The Whites of Their Eyes: The Life of Revolutionary War Hero Israel Putnam from Rogers' Rangers to Bunker Hill
In the popular imagination, the phrase “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” is attributed to the Revolutionary War Battle of Bunker Hill and to Colonel Israel Putnam of Connecticut, the subject of this fulsome biography. But although the phrase is the book’s title (and in the press release, too), author Michael E. Shay doesn’t actually put it in the old soldier’s mouth, and indeed there’s some dispute now about the origins. It’s true that some eyewitnesses much later said they heard Putnam proclaim: “Don’t throw away a single shot, my brave fellows. Don’t throw away a single shot, but take good aim; nor touch a trigger, till you can see the whites of their eyes.”
But maybe it was Colonel William Prescott who said it, or it could have been a flight of imagination on the part of Mason Weems, who wrote the 1808 Life of George Washington, which includes the quote. Frankly, it doesn’t really matter. Putnam certainly said similar things—he was in the thick of the fighting at Bunker Hill, “a man in constant motion” in Shay’s words. Simeon Noyes of Salem, Massachusetts, remembers Putnam “riding to and fro in all parts of the line, encouraging the men, pressing them forward, and giving orders to the officers.”
In many ways, Putnam was an unlikely general. Far from studying military tactics at West Point (which wasn’t even founded until 1802) he was virtually unschooled, a fairly prosperous farmer in rural Brooklyn, Connecticut, born in 1718. That made him an old soldier during the Revolutionary War, but in fact his mettle was tested much earlier, during the less-studied French and Indian War (1754 to 1763). That war was long and bloody, and ended with the ceding of French Canada to the British.
Putnam was a volunteer, commissioned as a second lieutenant because of his standing in the community, not for any military experience. But it appears he was bound to command, and soon exhibited the kind of leadership that, in later years, earned many brave men the Silver Star. As they say in the citations, “His gallant actions and dedicated devotion to duty, without regard for his own life, were in keeping with the highest traditions of military service.”
Shay demonstrates in a highly readable narrative that Putnam excelled not only at leading his men—a mix of soldiers and militia, with Native American allies—into battle, but also at preparing fortifications, securing supplies, and in general making victory possible. These things were critical, as a lack of food, pay and even basic clothing nearly lost the Revolutionary War for the American side.
Somehow all the whizzing bullets missed, and Putnam was never even wounded during the French and Indian War. He was, however, captured. His prospects were probably not all that great when he was stripped naked and tied to a tree. Brush was piled around him, and the pile lit. “No doubt thoughts of home and family flooded his mind as the smoke began to choke him and flames scorched his skin,” Shay wrote. But Putnam was rescued by a kindly officer at the last minute and marched to Montreal (“arriving dirty, unshaven, footsore and all scratched up”), then Quebec City, and from confinement there was freed in a prisoner exchange. And, finally, the long war ended.
“After six years of constant war, Putnam the farmer had become a seasoned warrior and a leader of men under fire,” Shay writes. The irony is that the gregarious Putnam had become close friends with many of the British officers he fought alongside, and these same men were later his enemies.
The code of the gentleman was strong in Putnam, who was appalled when a fellow officer bayoneted French prisoners. The book documents many kindnesses from him to captured British and Hessian (German mercenary) officers and their families during the Revolution.
As noted, Putnam fought with distinction at Bunker Hill, though some aspersions were cast against him—including that he failed to cover the retreat. This is patently untrue, because Putnam was seen during said withdrawal by Anderson Miner “riding through the ranks amidst showers of ball, undaunted, with his sword drawn exhorting the troops.”
Putnam was a favorite of George Washington early on, though their relationship deteriorated later in the war. Putnam was given the command of Hudson River forts, an area known as the Highlands, and fought to keep a significant defending force based there. Against his wishes, the troops were deployed elsewhere and the forts lost in a British offensive.
Putnam’s reputation with Washington was damaged, and he had run-ins with Alexander Hamilton, too. Nonetheless, a court of inquiry cleared him of wrongdoing, and he returned to active service, commanding troops wintering at Redding, Connecticut (now the site of Putnam Park). Troop desertion and near-mutiny was a constant problem as the men faced a Connecticut winter without adequate supplies.
The old soldier was on his way to a new posting in New Jersey when, in Hartford for the night, he suffered a debilitating stroke. “For Israel Putnam, the war was over.” Back in Brooklyn, Putnam took up his duties as a community pillar and regained some strength. The book recounts a lost opportunity for a reunion with General Washington that both parties would have cherished. Putnam contracted a fever and died at home in 1790.
The book has fascinating chapters on Putnam’s role in a British attack on Cuba (he got yellow fever and was shipwrecked), and on his efforts to win land grants in the new American territory of Florida for French and Indian War veterans.
The book benefits from a group of useful maps, but Shay might have given the uninitiated reader more context for possibly unfamiliar period terms like “provincials,” “militia,” “Hessians,” and more.
In calmer moments, Putnam, possessor of a fine singing voice, transfixed audiences with a bawdy Scottish song from the 17th century called “The Ballad of Maggie Lauder.” Not much heard today, it contains these lyrics:
“Wha widna be in love wi’ bonny Maggie Lauder?/A piper met her qaun tae Fife/And speired what was’t they ca’d her?/Fu’ scornfully she answered him, “Begone, ye hallan-shaker!/Jog on your gait, ye bladder-skate/My name is Maggie Lauder.”