Nathan Hale was a captain in the 19th Regiment of the Continental Army. Hale volunteered to work as a spy for General George Washington. He was captured by the British and sentenced to death by General William Howe.
Biography of Nathan Hale
Nathan Hale was an officer in the Continental Army and rose to prominence during the early days of the American Revolutionary War. He was born in Connecticut and attended Yale, where he became friends with Benjamin Tallmadge. Hale was working as a teacher when the American Revolutionary War started with the Battle of Lexington. He joined the Connecticut Militia and then went to Boston, where he participated in the siege of the city. After George Washington arrived and took command of the army, Hale became a member of the Continental Army and rose to the rank of Captain. Later, he was sent to New York. When Washington asked for volunteers to go behind enemy lines and spy on the British, Hale volunteered. He traveled to Long Island and New York City, entered the British camps, and gathered information. On September 21, 1776, he tried to cross back to the American camp but was discovered and captured by the British. General William Howe sentenced Hale to death for spying, and he was hanged on September 22. Legend had it that some of Hale’s last words were, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Americans were outraged over Hale’s treatment. Several years later, John André was involved in the Treason of Benedict Arnold. When Andre was captured by New York Militia, he was taken to Tallmadge, who suspected him of being a spy. When it was proven to be true, André was sentenced to the same fate as Nathan Hale — death by hanging.
This illustration depicts the scene where Hale said his famous last words to Provost Cunningham. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Quick Facts About Nathan Hale
- Nathan Hale was born in Coventry, Connecticut on June 6, 1755.
- Hale joined the Connecticut militia and then the Continental Army.
- He was a member of Knowlton’s Rangers, the first organized intelligence until in the Continental Army.
- Hale volunteered to carry out a mission to spy on the British and gather intelligence on their operations in and around New York City.
- He was captured, convicted of spying by General William Howe, and hanged on September 22, 1776.
- According to legend, Nathan Hale’s famous last words were, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Important Facts About Nathan Hale
Nathan Hale Came from a Puritan Family with Connections to the Salem Witch Trials
Nathan Hale was born in Coventry, Connecticut on June 6, 1755. He was the son of Deacon Richard Hale and Elizabeth Strong and the sixth of 12 children. The Hale family were devout Puritans and instilled the ideas of hard work, virtue, and education in Nathan and his siblings. His grandfather was the Reverend John Hale, who played a prominent role in the Salem Witch Trials.
Nathan Hale Was a Top Student at Yale
Hale started at Yale College in September 1769 at the age of 14, along with his older brother, Enoch. One of his classmates and friends was Benjamin Tallmadge, who would go on to be a prominent member of the Culper Spy Ring. Hale graduated with honors from Yale on September 3, 1773.
Nathan Hale Was Recommended for a Promotion by George Washington
On September 14, 1775, Hale’s regiment marched to Cambridge where it joined the Continental Army and was assigned to the brigade of General John Sullivan, which was stationed at Winter Hill. Hale spent four months at Winter Hill but did not see any significant action, but he did become acquainted with men like Israel Putnam, Charles Lee, and Nathanael Greene. During his time in Boston, Hale caught the attention of General Washington himself, who took notice of his abilities. Washington recommended Hale for a promotion to Captain, which was granted by the Second Continental Congress.
Nathan Hale Was a Captain in Knowlton’s Rangers
During the French and Indian War, Washington had learned the value of rangers who operated as scouts and informants. He decided to form his own corps of men who could gather intelligence.
On August 12, Washington promoted Thomas Knowlton to Lieutenant Colonel and instructed him to select a group of men from the New England regiments for the purpose of spying on the enemy. Knowlton had gained recognition during the Battle of Bunker Hill, and his group — the first official spies in the American army — were known initially as “Congress’ Own” but over time have come to be referred to as “Knowlton’s Rangers.”
The members were volunteers, and Hale was one of them, even though he had no experience in espionage or intelligence gathering. Hale was one of the three captains of the Rangers. The others were Stephen Brown and Thomas Grosvenor. Most of the men in the Rangers were from Connecticut.
Nathan Hale Volunteered for the Spy Mission
Washington needed information on the strength of the British forces. He met with his officers, and they suggested he ask Knowlton to find a volunteer who would be willing to cross enemy lines and gather the information they needed.
Knowlton gathered his officers and explained the mission. None of them volunteered, in part because spying was looked down on and considered dishonorable. It was also punishable by death, specifically by hanging. In fact, one of the officers declined by saying, “I am willing to be shot, but not to be hung.”
Hale, who was recovering from an illness, slowly stood to his feet and volunteered, supposedly saying, “I will undertake it.” Hale volunteered even though he was not trained in espionage or intelligence gathering.
Knowlton tried to talk Hale out of it, but Hale insisted and said, “I am fully sensible of the consequences of discovery and capture in such a situation. But for a year I have been attached to the army, and have not rendered any material service, while receiving a compensation for which I make no return. Yet…I am not influenced by the expectation of a promotion or pecuniary reward. I wish to be useful, and every kind of service necessary for the public good, becomes honorable by being necessary. If the exigencies of my country demand a peculiar services, its claims to perform that service are imperative!”
The next day, Hale reported to Washington around 2:00 in the afternoon.
This illustration by Howard Pyle depicts Hale receiving his instructions from General Washington. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Nathan Hale May Have Been Caught by Robert Rogers
On September 15, British forces landed at Kip’s Bay and forced the Continental Army to retreat to Harlem Heights. That night, Hale left the American camp on Harlem Heights with two other men. One of them was his assistant, Ansel Wright. The other was Sergeant Stephen Hempstead.
They traveled to Norwalk, Connecticut, and arrived there on the 16th. Hale left his companions and then travel to Long Island, New York City, and through the British camps over the next few days. He pretended to be a schoolteacher from Connecticut looking for work, who was also unhappy with the “rebel cause.” He was dressed in a plain, brown suit and wore a round, broad-brimmed hat. He also carried his college diploma with him.
Hale gathered information and made drawings and notes of the position, strength, and fortifications of the British forces. He put everything down on thin paper and wrote his notes in Latin. He hid the papers in his shoes, under his soles.
Unfortunately for Hale, at some point during his mission, someone identified him and alerted the British. For many years, it was thought that he was turned over to the authorities by his cousin, Samuel Hale, a Loyalist who was in New York at the time and that Hale was captured on September 20 while he was sailing across Long Island Sound.
However, a Connecticut shopkeeper and Loyalist named Consider Tiffany wrote a manuscript about the American Revolution and included details about how Hale was captured. The manuscript was donated to the Library of Congress in 2000.
According to Tiffany’s account, Robert Rogers — the famous leader of Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian War — suspected several Americans of spying on the British on Long Island, especially Hale. Rogers observed Hale for several days and decided to approach him.
Robert Rogers may have been the person who caught Nathan Hale. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
When he did, he pretended to be an American sympathizer. Hale believed he could trust Rogers and told Rogers what he was up to. Rogers and Hale agreed to meet for dinner the next day, with three or four other men. At the dinner, they were holding a conversation when the house was surrounded by British soldiers who then entered and seized Hale.
Nathan Hale Was Treated Poorly by the British Prior to His Execution
Hale was captured and taken to General William Howe’s headquarters, at the home of James Beekman at Mount Pleasant, on the East River. The estate had been abandoned by Beekman, who was a Patriot.
Captain William Hull, a good friend of Hale’s and a member of Knowlton’s staff, received the following information from a British officer, under a flag of truce, “I learned the melancholy particulars from this officer, who was present at Hale’s execution and seemed touched by the circumstances attending it. He said that Captain Hale had passed through their army, both of Long Island and [New] York Island. That he had procured sketches of the fortifications, and made memoranda of their number and different positions. When apprehended, he was taken before Sir Willam Howe, and these papers, found concealed about his person, betrayed his intentions. He at once declared his name, his rank in the American army, and his object in coming within the British lines.”
Hale was taken in front of Howe on the afternoon of Saturday, September 21. Howe was informed that Hale was a suspicious character and that he had been caught trying to escape to the American side. Howe had his men search him and the papers were found. When they were shown to Howe, he charged him with spying and sentenced him to be hanged in the morning.
British General William Howe ordered Hale to be executed as a spy. Image Source: Wikipedia.
That night, Hale was turned over to the Provost Marshall, William Cunningham, and he was kept in the greenhouse on the Beekman estate that night.
During the night, Hale wrote several letters to his father and members of his family. At some point, before he was hanged, Cunningham tore the letters up in front of him and said, “The rebels shall not know they have a man who can die so bravely.”
Hale asked for the services of a minister and then a Bible, but was refused both.
Early on the morning of Sunday, September 22, Hale was supposed to be executed. However, the Great New York Fire of 1776 started on the 21st. Provost Cunningham was dealing with the confusion caused by the fire, so it was late morning when he finally arrived.
When Cunningham asked him if he had any last words, Hale said, according to legend, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Hale was barely 21 years old when he was hanged from a tree, around 11:00 am. The exact location is not known. Two potential sites are near 66th Street near Third Avenue and in City Hall Park in downtown Manhattan.
Significance of Nathan Hale
Nathan Hale is important to the history of the United States because he went above and beyond his duty and volunteered to risk his life for the Patriot Cause. Over time, Hale has become a legendary symbol of the spirit and resolve of the American Revolution, and will be remembered forever by the words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Stephen Hempstead’s Account of Hale’s Mission
Stephen Hemsptead was a Sergeant in Hale’s company in 1776 and he kept an account of Hale’s movements after he left the Continental Army camp in New York on his spy mission. After the war, Hempstead moved to Missouri. His account of Hale’s spy mission was first published in the Missouri Republican in 1827.
“Captain Hale was one of the most accomplished officers, of his grade and age, in the army. He was a native of the town of Coventry, state of Connecticut, and a graduate of Yale College — young, brave, honorable — and at the time of his death a Captain in Col. Webb’s Regiment of Continental Troops. Having never seen a circumstantial account of his untimely and melancholy end, I will give it. I was attached to his company and in his confidence. After the retreat of our army from Long Island, he informed me, he was sent for to Head Quarters, and was solicited to go over to Long Island to discover the disposition of the enemy’s camps, &c., expecting them to, attack New York, but that he was too unwell to go, not having recovered from a recent illness; that upon a second application he had consented to go, and said I must go as far with him as I could, with safety, and wait for his return.
Accordingly, we left our Camp on Harlem Heights, with the intention of crossing over the first opportunity; but none offered until we arrived at Norwalk, fifty miles from New York. In that harbor there was an armed sloop and one or two row galleys. 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, in the sloop, at Huntington (Long Island) by Capt. Pond, who commanded the vessel. Capt. Hale had changed his uniform for a plain suit of citizen’s brown clothes, with a round broad-brimmed hat, assuming the character of a Dutch schoolmaster, leaving all his other clothes, commission, public and private papers, with me, and also his silver shoebuckles, saying they would not comport with his character of schoolmaster, and retaining nothing but his College diploma, as an introduction to his assumed calling. Thus equipped, we parted for the last time in life. He went on his mission, and I returned back again to Norwalk, with orders to stop there until he should return, or hear from him, as he expected to return back again to cross the sound, if he succeeded in his object.”
Freeman’s Journal Account of Nathan Hale’s Mission
This contemporary account of Hale’s mission was printed in the newspaper Freeman’s Journal on February 18, 1777. At the time, there was speculation that Hale was turned in by his cousin, Samuel Hale, who was a Loyalist.
“Samuel Hale, late of Portsmouth, in New Hampshire, after his elopement from thence, visited an uncle in Connecticut, where he was hospitably entertained; but as his uncle was a Whig, and had a son, a young gentleman of a liberal education and most amiable disposition, who strongly felt for his bleeding country, and being very active in the military way, was urged and prevailed upon to take a commission in the Continental army; consequently Samuel was obliged to conduct with caution, and counterfeit, as well as he could, a whiggish phiz while he tarried, which, however, was but a short time, before he made his escape to General Howe in New York. Some time after this. Captain Hale, at the request of the general, went into New York in disguise, and having nearly accomplished his designs, whom should he meet but his aforesaid cousin Samuel, whom he attempted to shun, but Sam knew him too well. Captain Hale soon found he was advertised, and so particularly described that he could not get through Long Island; he therefore attempted to escape by the way of King’s Bridge, and so far succeeded as to get to the outer guard, where he was suspected, apprehended, carried back and tried, and yet would have been acquitted had not his affectionate and grateful cousin Samuel appeared and made oath, that he was a captain in the Continental army, and that he was in there as a spy; in consequence of which he was immediately hung up. However, at the gallows he made a sensible and spirited speech, among other things told them they were shedding the blood of the innocent, and that if he had ten thousand lives, he would lay them all down, if called to it, in defence of this injured, bleeding country.”