By Don Vitale
During the years of the Revolutionary War if you were a spy, you were the lowest of the low. I mean, we’re talking turncoat or at the very least, a member of the criminal class. Not to mention someone who’s unreliable and dishonest to the very core.
So how does it happen that a fine upstanding lad…one who entered Yale at 16,
graduated at the top of his class with honors…a bright future to look forward to….
why does he take on the dirtiest job in the army, a spy behind enemy lines?
I ask the question because most of Nathan Hale’s friends were barely wet behind
their ears while Nathan was in front of the curve at the ripe old age of 21.
Here’s the story:
After college at Yale, Nathan was teaching school when he decided to join a
local militia, an expression of his civic duty, in line with many of his friends
and his five brothers who fought the British at Lexington and Concord.
Why? He loved his country and wanted it free of British rule. Simple as that.
After his teaching contract expired in July of 1775, he began thinking how he could help defend his country, finally deciding to
enlist in the 7th Connecticut Regiment as a first lieutenant. Eventually
Nathan moved up in rank as a captain in the new 19th Connecticut Regiment.
A fellow officer described Nathan Hale as
“…a little above the common stature in height…regular features…very fair skin…flaxen or very light hair
which was always kept short…his eyebrows a shade darker than his hair…his bodily agility was remarkable. I have seen him follow a football and 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. When any of the soldiers of his company were sick, he always visited them and prayed with them…”
While Nathan was serving as an officer in the 19th Regiment
General George Washington created an elite group, the famous Knowlton Rangers,
that would often embark on dangerous missions, gathering intelligence.
Nathan was invited to be a member of the group and he accepted.
During the battle of Harlem Heights facing his nemesis British General
William Howe, Washington was desperate for a volunteer to act as a spy.
His mission: go behind enemy lines and report on the location of
British troops in this crucial battle.Only one person stepped
up to the plate– Nathan Hale.
Hale decided to act as a Dutch schoolteacher looking for work. After all, he spoke Dutch and had taught at a prestigious private school. Face it, he had all the makings to pull
In early September Hale left Harlem Village accompanied by his sergeant Steven Hempstead. He headed north along the East River but British ships on patrol prevented Hale from crossing over to Long Island. Eventually he found a rebel long boat to make the crossing. He left all his personal possessions with Hempstead– his uniform, his commission, silver shoe buckles– and dropped out of sight at Long Island.
Hale traveled behind the British lines for a week gathering information on the position of British troops. After a week his plan was to escape from enemy territory at night by signaling the same boat sailing up the Hudson River that had dropped him off a week before. Now Hale was at the rendezvous point under the cover of darkness when he saw the ship and signaled it. But lo and behold…as luck would have it, no, it wasn’t his ship! It was a British boat carrying soldiers and sailors.
There were those who said Hale was captured because his first cousin Samuel recognized him. And like the good British sympathizer that he was, reported him.
With relatives like that, who needs enemies?
The other story that has currency is that Hale was seen in a tavern and recognized
despite his disguise as a Dutchman. Major Robert Rogers of the
Queen’s Rangers was in the tavern and pretended to Nathan that he was a patriot himself.
A trap was set for Hale who tried to escape to the American side but was
apprehended by Rogers and his Rangers near Flushing Bay in New York.
They searched him and found incriminating evidence that he was a spy.
Hale was immediately sent to British Commander General William Howe for questioning. The information Hale had gathered was examined. Because none of it was written in code or even in invisible ink, it was obvious that he was a spy.
It has been said that Nathan in his questioning by General Howe gave
an honest account of himself. He didn’t apologize, make excuses or even promise
to change his allegiance to Great Britain.
In keeping with his sense of duty he openly identified himself to Howe, told him his rank
and the purpose of his mission. While Howe was moved by Nathan’s patriotism and demeanor, the custom of war was clear. The standards of the time dictated that spies were hanged as illegal combatants. Nathan was out of uniform behind enemy lines– an illegal combatant.The sentence was swift and brutal. He was sentenced to die by hanging the next day.
The following morning, Sunday September 22, 1776 at 10 a.m., Nathan Hale was marched north, about a mile up the post road to the Park of Artillery.
It was customary to allow those facing execution to say their last words after the hangman secured the noose around the captive’s neck.
From the diary of a British officer at the time: “He behaved with great compusure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good Officer, to obey any orders given him by his Commander-in-Chief and desired the Spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.”
A British engineer who witnessed the hanging said that “Nathan impressed everyone
with his sense of gentle dignity and his consciousness of rectitude and high intentions.”
He quoted Nathan’s words on the gallows:
“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
At this point I have to tell you what impresses me about Nathan Hale.
He died not because of WHAT he did…but because of WHY he did it.
An unwaivering sense of duty to his country and the American cause to be free.
There’s no denying that the Nathan Hales of this world have always been in short supply. It’s our good fortune that he came our way…..and is part of this country’s history.
Sadly, his death is a powerful reminder that the maelstrom of war favors neither friend nor foe.
Nathan Hale’s body was left hanging for several days…..
and later buried in an unmarked grave.
He was 21 years old.–dv