Nathan Hale – Patriot, Spy, and Martyr
Nathan Hale (June 6, 1755 – September 22, 1776) graduated with honors from Yale in 1773 at age 18 and became a teacher, first in East Haddam and later in New London.
In 1775, he joined a Connecticut militia and was elected first lieutenant within five months. Five of his brothers fought at the battles of Lexington and Concord. It has been suggested that he was unsure as to whether he wanted to fight, or whether he was hindered because his teaching contract in New London did not expire until several months later, in July 1775.
On July 4, 1775, Hale received a letter from his classmate and friend Benjamin Tallmadge. Tallmadge’s letter was so inspiring that, several days later, Hale accepted a commission as first lieutenant in the 7th Connecticut Regiment under Colonel Charles Webb of Stamford.
In the spring of ‘76, the army moved to Manhattan Island to prevent the British from taking over New York City. In a matter of months, he was promoted to Captain and given command of a group of Rangers defending New York City.
On August 22, 1776 British troops, under the command of General William Howe landed on Long Island to begin their conquest of New York. The Americans lost the Battle of Long Island on August 27 and by September 15 the British were in full control of New York City.
In September, General Washington was desperate to determine the location of the imminent British invasion of Manhattan Island. To that end, Washington needed a spy behind enemy lines, and Hale was the only volunteer.
The Battle of Long Island led to British victory and the capture of New York City via a flanking move from Staten Island across Long Island. Hale volunteered on September 8, 1776, to go behind enemy lines and report on British troop movements. He was ferried across on September 12. It was an act of spying that was immediately punishable by death and posed a great risk to Hale.
An account of Nathan Hale’s capture obtained in the Library of Congress, reports that Major Robert Rogers of the Queen’s Rangers saw Hale in a tavern and recognized him despite his disguise. After luring Hale into betraying himself by pretending to be a patriot himself, Rogers and his Rangers apprehended Hale near Flushing Bay in Queens, New York. Another story was that his Loyalist cousin, Samuel Hale, was the one who revealed his true identity.
Papers hidden on his person, with notes from his week of spying, proved his undoing. He was arrested and brought to General Howe, and was sentenced to be hanged the next day.
On the morning of the hanging, Hale was given an opportunity to make a dying speech. By every account, it was moving. Hale comported himself well before the hanging. Over the years, there has been speculation as to whether he specifically uttered the line: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” The line may be a revision of “I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged that my only regret is that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.”
Captain Montresor, an English officer, testified that after reading letters Nathan had written to his mother and an American officer, the British refused to send them. The reason, he said, was the the Provost Marshal did not want the Americans to know how brave he was.
If Hale did not originate the statement, it is possible he instead repeated a passage from Joseph Addison’s play Cato, an ideological inspiration to many Whigs:
How beautiful is death, when earn’d by virtue!
Who would not be that youth? What pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our country.
British officer Frederick MacKensie wrote in his diary, “He behaved with great composure and resolution.” He added that Hale encouraged the spectators to “meet death in whatever shape it might appear.”
The Essex Journal reported: “He made a sensible and spirited speech.” They quoted him as saying, “If I had ten thousand lives, I would lay them all down in defense of this injured, bleeding country.”
The Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser reported him as saying: “I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged, that my only regret is that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.”
Perhaps Edward Everett Hale, Nathan Hale’s great nephew, summed up his legacy best: “Because that boy said those words, and because he died, thousands of other young men have given their lives to this country.”
Two early ballads also attempt to recreate Hale’s last speech. Songs and Ballads of the Revolution, collected by Frank Moore (1855) contained the “Ballad of Nathan Hale” (anonymous), dated 1776:
“Thou pale king of terrors, thou life’s gloomy foe,
Go frighten the slave; go frighten the slave;
Tell tyrants, to you their allegiance they owe.
No fears for the brave; no fears for the brave.”
And “To the Memory of Capt. Nathan Hale” by Eneas Munson, Sr., was written soon after Hale’s death:
“Hate of oppression’s arbitrary plan,
The love of freedom, and the rights of man;
A strong desire to save from slavery’s chain
The future millions of the western main,
And hand down safe, from men’s invention cleared,
The sacred truths which all the just revered;
For ends like these, I wish to draw my breath,”
He bravely cried, “or dare encounter death.”
And when a cruel wretch pronounced his doom,
Replied, “‘Tis well, —for all is peace to come;
The sacred cause for which I drew my sword
Shall yet prevail, and peace shall be restored.
I’ve served with zeal the land that gave me birth,
Fulfilled my course, and done my work on earth;
Have ever aimed to tread that shining road
That leads a mortal to the blessed God.
I die resigned, and quit life’s empty stage,
For brighter worlds my every wish engage;
And while my body slumbers in the dust,
My soul shall join the assemblies of the just.”
Baker, Mark Allen. “Spies of Revolutionary Connecticut, From Benedict Arnold to Nathan Hale.” Charleston: The History Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-62619-407-6
Circian. “The Story of Nathan Hale.” Archiving Early America. N.p., 2011. Web. October 3, 2011.
Fleming, Thomas. “George Washington, Spymaster.” American Heritage. American Heritage Publishing Company, 2011. Web. October 3, 2011.
Durante, Dianne, Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide (New York University Press, 2007): description of MacMonnies’s Nathan Hale at City Hall Park, New York.
Kirby, David. “Nathan Hale Was Here . . . and Here . . . and Here.” New York Times November 23, 1997: 3.
Miller, Tom. “The Lost 1763 Beekman Mansion ‘Mount Pleasant’—50th Street and 1st Avenue.” Daytonian in Manhattan. N.p., September 21, 2011. Web. October 3, 2011.
Ortner, Mary J. “Captain Nathan Hale.” The Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. N.p., 2010. Web. October 3, 2011.
Phelps, William M. “Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of America’s First Spy” St. Martin’s Press, New York, New York, 2008. ISBN 0-312-37641-3
Rose, Alexander. Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring. Random House, New York, New York, 2006. ISBN 0-553-80421-9.