Who Was Nathan Hale?
After graduating from Yale University, Nathan Hale became a schoolteacher. When war began in the American colonies, he joined a Connecticut regiment and was made a captain in 1776. On a secret mission ordered by General George Washington, Hale went behind enemy lines to gather information on the British army’s location. He was captured by the British in New York City and hanged for espionage on September 22, 1776.
Hale was born on June 6, 1755, in Coventry, Connecticut, the second son of Richard and Elizabeth Hale. A prominent family, the Hales were devout Puritans and instilled in their children the importance of hard work, religious virtue and education. At 14, Hale was sent off to Yale College with his older brother, Enoch, where he excelled in literature and debate. He graduated with honors, at age 18, and became a school teacher in East Haddam and later New London, Connecticut.
In July 1775, Hale joined the Connecticut militia and was elected First Lieutenant. Some accounts say he saw battle during the Siege of Boston, while others point out he was still under his teaching obligation. Records do show he was commissioned a captain in General George Washington’s army in January 1776.
After the British captured Boston, General Washington moved his army to New York, where he expected the next British attack. The Continental Army’s defeat at Brooklyn Heights in August 1776, pushed Washington’s army into Manhattan and gave the British control of most of Long Island. Washington desperately needed reliable information on the British’s next move and began asking for volunteers to cross enemy lines.
Secret Spy Mission
Though spying was not considered honorable for a gentleman, Hale volunteered, perhaps out of a sense of duty, or because he hadn’t seen military action up to then. In any case, he was fully aware of the danger: spies were considered illegal combatants and quickly executed.
Hale left the American lines at Harlem Heights on September 12, 1776, posing as an itinerant teacher. He traveled to Norwalk, Connecticut, where he took passage across Long Island Sound and landed in Huntington, Long Island. He most likely spent a few days in Huntington, impersonating as a teacher looking for work. Meanwhile, on September 16, the British Army engaged General Washington’s troops at Harlem Heights. It’s believed Hale heard of the British attack and realizing his current mission was superfluous and made his way to New York City, presumably to gather what information he could about the British Army’s next move.
Capture and Execution
Some accounts state he was recognized by his cousin Samuel Hale, a Loyalist working for the British, who turned him over to authorities. Another version reports British Major Robert Rogers recognized Hale, despite his disguise, in a New York City tavern. Not divulging his revelation, Rogers struck up a conversation with Hale and gained his trust, telling him he was a patriot sympathizer. According to this account, Hale told Rogers he was gathering information on the British Army’s positions. Rogers invited Hale to dinner at these quarters with several “friends.” As he dined, Hale was taken into custody.
Hale was sent to British headquarters for questioning by British General William Howe. Maps and drawings of fortifications were found on Hale, further implicating him as a spy. He provided his name, rank, and the reason he was behind British lines. In quick succession, execution orders were issued by Howe and Hale was hanged the morning of September 22, 1776. By all accounts, Hale met his fate with composure and resolve. As the hangman’s noose was placed around his neck, he made a “sensible and spirited speech” in defense of his actions and sense of duty. Legend states he declared, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” There were several accounts made at the time that reveal he said something impressive, but no official record of this declaration exists. His body was left hanging for several days and was later buried in an unmarked grave.
After his death, his loyal friends and an anxious American public looking for heroes, transformed this young neophyte warrior into a symbol of self-sacrifice and martyrdom. Many statues and memorials were erected honoring his bravery and service to his country in the years following his death. In 1985, Hale was officially designated Connecticut’s state hero.
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