This Day in History: Nathan Hale, one of George Washington’s early spies
On this day in 1755, an American Patriot is born. He is unfortunately best known for his death, just 21 years later. Nathan Hale’s reported final words were brave and memorable. Maybe you’ve heard them? Hale declared: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Hale was attempting to help George Washington’s army, then fighting a series of battles in and around New York. Americans had lost the Battle of Long Island in August 1776, but then they’d made a miraculous middle-of-the-night escape across the East River. A few weeks later, they were driven from New York. Fortunately, they won a much-needed victory at Harlem Heights not too long after that.
Washington was desperate for information about the British. He asked Lt. Colonel Thomas Knowlton to help him recruit volunteers. He needed spies! Knowlton turned to his Rangers for help. Only one person stepped forward: a young Captain under Knowlton’s command, Nathan Hale.
Hale was a graduate from Yale who had been teaching when the American Revolution first began. He soon joined the army and obtained the rank of captain; he was a member of Knowlton’s Rangers, a special corps that acted as a special scouting arm of the army. The Rangers were to take on tasks that involved a “special, delicate, and hazardous duty.”
Interesting that, even among all those tough guys, Hale was the only one who wanted to volunteer to be a spy. Unfortunately, Hale’s experience in spying did not match his enthusiasm.
Hale was supposed to enter enemy territory, posing as a school teacher. He was to gather any information that he could on the size, strength and location of the British and their fortifications. Unfortunately, Hale did not know how to write in code. Nor did he have invisible ink. If he was caught with his notes, it would be very obvious what he was doing.
Details about Hale’s time behind enemy lines are sketchy. It appears that he did gather some information about the British troops and their arms, but stories vary about how he was actually captured. Perhaps he was betrayed by a Tory cousin. Or maybe he was simply tricked into revealing himself. Either way, he was brought before Lord William Howe on September 21. He did not deny what he was doing, and he was sentenced without a trial.
Reportedly, Hale was denied both a Bible and a minister before he was executed on September 22. He was nevertheless described as “calm.” He “bore himself with gentle dignity, in the consciousness of rectitude and high intentions…” Another British soldier gave a similar description of Hale’s final moments. Frederick Mackenzie said that Hale “behaved with great composure 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 soldier was sent to report Hale’s death to Washington. American Captain William Hull was present at that meeting and remembered the report of Hale’s dying words: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
To be fair, it should be noted that Hull was a good friend of Hale’s. Some historians wonder if he could have created the famous last words on behalf of his friend, allowing “his friend the posthumous privilege of uttering” such a brave phrase.
Either way, Hale was yet another Patriot who gave his all so that we might have freedom.
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Central Intelligence Agency, A Look Back . . . The Story of Nathan Hale
Glenn Peter Hastedt, Spies, Wiretaps, and Secret Operations: An Encyclopedia of American Espionage (2010)
M. William Phelps, Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of America’s First Spy (2008)
Robert L. Tonsetic, Special Operations in the American Revolution (2013)
Samuel Clarke Clarke, Memoir of Gen. William Hull (1893)