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. Despite this, and Putnam’s renown as a battlefield commander and his colorful military service far and wide, Putnam has never received his due from modern historians. In The Whites of Their Eyes, Michael E. Shay tells the exciting life of Israel Putnam.
Born near Salem, Massachusetts, in 1718, Putnam relocated in 1740 to northeastern Connecticut, where he was a slaveowner 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 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 rebellion.
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 outmanned 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 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.
Michael E. Shay was appointed as a Judge of Connecticut Superior Court in 2000 following a career as a lawyer. He currently serves as a Judge Trial Referee. Shay holds a Master of Arts in American Studies, and he is the author of seven previous books, including The Yankee Division in the First World War: In Highest Tradition (2008) and Revered Commander, Maligned General: The Life of Clarence Ransom Edwards. 1859-1931 (2011). He lives in Connecticut.
Israel Putnam, or "Old Put," is largely a forgotten patriot often relegated to a mere historical footnote. Michael E. Shay lifts the veil on this extraordinary figure who plays a vital role in American history. The reader is taken on a fascinating journey through multiple wars, conflicts, and important events. Rich in detail, story, and interesting, The Whites of Their Eyes is a trip worth taking.
"Shay demonstrates in a highly readable narrative that Putnam excelled not only at leading his men—a mix of soldiers and militia—into battle, but also at preparing fortifications, securing supplies, and in general making victory possible... 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..."
“With its detailed reconstructions of Putnam’s battles, this is more military history than social history (though Shay does not neglect to mention Putnam was a slaveholder). It will appeal to Revolutionary War buffs interested in how the war was prosecuted.”