This Patriot and Yale graduate risked death penalty to do surveillance for George Washington. Did he say “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country?”
In the 18th Century, spying was a dishonorable profession. If caught and convicted an unwritten law mandated the death sentence. The form of death was universally accepted as hanging. Only Officers or men of honor had the privilege of being shot for their crimes. In war, spying went on as it does today but was considered a job for scoundrels and criminals.
Nathan Hale was a great looking college graduate who was intelligent and had everything going for him; just the kind of kid the CIA might recruit. In 1776 it was a different story. His friends despaired for him because he was too good looking and did not have the guile necessary to be a successful secret agent. It made no difference. The General needed a volunteer and no one stepped forward. Hale’s sense of patriotism would not let him see this important job go undone.
His mission was to go to Long Island where the British and their Hessian mercenaries were massing for an invasion of Manhattan. He was to play the part of a Tory sympathizer. Washington was desperate to find out what General William Howe’s next move was. The rebel General was in an untenable situation. He was trying to defend an island which was commanded on all sides by the British navy, while also trying to secure an exit strategy.
On September 16, 1776, Hale was transported by sail from Stamford, CT across the sound to Huntington on Long Island. He felt he had made the first part of his journey safely but was unaware that an old French and Indian War hero from New Hampshire, Robert Rogers who sided with the British was already on his tail. The first piece of intelligence he gathered was that Howe’s army had already pushed across to Manhattan on the 15th. As any intelligent and resourceful young man, he decided to head that direction to be of some benefit where the action was.
It was about a 40 mile walk and the news he heard portended great changes. He became a bit too inquisitive for the Dutch schoolmaster he was trying to impersonate. It didn’t take long for Rogers to pick up his scent. He “ran into” Hale at an inn where Nathan stayed. He just happened to sit down with him and talk about the war. Hale proved to be the guileless innocent that his friends feared. He was totally taken in by the veteran soldier and was soon arrested and taken to General Howe to be hanged.
On September 22, the day of his execution, Captain Frederick Mackenzie reported that Hale said that he “thought it the duty of every good Officer, to obey any orders given him by his Commander-in-Chief”. Hale’s friend, William Hull, recorded in his memoirs that he talked to a British Officer, Captain Montressor, who came to report Hale’s hanging at Washington’s Headquarters. Hull reported that Montressor witnessed the execution and his last words,
“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Myth or Reality
Many have debated the veracity of Hulls report but there are several reasons to believe it. Similar news accounts were published in the February 1777 Essex Journal and the May 1781 Independent Chronicle. William Hull was a well educated, honorable man who had no reason to lie. Finally and even more indicative, is the fact that these words were closely paraphrased from Cato, Hale’s favorite play, which told tragic story of the last leader of the Roman Republic who surrendered his life to save his people from annihilation.
- The Spirit of Seventy-Six edited by Henry Steel Commager and Richard B. Morris, 2002, Castle Books
- Washington’s Spies, The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose, 2006, Bantam Dell