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IT IS UNCLEAR EXACTLY where young Nathan Hale of Coventry, Connecticut, the best-known spy of the American Revolution, first encountered Joseph Addison’s famous play, Cato, one of the literary works that fanned the fires of revolution in colonial America, and which helped make Hale an American hero. From a prosperous family, Hale might have read it at home or during his secondary education. Or he might have been introduced to it at Yale, where he enrolled at age 16. Wherever the introduction took place, it was historic, for it planted the seed of martyrdom in Hale’s young breast. His paraphrase of Cato’s speech above — “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” — transformed him from a little-known Continental Army captain into a martyr whose service to his country was greater in death than it had been in life.
One of nine children of devoutly religious and fiercely patriotic parents, Hale was born June 6, 1755 — 250 years ago today. By all accounts he was athletic, bright, and virtuous from a young age. Friends said that as a boy he could leap from one hogshead directly into another, that he excelled in school, and that he was very kind. At Yale he was popular among his professors and friends, as well as with the ladies. (It was said that the women who watched his hanging openly wept upon witnessing the execution of so beautiful a man.)
In 1848, biographer Benson John Lossing interviewed a Dr. Munson, the son of one of Hale’s professors. Dr. Munson said he vividly remembered Hale, a regular visitor at his home when Hale was a student.
“He was almost six feet in height, perfectly proportioned, and in figure and deportment he was the most manly man I have ever met,” the doctor recalled. “…His personal beauty and grace of manner were most charming. Why, all the girls in New Haven fell in love with him and wept tears of real sorrow when they heard of his sad fate. In dress he was always neat; he was quick to lend a helping hand to a being in distress, brute or human; was overflowing with good-humor, and was the idol of all his acquaintances.”
After graduation in 1773, Hale took a job teaching at the Union Grammar School in New London, Connecticut. The day that news of Lexington and Concord reached New London, residents held a town meeting, and according to Lossing, Hale spoke, saying, “Let us march immediately and never lay down our arms until we have obtained our independence!” That quote may be an exaggeration, but Hale did resign his teaching post and join the Army as a lieutenant.
Hale fought in Boston, after which he was promoted to captain. He went with most of the rest of the Army to face the British in New York, and there he achieved a feat that gained him recognition within the Army. Gen. Heath sent Hale and a group of men to capture a British supply vessel anchored in the East River, a mission they accomplished quietly, taking the crew prisoner and claiming the ship and its stores as prizes.
After that excitement, however, Hale saw no action. He became increasingly frustrated at this, which may have been the reason he volunteered for a dangerous spy mission that attracted no other recruits.
GEN. WASHINGTON WAS DISSATISFIED with his lack of information about British positions and plans in New York, and he asked Lt. Col. Knowlton, Hale’s regimental commander, to find a volunteer for an important spy mission behind British lines. The only taker was the 21-year-old captain from Coventry, who was recovering from a recent sickness.
“Gentlemen, I think I owe to my country the accomplishment of an object so important and so much desired by the commander of her armies, and I know no mode of obtaining the information but by assuming a disguise and passing into the enemy’s camp,” Hale reportedly said upon taking the job. “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 any expectation of 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 service, its claims to the performance of that service are imperious.”
At the time, according to Lossing, spying was considered dishonorable work, hence Hale’s line about service for the public good becoming honorable by its necessity. It definitely was dangerous, as the punishment for discovery was often death. Hale’s friend and Yale classmate William Hull (who rose to be a general in the War of 1812) attempted to talk his friend out of taking the mission. Hull later wrote that he had tried to convince Hale that he was “too frank and open for deceit and disguise.” He recalled that he had predicted Hale would be captured and killed should he go.
Hull was right on both counts. Hale set off with a flimsy fake identity — he pretended to be a Dutch schoolmaster — and no cover story, no training and no contacts. Nevertheless, he gained access to British encampments, recorded their positions and made sketches of them. His reconnaissance completed, he was on his way back when captured by British troops, who strip-searched him and found the incriminating notes in his shoes. When taken to Gen. Howe, Hale attempted no deceit. He readily confessed that he was an American spy, and Howe ordered him hanged the next day.
Despite his capture and confession, Hale might well have been spared were it not for a terrible coincidence. The night of his capture, a good chunk of New York (about a quarter of the homes, according to one estimate) burned to the ground in what the British suspected was rebel arson. The British sometimes simply imprisoned American spies. Had Hale been captured one night earlier, he might have been merely incarcerated. As it was, he was strung up.
There are differing versions of where and from what he was hanged. Personally, I like the one that has him hanged from an apple tree on the British-occupied farm of American Col. Henry Rutgers, after whom Rutgers University is named.
THERE ALSO ARE DIFFERING versions of precisely what Hale said before he died. The record reflects that he requested a chaplain and a Bible and was denied both. (How would the ACLU and Amnesty International play that today?)