevertheless a staunch friend of the colonists, learned of the danger and resolved to save General Putnam.
The British red-coats, marching nearer and nearer, came until their advanced guard were at her very gate. Going forth to meet them, she saluted the officers and invited them to stop and lunch beneath her trees upon the lawn. The officers, tired and dusty with marching under the hot August sun, gladly accepted her seemingly generous hospitality.
She brought forth fresh bread with sweet golden butter, and gave them plenty of cold, foaming milk to drink, cake and fruits, everything that her house or garden could afford. She talked with them, showed them about her mansion, and in every way attempted to keep them pleasantly occupied until she was sure General Putnam had passed in the road below.
When at length the British division resumed its march, the sun had sunk nearer the west, the air was cooler, the men were refreshed and rested—and, best of all, General Putnam and his division had gone on far up the road and out of sight.
At last, toward the end of the war, this daring general was taken very ill. So strong was his will, that, although helpless and often in great pain, he lived on until the Revolution was over.
He was bold and daring, had no mercy on his enemy in battle, and when fighting, fought, as his soldiers used to say, like a very wild-cat.
Still, for all that, he was generous and had as kind a heart as ever beat. He was not ashamed to be gentle with his friends. Every one who knew him loved him; and when at the good old age of seventy-two, he died, he was mourned by all. Every honor was paid him by the country he had so loved, and for which he had so bravely fought.