“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” remains one of the enduring, and most stirring, quotations of the Revolutionary War, and it was very likely uttered at the Battle of Bunker Hill by General Israel Putnam.
Putnam’s renown as a battlefield commander and his colorful military service far and wide are explored in The Whites of Their Eyes: The Life of Revolutionary Hero Israel Putnam from Rogers Rangers to Bunker Hill (Stackpole Books, 2023) by Michael E. Shay.
Born near Salem, Massachusetts, in 1718, Putnam relocated in 1740 to northeastern Connecticut, where he was a slave owner and, according to folk legend, killed Connecticut’s last wolf, in a cave known as Israel Putnam Wolf Den, which is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
During the French and Indian War, Putnam enlisted as a private and rose to the rank of colonel. He served with Robert Rogers, famous Ranger founder and leader, and a popular phrase of the time said, “Rogers always sent, but Putnam led his men to action.”
In 1759, Putnam led an assault on French Fort Carillon (later Fort Ticonderoga); in 1760, he marched against Montreal; in 1762, he survived a shipwreck and yellow fever during an expedition against Cuba; and in 1763, he was sent to defend Detroit during Pontiac’s War.
When the Revolutionary War broke out, Putnam — who had been radicalized by the Stamp Act — was among those immediately considered for high command. Named one of the Continental Army’s first four major generals, he helped plan and lead at the Battle of Bunker Hill, where he gave the order about “the whites of their eyes” and argued in favor of fortifying Breed’s Hill, in addition to Bunker Hill. Most of the battle would take place on Breed’s.
During the battles for Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Long Island during the summer of 1776, Putnam proved himself a capable and courageous battlefield commander with a special eye for fortifications, but he sometimes faltered in tactical and strategic decision-making.
In the fall of 1777, the British out-manned Putnam, resulting in the loss of several key forts in the Hudson Highlands near West Point. Putnam was exonerated by a court of inquiry, but — nearly sixty and opposed by powerful political elements from New York, including Alexander Hamilton — he spent many of the following months recruiting in Connecticut.
In December 1779 he was returning to George Washington’s Army to rejoin his division when he suffered a stroke and was paralyzed.
The Whites of Their Eyes recounts the life and times of Israel Putnam, a larger-than-life general, a gregarious tavern keeper and farmer, who was a folk hero in Connecticut and the probable source of legendary words during the Revolutionary War — and whose exploits make him one of the most interesting officers in American military history.
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