April 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 3
Ever since he was executed by the British on the morning of September 22, 1776, the death of Nathan Hale has been recognized as one of the great moments of American patriotism. Some years ago the late George Dudley Seymour gathered all the contemporary descriptions of the young hero’s career that he could find, and had them privately printed in a Documentary Life of Nathan Hale . In the selections below we can read at first hand, in the words of both his friends and his foes, a story that has inspirited generations of Male’s countrymen.
Following his graduation from Yale in 1773 at the age of eighteen, Hale taught school for a time in his native Connecticut. Then, on July 1, 1775—two months after Lcxington and Concord—he was commissioned a lieutenant in the Continental Army, and closed his one-room school in New London, a building still proudly preserved by the town. We see him first in the reminiscences of a comrade-in-arms, Lieutenant Klisha Bostwick: …I can now in imagination sec his person & hear his voice—his person I should say was a little above the common stature in height, his shoulders of a moderate breadth, his limbs strait & very plump: regular features—very fair skin—blue eyes—flaxen or very light hair which was always kept short—his eyebrows a shade darker than his hair & his voice rather sharp or piercing—his bodily agility was remarkable. I have seen him follow a football & kick it over the tops of the trees in the Bowery at New York, (an exercise which he was fond of)—his mental powers seemed to be above the common sort—his mind of a sedate and sober cast, 8c he was undoubtedly Pious; for it was remark’d that when any of the soldiers of his company were sick he always visited them & usually Prayed for & with them in their sickness.…
•Early in the fall of 1776, after being disastrously defeated on Long Island, Washington needed to know the dispositions and the intentions of the British forces. Hale and other officers of the picked regiment known as Knowlton’s Rangers were asked to volunteer for an intelligence mission behind enemy lines. On the first call, none responded; on the second, Nathan Hale alone stepped forward. A little later he told his friend Captain (afterward General) William Hull what he had done: [Hale] asked my candid opinion [says Hull’s memoir]. I replied, that it was an action which involved serious consequences, and the propriety of it was doubtful…Stratagems are resorted to in war; they are feints and evasions, performed under no disguise…and, considered in a military view, lawful and advantageous.…But who respects the character of a spy, assuming the garb of friendship but to betray?…I ended by saying, that should he undertake the enterprise, his short, bright career, would close with an ignominious death. He replied, “I am fully sensible of the consequences of discovery and capture in such a situation.…Yet…I wish to be useful, and every kind of service, necessary to the public good, becomes honourable by being necessary. If the exigencies of my country demand a peculiar service, its claims to perform that service are imperious.”
•Sergeant Stephen Hempstead of New London accompanied him as he set out on his mission from Norwalk, Connecticut: Capt. Hale had a general order to all armed vessels, to take him to any place he should designate: he was set across the Sound…at Huntington (Long-Island)…Capt. Hale had changed his uniform for a plain suit of citizens brown clothes, with a round broad-brimmed hat, assuming the character of a Dutch school-master, leaving all his other clothes, commission, public and private papers, with me, and also his silver shoe buckles, saying they would not cornport with his character of school-master, and retaining nothing but his College diploma, as an introduction to his assumed calling. Thus equipped, we parted…
•Hale’s servant, Asher Wright, who had remained behind, told what happened next: He passed all their guards on Long Island, went over to New York in a ferryboat & got by all the guards but the last. They stopped him, searched & found drawings of the works, with descriptions in Latin, under the inner sole of the pumps which he wore. Some say his cousin, Samuel Hale, a tory, betrayed him. I don’t know; guess he did.
•“Betrayed” is probably too strong; “identified” is closer to the truth. A surviving letter from Samuel, a Harvard man (1766), seems to deny any misdeed, or at least any guilt, as the story was spread in a Newburyport newspaper—but he thereafter fled to England and never returned to America, even after the war, for his wife and son.
The next day a kind-hearted British officer, Captain John Montresor, approached the American lines under a flag of truce to report the inevitable denouement. Captain Hull recorded Montresor’s words: …Hale at once declared his name, his rank in the American army, and his object in coming within the British lines. Sir William Howe, without the form of a trial, gave orders for his execution the following morning. He was placed in the custody of the Provost Marshal, who was…hardened to human suffering and every softening sentiment of the heart. Captain Hale, alone, without sympathy or support, save that from above, on the near approach of death asked for a clergyman to attend him. It was refused. He then requested a Bible; that too was refused by his inhuman jailer. On the morning of his execution…my station was near the fatal spot, and I requested the Provost Marshal to permit the prisoner to sit in my marquee, while he was making the necessary preparations. Captain Hale entered: he was calm, and bore himself with gentle dignity, in the consciousness of rectitude and high intentions. He asked for writing materials, which I furnished him: he wrote two letters…He was shortly after summoned to the gallows. But a few persons were around him, yet his characteristic dying words were remembered. He said, “I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
•A brief excerpt from a letter written at Coventry, Connecticut, the following spring by Nathan Hale’s father, Richard, who had six sons altogether in the Revolution, betrays the deep grief of this unlettered man: …you desired me to inform you about my son Nathan…he was executed about the 22 nd of September Last by the Aconts we have had. A Child I sot much by but he is gone…
•This letter, addressed to Richard Hale’s brother, Major Samuel Hale, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on March 28, 1777, was put away in a secret drawer of the Major’s desk. In 1908, the old desk was sold at auction as an antique, and three years later the new owner, the Honorable Frank L. Howe of Barrington, New Hampshire, chanced upon it. Such is the thrill of historical discovery.