Military leader, spy, schoolmaster
Nathan Hale was a schoolteacher who became an officer in the Continental (American) army during the American Revolution (1775–83). When General George Washington see entry needed information about the British military plans to take New York City, Hale volunteered to go behind the British lines as a spy. He was captured and killed by hanging, but his brave words have inspired generations of soldiers and schoolchildren ever since.
Nathan Hale was born on June 6, 1755, in Coventry, Connecticut, the son of Richard Hale and Elizabeth Strong. He was one of twelve children born to the couple, and one of nine sons. (Six of those nine sons would fight for the patriot cause in the American Revolution.) The Hales were well-to-do farmers and the family was devoted to the cause of American independence.
Nathan Hale was a sickly baby and not expected to survive. He did, however, and as he grew up he found that he had a natural talent for sports. He loved to play outdoors and soon grew tall and strong. At school, Hale discovered he also had a talent for learning. In grammar (elementary) school, Hale probably studied the typical topics taught in colonial schools: reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion. When he grew older, his father suggested that Hale become a minister. The boy then began to study with the Reverend Joseph Huntington, the minister of the church in Coventry and a respected classics scholar. Under his direction, Hale studied "the classics," subjects that included languages (Greek and Latin, the language of the ancient Romans), mathematics, philosophy (the study of the nature of life and the universe), Greek and Roman history and literature, and oratory (the art of developing and making speeches).
Huntington and Hale's friends described Hale as tall and blue-eyed, with light brown hair. He was muscular and well coordinated because of his devotion to sports. He was neatly dressed, well spoken, and a great favorite with the young ladies of his home town.
Studies the classics at Yale University
In 1769 Hale entered Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. There he continued his study of the classics. He also helped organize a library for the Linonia Society, a secret club for students who loved literature. Hale was an excellent student, admired by teachers and classmates alike. His roommates were William Hull and Benjamin Tallmadge; both would later serve under General Washington, Hull as an army captain and Tallmadge as head of the secret service (spy operation).
While at school, Hale was exposed to much political discussion. Naturally, much of the talk centered around whether the American colonies should break away from England. Already a patriot, Hale became devoted to the cause of American freedom. He also learned how to form arguments, how to debate (a discussion that addresses two sides of a question), and how to give well-received public speeches.
When he graduated in 1773, Hale and several other students staged a public debate on the question of whether the education of daughters was more neglected than the education of sons in most families. Hale argued that girls were shortchanged when it came to education, and he won the debate easily.
After graduation, Hale took a job as a schoolmaster. He worked first in East Haddam, Connecticut, from October 1773 until March 1774, and then in New London, Connecticut, from March 1774 until July 1775. Hale was a good teacher who made learning interesting for his students. He was a natural leader, able to maintain discipline in his classroom without sacrificing his students' fondness for him.
Enlists in Connecticut militia
By July 1775 the American colonies were at war with Great Britain. Hale completed his teaching commitment and responded to General Washington's request for recruits by joining the local unit of the Connecticut militia (pronounced ma-LISH-a). Each colony had its own local army, called a militia. Some militia men would eventually join the American force called the Continental army.
Hale joined the Seventh Connecticut Regiment as a first lieutenant (pronounced loo-TEN-ant) under the command of Colonel Charles Webb. Perhaps because of his skill in making speeches, Hale was sent from town to town to recruit other men into the rebellion against Great Britain. In one of his speeches Hale said, "Let us march immediately, and never lay down our arms until we have obtained our independence."
In September 1775 Hale was promoted to captain and his regiment was ordered to Cambridge, across the Charles River from Boston, Massachusetts. Washington's troops were hoping to provide relief to the citizens of Boston, whose city was occupied by the British army under General Thomas Gage see entry. The British had entered Boston, a major city in the northern colonies, as they retreated eastward from their defeats at Lexington and Concord.
Hale's militia unit's term of service ended in late 1775. Hale then transferred into the Nineteenth Regiment of the Continental army in January 1776 as a captain. In March the British left Boston and went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in Canada. Canada was still a loyal part of the British empire, and the plan was to use Halifax as a staging point for the invasion and capture of New York City. Since the British had failed to end the war with the capture of Boston, they hoped to end it by taking New York.
In April both the Continental and British armies were encamped in the vicinity of New York City, but no major battles were fought until August. In mid-May, Hale and a small group of patriot soldiers captured a sloop (a small British boat) loaded with supplies. They made their daring raid at night, despite the presence of a British man-of-war (a battleship) called Asia. The much-needed supplies from the sloop were divided among the American soldiers.
Recruited into Knowlton's Rangers
By the summer of 1776 the British forces of thirty-two thousand outnumbered Washington's army of twenty thousand poorly equipped men. The Americans went on to fight a series of battles with the British. Then came the Battle of Long Island in August 1776, and an American defeat. Desperate to preserve his smaller army and to learn of the enemy's plans, General Washington created a new unit of soldiers called rangers. Their job was to gather intelligence about enemy troop movements, the size of their armies, and where their defenses were positioned. The rangers would ride ahead of the army and scout for information that would be useful to the Americans in making military plans.
The new unit was called "The Connecticut Rangers" or "Knowlton's Rangers," after its leader, Lieutenant Colonel (pronounced loo-TEN-ant KERN-uhl) Thomas Knowlton. The colonel was allowed to hand-pick the men for his battalion. He was looking for men who were smart, could think independently, and were resourceful in obtaining information. Nathan Hale was one of the 120 men who formed this special unit. Knowlton selected Hale as a captain to lead one of his ranger companies. Washington was relying on Knowlton's Rangers to provide him with information about British plans for capturing New York City.
Accepts spy mission
At the request of General Washington, Colonel Knowlton approached his troops and asked for a volunteer to go behind the British lines (the territory under British control). The main force of the British army was on Long Island at this point. The volunteer would not wear his soldier's uniform but would be disguised as a civilian. His task would be to discover the strength of the British troops and determine where they
would strike next. Washington could then plan how to meet this British offensive (attack).
The mission posed serious risks, which is why Knowlton asked for a volunteer. For an American soldier to travel out of uniform behind the British lines meant only one thing; if captured, that man would be considered a spy, not a soldier. Spies faced execution. Soldiers captured in battle, on the other hand, were exchanged for enemy soldiers or held in prisoner of war camps.
No one responded to Knowlton's first call for volunteers. When he asked again, Hale accepted the mission. As Hale explained to William Hull, then a captain in Washington's army: "I wish to be useful and every kind of service, necessary to the public good, becomes honorable by being necessary." Hale, dressed in civilian clothes and carrying his Yale diploma, planned to pose as a schoolmaster looking for work. He left the American camp on September 12, 1776, and traveled by boat to Long Island.
By most accounts, Hale was a poor choice for this or any spy mission. He was given no cover story to try and fool the British if he were captured. He had no training in the tools of spying, such as disappearing ink, false-bottomed carrying cases, or coded messages. Instead, he had to rely on sketchy instructions and his own bravery and intelligence.
For almost two weeks, Hale moved about behind the British lines, visiting every British camp on Long Island. During this time, he made sketches of the British fortifications (defensive positions) and kept count of the types and numbers of British soldiers he saw. He kept these documents hidden in his shoes. By September 15, he was ready to return to General Washington with his news.
Captured and executed
But fate intervened. On September 20, the city of New York was set on fire. By the time the fire was put out, about a fourth of the city's buildings had been burned beyond repair. In the excitement, Hale hoped to escape past the British sentries (guard soldiers) around the city. But the British suspected that the Americans had set the fire to keep the British from having the city's resources. So the British were out in force, looking for American plotters and arsonists (people who set fires deliberately). One of the suspicious characters they took into custody on September 21 was Hale. The place and story of his capture are unclear. However, whatever the actual circumstances, Hale found himself a prisoner of the British, who soon found the documents hidden in his shoes.
The British brought Hale to their main camp. Some historians believe that Hale was betrayed by his cousin, Samuel Hale, who was a Loyalist (an American loyal to England). Samuel Hale was working for the British army as the deputy commissioner of prisoners. However, when confronted with the evidence in his shoes, Hale admitted that he was an American soldier on a spy mission. With that admission, Hale sealed his fate.
General Sir William Howe see entry, commander-in-chief of the British army in the colonies, ordered Hale's execution by hanging. Hale was given no trial at which he could have defended his actions. The crime of spying was judged so awful that Howe felt justified in denying the trial. Some historians believe that Howe's hasty decision about Hale was based in part on Howe's anger at the Americans for their suspected part in the burning of New York. Whatever Howe's motivation, Hale was sentenced to hang at dawn the next morning. He was placed in the care of William Cunningham, Howe's provost marshal (head of military police).
Hale spent the night in the greenhouse at Howe's headquarters, under close guard. Cunningham had no sympathy for Hale, who was both a rebel and a spy. When Hale asked for a Bible to read, Cunningham denied the request. He later denied Hale a visit from a chaplain (a military priest), even though such visits were standard procedure for condemned men.
At dawn on Sunday, September 22, Hale was taken to the gallows that had been built in the apple orchard at what is now Market Street and East Broadway in New York City. Then a delay occurred. While he was waiting to be executed, Hale was befriended by a British officer, Captain John Montresor, who was General Howe's chief engineer (an officer who planned forts and groundworks). Montresor took Hale into his tent and provided him with pen and ink so Hale could write to his family. Hale wrote two letters, one to his brother Enoch and the other to Colonel Knowlton (unknown to Hale, Knowlton had been killed six days earlier).
At eleven o'clock, Hale was led to the gallows and a noose was placed around his neck. He was just twenty-one years old. Before his eyes were blindfolded, Hale was allowed to make a last comment. It was then that he made the statement that is still remembered today. Turning to the crowd of British soldiers and officers who had come to witness his death, Hale said, "You are shedding the blood of the innocent; if I had ten thousand lives, I would lay them down in defense of my injured, bleeding country." He closed with his famous statement, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."
Legacy of heroism and courage
After his death, Hale's body was not buried but left hanging as a warning to other spies. His last letters were never delivered, because Captain Montresor had entrusted them to Cunningham, the provost marshal. Cunningham was anxious that little word of the Hale incident should reach the Americans. He did not want either the Americans or the British to know that Hale had died bravely and without regret.
General Washington learned of Hale's fate a week later, when Captain Montresor met with two American officers to discuss the exchange of prisoners. One of these officers was William Hull, Hale's college roommate. The other was Alexander Hamilton see entry, who would go on to become the first secretary of the U.S. Treasury. It was through Montresor's testimony that Hale's companions heard the true nature of his capture, execution without trial, and brave last words.
Today, Nathan Hale is renowned as a patriot who bravely gave his life when his country asked for his services. Statues to Hale were erected in City Hall Park in New York City, and in Hartford, the capital of Connecticut. A memorial stands in Coventry, his birth place; and Fort Hale in New Haven harbor bears his name. A monument near Huntingdon, New York, marks the spot where it is believed Hale was captured by the British. His execution has been depicted in paintings and in magazine illustrations.
For More Information
Lambeck, Mark. "Hail to the Hero." Yankee. Vol. 51 (May 1987): pp. 16–18.
Martens, Anne Coulter. One Life to Lose: What Makes an American Hero? (A children's play about Nathan Hale, American revolutionist.) Plays. Vol. 55, no. 6 (April 1996): pp. 111.
Rogers, Kerri, and Shon Hedges. "A Prison Keeper's Tale." (A short story about Nathan Hale.) Stone Soup Vol. 24, no. 3. (January 1996): pp. 33–45.
Sanborn, Paul F. "Nathan Hale" in The American Revolution, 1775–1783: An Encyclopedia, vol. 1: A–L. Edited by Richard L. Blanco. New York: Garland Publishing, 1993, pp. 719–22.
Wilson, James Grant, and John Fiske, eds. "Nathan Hale" in Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American Biography, vol. 3. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1888, pp. 30–31.
Hale's Famous Last Words
Like many scholars, Nathan Hale memorized favorite parts from plays, poems, and essays. One play that impressed him during his college years was about a famous ancient Roman statesman named Marcus Porcius Cato (95–46 B.C.). Cato, a leader in the fight against Julius Caesar's dictatorship, died rather than submit to Caesar's rule. This tragic figure was celebrated in Cato, a play written by British writer and statesman Joseph Addison (1672–1719). In Act 4, Scene 4, in the play, Cato says, "What a pity it is that we can die but once to save our country!"
Nathan Hale undoubtedly remembered these words when he made his final remarks. Like Cato, he was a patriot who considered it an honor to die for the cause of liberty. Today, Hale is often referred to as America's "martyr spy" because he responded to his country's call without thinking of his own safety.