A Confederate ambush in the Shenandoah Valley shot a Black Hawk down in May 1862.
Putnams helped settle Houlton, and to John Varnum and Elizabeth Putnam a son was born on April 28, 1838. Six years earlier a Sauk chief had led several Indians tribes in a brief and tragic war against the United States. Apparently fascinated by the warrior’s ornithological name, John Putnam named his boy Black Hawk.
In autumn 1861, Black Hawk recruited a cavalry company. “It was near night when he came into the [family] store with his papers & before nine o’clock he had his names of 50 picked young men, the flower of our place,” John Putnam wrote in a Nov. 10 letter.
Taking about 70 men with him to Augusta, Capt. Black Hawk Putnam formed Co. E, 1st Maine Cavalry Regiment, on Oct. 19. The regiment mustered into the Army on Oct. 31 and finally shipped to Virginia in March 1862.
Black Hawk and Co. E joined four other companies and Lt. Col. Calvin Douty on a Shenandoah Valley excursion in April. Weeks later, Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson launched the frenzied, Valley-crisscrossing expedition immortalized as the Valley Campaign.
He targeted the army led by Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks, who had advanced his two divisions deep into the Shenandoah by late May. Serving as his mounted “eyes and ears” were such cavalry outfits as the 1st Maine; during those critical weeks, Black Hawk and Co. E often scouted the Valley’s fields and woods and skirmished with Confederate troops.
Seeking to smash Banks, Jackson hurled his veterans northeast on Wednesday, May 21. At New Market he slipped into the Luray Valley east of Massanutten Mountain and sent his hard-marching “foot cavalry” — the will ’o the wisp infantrymen who appeared here, there, and everywhere that May and June to hammer their Union foes — advancing north to trap Banks at Winchester.
Skirmishing with enemy cavalry and infantry outside Strasburg on Wednesday and Thursday, the 1st Maine boys gathered sketchy intelligence that left Banks wondering, “Where’s Jackson?” On Friday, Jackson’s troops emerged from the Massanutten shadows to shatter the Union garrison at Front Royal; to escape Jackson’s closing trap, Banks must now retreat north to Winchester.
He needed time: “Buy it for me,” he effectively ordered his cavalry commander, Brig. Gen. John Porter Hatch — who did so with Maine lives.
In the 1st Maine Cavalry’s bivouac at Toms Brook on the Valley Pike, buglers sounded “to horse” early on Saturday, May 24. Sabres rattling, Maine boys leaped into their saddles and pounded northeast to Middletown.
There Douty received orders by 7 a.m. “to advance up the crop [Chapel] road to the Front Royal Pike … to ascertain the strength of the … enemy pushing up that Pike” toward Winchester, A.C. Spalding wrote to Maine Gov. Israel Washburn on June 4.
Riding across a rain-dampened landscape, Douty led the 1st Maine Cavalry and two 1st Vermont Cavalry companies — A and C, commanded by Major Williams Collins — southeast toward Cedarville. That crossroads village, Middletown, and Winchester formed a rough right triangle, with the Front Royal Pike from Cedarville to Winchester being the hypotenuse and Middletown being the right angle. Jackson was hurrying his army to Winchester; not until Douty’s men traded shots with a Confederate cavalry patrol about two miles from Cedarville did Stonewall realize that Union troops lingered to the west.
Light rain kept falling as Douty “fell in with the rebel advanced guard, and held them in check till they had brought up their artillery and commenced shelling them,” John Goddard informed Washburn in a June 5 report. Washburn had separately sent him and Spalding to investigate the catastrophe that soon engulfed the 1st Maine Cavalry.
Black Hawk Putnam and Co. E skirmished repeatedly with the Confederate troops now hustling toward Middletown. Losing only one horse, Douty and his men spilled onto the Valley Pike around 2:30 p.m. and occupied Middletown. Hatch arrived about 3 p.m.
“Suddenly his [Jackson’s] artillery was seen to debouch from the woods in our rear, which fact I instantly communicated to Lieutenant Colonel Douty, who was mounted near me, at the same time handing him my glass,” Collins said.
“The order to mount was quickly given by him, and the rear guard drawn in,” he recalled.
Two Confederate artillery batteries deployed on high ground just north of Middletown. The cannons’ first salvo struck several Union wagons, which plugged the pike between its bordering high stone walls.
“With his customary coolness,” Hatch “deliberately surveyed the enemy for a few moments, when it being evident our position was no longer tenable, he gave the order to move down into the principal street on the pike,” Collins wrote.
He claimed that after turning to Douty, Hatch barked, “We must cut our way through!”
Within minutes, Hatch and his bodyguard “had gone on [north] toward Winchester” with the 1st Maine Cavalry’s Co. H riding behind them, Spalding wrote. Hatch and his entourage avoided the wreck-strewn Valley Pike by veering west onto a crop road.
Meanwhile, Douty formed his six remaining companies, then rode to Co. B, where a cannonball had just struck Capt. Jonathan Cilley of Thomaston. Someone then ordered Douty’s troopers to charge the fast-firing Confederate cannons a la the Light Brigade at Balaclava 7½ years earlier.
“The order was given to charge by fours and they rushed off at a gallop,” Spalding wrote. Collins led with his Vermont boys. Black Hawk Putnam and Co. E followed him; the 1st Maine Cavalry’s M and A companies followed Putnam in that order.
The cavalrymen did not see “a large body of infantry concealed behind a stone wall on the right of the road and within twenty feet of the turnpike” upon which the Union troopers raced, Goddard wrote. “They had not advanced more than one hundred yards” when the hidden Louisiana infantrymen stood, slid their rifled muskets across the stone wall, and “gave them a volley at twenty or thirty feet distance.”
The volley devastated the Vermont companies and the 1st Maine’s Co. E. His horse dying beneath him and a bullet blowing a hole in the toe of his left boot, Black Hawk vanished in the dust. As horses and men piled up on the wall-lined turnpike, “more [were] thrown upon the disabled mass in front,” Spalding wrote, and now the Confederate artillery poured shells into the Union ranks.
Stonewall Jackson witnessed the slaughter, described by his aide Henry Douglas as “a dreadful sight. Killed and wounded men and horses in a struggling heap.”
“In a few moments the turnpike, which had just before teemed with life, presented a most appalling spectacle of carnage and destruction,” Jackson wrote in his after-action report. “The road was literally obstructed with the mingled and confused mass of struggling and dying horses and riders.”
Riding amidst the shattered cavalry, Douty yelled, “Right about!,” and the resulting bugle calls “saved Company B who were in the rear, and many that were saved of the other three companies,” Goddard wrote.
Assembling his command’s dazed survivors, he “retreated (south) up the Pike, and getting into a diverging dirt road eventually made his escape to the main body under Gen’l Banks,” Spalding wrote. Douty and his men reached Winchester on Sunday.
The Middletown slaughter shocked Maine politicians. By June 5, Goddard tabulated the missing: 21 men from Co. E, 20 from Co. M, and 23 from Co. A.
Wounded in his left foot, Black Hawk Putnam hid with other cavalrymen in the Shenandoah hills and traveled nine days to reach safety. Granted a furlough, he traveled to Maine and spent August and September recruiting replacement troopers. After rejoining the 1st Maine Cavalry, he fought in other skirmishes and battles before resigning his commission on Feb. 19, 1863.
Then the Houlton draft board tapped him to join the 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment in July 1863. No explanation as to this appalling decision survives, but as the law allowed, Black Hawk hired Alexander Geruin of Houlton as his substitute for $300 on May 4, 1864. Geruin enlisted on Sept. 25, and Putnam settled into civilian life. He bought and sold farms and timber land, operated the Black Hawk Tavern, and served as the Aroostook County sheriff.
Black Hawk married Jerusha Snell. Of their daughters Marion and Alice, the latter became a well-known actress. A son, Fred, lived only 23 days after his birth in 1877.
A founder and original director of the Houlton Water Co., Black Hawk was prominent in Houlton. For decades after the war he played key roles in the Grand Army of the Republic, even serving as colonel of the Northern Maine Regiment. Every July 4th Putnam was a local parade fixture on his white horse.
Black Hawk died on May 17, 1909; he lies buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Houlton.