1777: A British spy, by Israel Putnam

1 comment August 7th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1777, a general of the American Revolution laconically asserted his prerogatives with the hanging of a British spy.

A former ranger in the British service, Israel Putnam — he may or may not be the “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” guy — was camped at Peekskill, New York, when he caught one Edmund Palmer stalking the camp.

It was early in the American Revolution, and American spies were being hanged by the British … but the commanders of Albion evidently entertained some notion that the shoe would not go on the other foot. When Palmer was condemned to death for spying, the British General Sir Henry Clinton hurried a missive to his opposite number under flag of truce claiming Palmer as a British lieutenant.

Old Put firmly believed “the speedy execution of spies is agreeable to the laws of nature and nations and absolutely necessary to the preservation of the army.” (According to the unimpeachable sourcing that is the “about” page of an intel e-learning university named for him.)

And Putnam’s reply to Clinton, a terse little masterpiece answering Cicero‘s dictum that “Brevity is a great praise of eloquence,” was one for the ages.

Headquarters, 7th August, 1777.

Sir — Edmund Palmer, an officer in the enemy’s service, was taken as a spy lurking within our lines; he has been tried as a spy, condemned as a spy, and shall be executed as a spy, and the flag is ordered to depart immediately.

Yours, &c.,

Israel Putnam

P.S. He has accordingly been executed.

(Some versions give the slightly zippier postscript as “afternoon — he is hanged.”)

Read all about this spry American Cincinnatus in Old Put, a now-public-domain book published for America’s centennial celebration; or at this enthusiastic fan page. Also of some now-current relevance: tangential background on the jurisdictional wrangling around military commissions at this period, here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,New York,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Spies,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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