Israel Putnam stories abound, but one of the most entertaining dates back to his days in the French and Indian Wars.
Known as ‘Old Put,’ Israel was one of the most interesting and vigorous characters of the American Revolution. One of Connecticut’s Sons of Liberty, he was a reckless fighter who survived a shipwreck in Cuba, galloped down a rocky cliff to escape the British and risked his life to save a burning powder magazine.
Putnam was born on Jan. 7, 1718 in what is now Danvers, Mass., and moved to Pomfret, Conn., when he was 22. During the French and Indian War (1754-1763) he served with Rogers’ Rangers. Mohawk Indians captured him and came close to burning him alive until it rained and a French officer intervened.
During the French and Indian Wars, Rogers’ Rangers was attached to a British Army unit. There was a good deal of friction between the British and the Americans. The British, better trained and disciplined, felt superior to their American allies. Meanwhile, the Americans – right up to and including George Washington – felt disrespected for their second-class status. The sense of indignation would fuel the dislike many Americans felt for the British Army in the period leading to the Revolution.
On one occasion, the story goes, a British major felt slighted by Putnam and he sent him a message complaining. Putnam, then a captain, invited the major to visit him in his tent, where he found Putnam seated on a small keg smoking his pipe.
The major confronted him and Putnam noted that a duel with pistols would give the major an unfair advantage. He proposed an alternative:
“Here are two powder kegs; I have bored a hole, and inserted a slow match in each! If you will be so good as to seat yourself there, I will light the matches, and he who dares to sit the longest without squirming, shall be called the bravest fellow.”
The tent was full of officers and men, who goaded the major into taking up the challenge.
At Putnam’s signal, the matches were lit and Putnam continued smoking quite indifferently, without watching at all the progressive diminution of the matches—but the British officer, though a brave fellow, could not help casting longing and lingering looks downwards, and his terrors increased as the length of the matches diminished.
The spectators withdrew, one by one, to get out of the way of the expected explosion. As the fire drew dangerously close to the kegs, the Major could take no more and jumped up.
Drawing out the match, he shouted, “Putnam, this is willful murder; I yield.”
“My dear fellow,” cried Putnam, “don’t be in such a hurry, they’re nothing but kegs of onions.” At that, the major stepped outside, the fight resolved.
Hat Tip to: The Rural Repository. This story was updated from the 2015 version.