General Israel Putnam's division of the Continental Army encamped in Redding in the winter of 1778-1779. This division was comprised of General Poor's brigade of New Hampshire troops under Brig. General Enoch Poor, a Canadian Regiment led by Col. Moses Hazen, and two brigades of Connecticut troops: 2nd Brigade Connecticut Line regiments commanded by Brig. General Jedediah Huntington, and the 1st Brigade Connecticut Line regiments commanded by Brig. General Samuel H. Parsons. This division had been operating along the Hudson (Eastern New York) during the fall, and as winter approached it was decided that it should go into winter quarters at Redding, as from this position it could support the important fortress of West Point in case of attack, intimidate the Cowboys and Skinners of Westchester County, and cover lands adjacent to Long Island Sound. Another major reason was to protect the Danbury supply depot, which had been burned by the British the year before but resurrected to keep supplies going to Washington's army.
Colonel Aaron Burr, one of General Putnam's aides and a frequent visitor to Redding, had suggested that Putnam look over the area for a future winter encampment during a summer visit to General Heath's Brigade in Danbury. Putnam found the topography and location ideal. Three camp locations were marked and later prepped by artificers and surveyors under the direction of the Quartermaster staff: the first in the northeast part of Lonetown, near the Bethel line, on land owned by John Read, 2nd (now Putnam Park). The second was about a mile and a half west of the first camp, between Limekiln Rd. and Gallows Hill in the vicinity of present day Whortleberry Rd. & Costa Lane. The third camp was in West Redding, on a ridge about a quarter of a mile north of West Redding Station (vicinity of present day Deer Spring Drive & Old Lantern Road).
The main camp, which is now known as Putnam Memorial State Park, was laid out with admirable judgement, at the foot of rocky bluffs which fenced in the western valley of the Little River. 116 huts were erected to form an avenue nearly a quarter mile in length, and several yards in width. At the west end of the camp was a mountain brook, which furnished a plentiful supply of water; near the brook a forge was said to have been erected. The second and third camps, were both laid out on the southerly slopes of hills with streams of running water at their base.
Each of the camps were strategically positioned to defend main highways in and out of town: Danbury to Fairfield; Danbury to Norwalk; Redding to Danbury and points north (stage coach route).
As to the exact location of Putnam's headquarters, authorities differ, but all agree in placing it on Umpawaug Hill. Some of Putnam's officers were quartered in West Redding. General Parsons' headquarters were at Stephen Betts Tavern on Redding Ridge.
The troops went into winter quarters at Redding in no pleasant humor, and almost in the spirit of insubordination. This was particularly the case with the Connecticut troops. They had endured privations that many men would have sunk under: the horrors of battle, the weariness of the march, cold, hunger, and nakedness. What was worse, they had been paid in the depreciated currency of the times, which had scarcely any purchasing power, and their families at home were reduced to the lowest extremity of want and wretchedness.
Petition of the Connecticut Soldiers in the Revolutionary Army, to His Excellency, Jonathan Trumbull, Governor of Connecticut. Communicated by Mr. L.B., of New York.
Camp Reading, December 27th, 1778
Petition to his Excellency Gov. Trumbull. May it please your Excellency. The Sense of Importance of opposing with Force, ye attempts of Great Britain to enslave our Country, induces us to lay before your Excellency the Condition of that Part of ye Army raised from the State of Connecticut & ye great Danger of their disbanding & returning to their several Homes.
They have may it please your Excellency been promised a Blanket, & other Clothing annually from ye Continent & a Blanket from ye State every year, for each non-commissioned Officer & Soldier, those Promises have not been complied with, so far from it, that although we have not, one half ye Quota of Men this State was to raise, we assure you not less than four hundred are to this Day totally destitute, & no one has received two Blankets according to Contract, nor has more than one half of the Clothing promises ever been received or any compensation made for ye deficiency, that when they have Coats they are without Breeches, & when they are supplied with Shoes, they have neither Stockings nor Shirts, & at this Inclement Season many of our Men are suffering for want of Blankets, Shirts, Breeches, Shoes & Stockings, & some are destitute of Coats & Waistcoats.
The increasing Price of every necessary [necessity] and Convenience of Life, is another Grievance most [unreadable] experienced by ye Soldiery in their Marches, & in other Situations, they are necessitated to purchase Provisions and Vegetables when in Camp. The Prices now asked for one Meal is from three to eight Shillings. Turnips from two to three Dollars per Bushel & other Vegetables in proportion, that a Soldiers month Pay is consumed in about three days in furnishing himself with necessaries not supplied by the Public. – These are Grievances very greatly and Justly complained of by your Soldiers, & Officers of every Rank are Sharers in the Consequences of these Evils.
An expectation of Redress has retained ye Soldiery hitherto, but Desertions Daily increase & unless that Justice which is their due is done, We assure your Excellency we fear it will not be in our Power to retain them. We have ye greatest Reason to believe they will wait ye Event only of their Petition at ye Adj. Assembly, & should that Assembly arise without doing them Justice in ye past depredation of ye Currency, we are convinced ye greater part of ye Soldiery will desert.
We assure your Excellency we have & shall continue to appease every discontent which has ye remotest Tendency to produce Mutiny & Desertion or any other Act prejudicial to ye Service & we have ye Satisfaction to believe we posses ye Love & Affection of ye Soldiery & that they are not desirous to forsake us or ye Cause of their Country.
But it may please your Excellency they are naked in severe Winter, they are hungry & have no Money…[it goes on and on repeating the same theme for three more paragraphs]
We have furnished our Agent with a Calculation, founded on ye best Evidence in our power, that being adopted by our Assembly will in our Opinion quiet our Troops & that nothing short will give them Satisfaction. We have the Honor to be with ye Greatest Esteem Your Excellencies.From Captain Nathaniel Webb’s Orderly Book.
The frustrations caused by the deprivations brought to a head the attempted mutiny on the morning of December 30th at Huntington's camp. The troops had decided on the bold resolve of marching to Hartford, and airing their grievances in person to the Legislature then sitting. The two brigades were plotting their escape when the threat of troop desertion was brought to Putnam's attention. He, with his usual intrepidity and decision of character, threw himself upon his horse and dashed down the road leading to his camps, never slacking rein until he drew up in the presence of the disaffected troops.
"My brave lads," he cried, "whither are you going? Do you intend to desert your officers, and invite the enemy to follow you into the country? Whose cause have you been fighting and suffering so long in-is it not your own? Have you no property, no parents, wives, children? You have behaved like men so far-all the world is full of your praises, and posterity will stand astonished at your deeds; but not if you spoil it all at last.
Don't you consider how much the country is distressed by the war, and that your officers have not been any better paid than yourselves? But we all expect better times, and that the country will do us ample justice. Let us all stand by one another then, and fight it out like brave soldiers. Think what a shame it would be for Connecticut men to run away from their officers."
When he had finished this stirring speech, he directed the acting Major of Brigades to give the word for them to march to their regimental parades, and lodge arms, which was done; one soldier only, a ringleader in the affair, was confined to the guard house, from which he attempted to escape, but was shot dead by the sentinel on duty- himself one of the mutineers. Thus ended the affair.
In January, Private Joseph P. Martin related two more uprisings in his camp journal, both were thwarted by regimental officers, but indicate some discontent among the troops still lingered. After that many of the Connecticut troops were placed on patrols at Horseneck, Stamford and Norwalk. Some were sent over to "no-man's land" in Westchester County and several hundred troops were sent to New London for guard duty and the construction of Fort Griswold.
Executions at Gallows Hill
Putnam was no stranger to deserters and spies. Nothing had so much annoyed Putnam and his officers during the campaigns of the preceding summer on the Hudson than the desertions which had thinned his ranks, and the Tory spies, who frequented his camps, under every variety of pretext, and forthwith conveyed the information thus gathered on the enemy.
To put a stop to this it had been determined that the next offender of either sort (deserter or spy) captured should suffer death as an example. The opportunity to implement this determination soon arrived. Scouts from Putnam's outposts in Westchester County captured a man lurking within their lines, and as he could give no satisfactory account of himself, he was at once hauled over the borders and into the presence of the Commander-in-Chief. In answer to the commanders queries, the prisoner said that his name was Jones, that he was a Welshman by birth, and had settled in Ridgefield a few years before the war commenced; that he had never faltered in his allegiance to the King, and that at the outbreak of the hostilities he had fled to the British army, and had been made a butcher in the camp; a few weeks before, he had been sent into Westchester County to buy beef for the army, and was in the process of carrying out those orders at the present. He was remanded to the guard house, court-martialed and at once ordered for trial. Putnam had his first example.
On Feb. 4, 1779, Edward Jones was tried at a General Court Martial for going to and serving the enemy, and coming out as a spy. He was found guilty of each and every charge exhibited against him, and according to Law and the Usage's of Nations was sentenced to suffer Death:
Two days after another General Court Martial was held for a similar offence: on Feb. 6, 1779, John Smith of the 1st Connecticut Regiment, was tried at a General Court Martial for desertion and attempting to go to the enemy, found guilty, and further persisting in saying that he will go to the enemy if ever he has an opportunity.
"The General approves the sentence and orders that it be put in execution between the hours of ten and twelve A.M. for him to be shot to death"
General Putnam having two prisoners under the sentence of death determined to execute them both at once, or as he expressed it, "to make a double job of it," and at the same time make the spectacle as terrible and impressive as the circumstances demanded.
The scene which took place at the execution of these men on February 16 was described as shocking and bloody, it occurred on a lofty hill (known to this day as Gallows Hill) dominating the valley between the three camps. The instrument of Edward Jones' death was erected approximately twenty feet from the ground atop the hill's highest pinnacle. Jones was ordered to ascend the ladder, with the rope around his neck and attached to the cross beam of the gallows. When he had reached the top rung General Putnam ordered him to jump from the ladder.
'No General Putnam,' said Jones, 'I am innocent of the crime laid to my charge; I shall not do it.'
Putnam drawing his sword, compelled the hangmen at sword's point, that his orders be obeyed and if Jones would not jump, that the ladder be over-turned to complete the act. It was and he perished.
The soldier that was to be shot for desertion was but a youth of sixteen or seventeen years of age. The Rev. Nathaniel Bartlett, who was pastor of the Congregational Church in Redding for a period of fifty years, officiated as chaplain to the encampment during that winter, and was present at the execution. He interceded with General Putnam to defer the execution of Smith until Washington could be consulted- for reason the offender was a youth; but the commander assured him that a reprieve could not be granted.
John Smith was described as "extremely weak and fainting" as he was led by Poor's Brigade Chaplain, the Rev. Dr. Evans, approximately 200 yards from the gallows to the place he was to be shot.
Putnam gave the order and three balls were shot through his breast: he fell on his face, but immediately turned over on his back; a soldier then advanced, and putting the muzzle of his gun near the convulsive body of the youth, discharged its contents into his forehead. The body was then placed in a coffin; the final discharge had been fired so near to the body that it had set the boy's clothing on fire, and continued burning while each and every soldier present was ordered to march past the coffin and observe Smith's mangled remains; an officer with a drawn sword stood by to ensure they complied.
It was indeed a grisly scene, and many have questioned the accuracy of the accounts published about it because it seems almost too ghastly. But it should be said that: boldness, firmness, promptness, decisiveness- were the chief elements of General Israel Putnam's character, and at this particular crisis all were needed. There was disaffection and insubordination in the army, as has been noted. Desertions were frequent, and spying by the Tories was almost openly practiced. To put a stop to these practices it was vitally necessary to the safety of the army, to see that these sentences were carried into effect. If the executions were bungling done, the fault was with the executioners, and not with the General.
Theft of Cattle & Livestock
The journals of private Joseph Plumb Martin (stationed with the 8th Connecticut in Parsons' middle camp) shows the desperate lack of food and poor weather conditions endured by the troops throughout January:
“We settled in our winter quarters at the commencement of the new year and went on in our old Continental Line of starving and freezing. We now and then got a little bad bread and salt beef (I believe chiefly horse-beef for it was generally thought to be such at the time). The month of January was very stormy, a good deal of snow fell, and in such weather it was mere chance if we got anything at all to eat.”
Given the conditions, it is difficult to blame the soldiers that took matters into their own hands and ventured out of camp in search of provisions. The citizens of Redding, did not see things this way, those who initially felt quite honored by the selection of their town for the army's winter quarters, soon grew tired of soldiers looting their livestock. The soldiers position was that they were the one's fighting the country's battles and plundering the neighboring farms was within their rights as men of war. To them a well-stocked poultry yard, a pen of fat porkers or field of healthy heifers offered irresistible cuisine when compared to the horse-beef they were being offered back at camp. After a time, however, the wary farmers foiled the looters by storing their livestock over night in the cellars of their houses and in other secure places.
This was an issue throughout the war and the letter below shows that George Washington was aware of it. It also highlights why looting was difficult to stop, as looters could claim they confiscated the provisions because they were intended to be sold to the British.
To Major General Israel Putnam, From George Washington, Philadelphia, December 26, 1778.
“I have not a Copy of your instructions with me, but if my memory serves me, I was as full in my directions respecting the conduct of Officers who shall be sent upon the lines as I possibly can be. The Officer must determine from all circumstances, whether Cattle or any species of provision found near the lines are in danger of falling into the hands of the Enemy, or are carried there with an intent to supply them. If it is thought necessary to bring them off, they must be reported and disposed of as directed by your instructions.
I was very particular upon that Head, because I know that great Acts of Injustice have been committed by Officers, under pretence that provision and other kinds of property were intended for the Use of the Enemy. I would recommend the bringing off as much Forage as possible but I would not advise the destruction of what we cannot remove. I think your plan of sending out a large party under the command of a Field Officer and making detachments from thence, a good one; and if you and General McDougall can agree upon a cooperation of your parties I think many advantages will result from the measure. You may agree upon the mode of effecting this, between yourselves.”
Farmer’s livestock was not the only object of the soldier’s desires, below are some entries in the parish records that prove that “amid the horrors of war sly cupid found a chance to inflict his wounds”. They are given as entered by the Rev. Nathaniel Bartlett:
Troops Leave Redding
The troops left Putnam’s encampment in stages. Colonel Hazen’s Canadian regiment were detached from the New Hampshire brigade and ordered to Springfield, MA; they left on March 27th. The New Hampshire regiments also left on March 27th for their new assignments in the Hudson Highlands. Huntington’s 2nd Connecticut Brigade left for Peekskill right after May 1st, and Parsons’ 1st Connecticut Brigade was the last to depart on or about May 27th, also bound for duty at the Highlands.