Born Jan. 7, 1718 in Danvers, Mass., Israel Putnam was renowned for his fighting spirit and reckless courage. He fought with Roger’s Rangers during the French and Indian War, survived a shipwreck near Cuba, founded the Sons of Liberty in Connecticut, narrowly escaped being burned to death by Indians and planned the Battle of Bunker Hill.
During the winter of 1778-79, Putnam was the Continental Army general supervising the Connecticut troops’ winter quarters in Redding, Conn. In early 1779, the 61-year-old soldier known as 'Old Put' traveled to Greenwich to review the troops. On Feb. 25, a marauding party of 1,500 British cavalry and infantry started from Kingsbridge in New York City. They skirmished with a small party of Continental soldiers on the way to Greenwich, killing some and scattering the others. Capt. Titus Watson galloped toward Greenwich to warn the Continental troops, which were outnumbered 10-to-1.
The Continental troops were stationed along the road, but withdrew, realizing challenging the British would be madness.
According to legend, Old Put was shaving in his room at Knapp’s Tavern on the morning of Feb. 26, 1779, when he saw British cavalrymen in his mirror. Outnumbered and unprepared, Putnam’s men fled for their lives. Putnam, cut off from his men, jumped on his horse and galloped toward a rocky cliff. A church stood at the top of the cliff, with 100 stone steps leading from it to the foot of the cliff. Putnam rode his horse down those steps, threading his way to the right and to the left. Not one of the British cavalrymen dared follow him.
A cottage where Putnam supposedly stayed in Greenwich was preserved as a historic structure, but doubts have been raised about whether he really stayed there. The shaving story is a little improbable as well. A more likely version has it that Watson found Putnam in the tavern – perhaps with shaving foam on his cheeks.
Whether Putnam rode his horse down the stone steps or a cow path is also open to dispute. That his ride was so daring no British soldier was willing to follow him is well-established by eyewitnesses at the time.
Putnam rode on to summon reinforcements, which attacked the marauding British in Greenwich, took British prisoners and recaptured their plunder.
In 1900, the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a commemorative bronze market on the spot at the top of the cliff where they believe Putnam launched his headlong ride. The marker reads,
This marks the spot
Where on February 26, 1779,
General Israel Putnam,
Cut off from his soldiers and
Pursued by British Cavalry,
Galloped down this rocky steep
And escaped, daring to lead where not
One of many foes dared to follow.
Old Put died in Brooklyn, Conn., on May 29, 1790. A large bronze statue commemorating his ride was erected at Putnam Memorial State Park in Redding. His birthplace is preserved as a historic building.