But One Life: Nathan Hale

It would seem Nathan Hale is misremembered and most definitely misquoted. America’s first spy, Hale was the son of a minister, he was a Yale graduate, teacher, soldier and had he lived to see America’s victory of independence, perhaps a leader in the American government.

Born June 6, 1755 to Richard Hale and Elizabeth Strong, Nathan Hale was born sickly, but eventually grew into healthy, strong lad. When he was 11, Hale’s mother and baby sister died within months of each other. It was a serious blow to Hale as he and his mother had been very close. In 1769 Nathan Hale welcomed a stepmother, Abigail Adams, also a widow, and her two daughters.

That same year Hale and his older brother Enoch were sent to Yale. There the Hale bothers were accepted into the fraternity, Linonia. The ‘secret’ group discussed controversial issues such as slavery and women’s rights. The younger Hale proved to be popular among his classmates. A naturally likable person, he still had his faults. One night Hale along with his brother and good friend Benjamin Tallmadage, a man who would later play a part in foiling Benedict Arnold’s betrayal, went around the campus and broke windows. Despite this Hale graduated in 1773, having proved he was a good student and athlete.

Upon graduation, Hale was offered a teaching job in Moodus, Connecticut. Hale’s decision to go into the field of education rather than ministry didn’t set well with his father. Hale himself was a devout Christian, but he felt his calling was to become a teacher. After seeking advice from his uncle who was previously a teacher, Hale took the position. He didn’t care much for the town and in 1774 he moved to New London to teach.

When the American Revolution erupted Hale enlisted in the ‘rebel’ army. He was given the commission of lieutenant colonel in the 7th Connecticut Regiment and later promoted to captain. Hale bid his students goodbye as he prepared for the life of a soldier. As an officer Hale was well liked. When his troops were ill he prayed with them. If he found soldiers gambling, which was against regulations, instead of arguing the soldiers would dutifully hand over their cards for Hale to destroy.

William Hull In His Later Years Courtesy Wikipedia

With boredom an ever lurking foe, Hale and his fellow officer and friend, William Hull, hobnobbed with the troops and staged wrestling matches among them. Their superiors got wind of the ‘shenanigans’ and reprimanded them. Miffed, Hale appealed to General George Washington for a pay raise. He didn’t get one. Much of Hale’s  money went to keeping his troops from leaving by splitting his pay among them. Desertion had by this time become common and those who didn’t desert didn’t  plan on reenlisting just so they could starve to death. A very steadfast person, Hale himself reenlisted. He was later made captain of the 19th Connecticut Regiment. In 1776 Hale was looking to get supplies to his hungry soldiers. Along with a few men Hale sneaked over to a sloop laden with supplies for the British. When the coast was clear he boarded it and sailed the sloop over to American lines. With this escapade Hale was thought of as something akin to a hero.

In September while suffering from the flu, Hale walked in on a meeting held by his commanding officer, Colonel Thomas Knowlton. Knowlton was looking for volunteers for spying. Hale didn’t hesitate in offering his services. Fellow officers present at the meeting tried to dissuade him, but it was to no avail. William Hull also tried to bring Hale over to his own way of thinking. Spying was a dishonorable duty, besides that no one in their right mind would do what Hale was about to execute. Hale was to go to New York and collect information regarding the British for General Washington. Hale was not spy material. Only 21 years old, Hale ignored his friend’s pleas and became America’s first spy. Posing as a Dutch schoolteacher, Hale arrived on about September 16th in Long Island. By that time his mission was of no value. Washington and his troops were retreating. Hale had no way of knowing this and proceeded with his mission. Hale gathered the needed info within a few days and around the 20th was headed back to join the ship that would pick him up the next day.

There are two theories as to how Hale’s activities were reported to the British. According to one account later on the 20th a Tory, Major Robert Rogers, met with Hale in a tavern where Hale was staying for the night. Rogers, who may have gotten Hale drunk, claimed to be a Patriot and toasted Congress to which Hale heartily joined. Before leaving Roger’s invited Hale to join him for breakfast in the morning which Hale agreed to. The other theory is that Hale’s cousin, Samuel Hale, recognized him in the tavern and reported the spy. There is no evidence to back this up. In any case, Hale joined Rogers for breakfast in which he told Rogers that he was a spy for Washington and was promptly arrested. Hale changed his story, denied he was a spy and told his captors he was a rebel deserter.

Greenhouse Hale Was Kept In Courtesy Wikipedia

Hale was put aboard the Halifax and taken to General William Howe. Hale confessed his mission and was then turned over to the cruel and dishonorable Provost Marshall William Cunningham to be hanged. Hale requested a chaplain and/or a Bible. Howe denied both requests. Locked in a guarded greenhouse, Hale was later moved to engineer, Captain John Montresor’s quarters. There Montresor allowed Hale to write two letters, one to Enoch Hale and the other to his then deceased commander, Knowlton. Cunningham later confiscated these letters, as he had prohibited Hale from writing any letters. On September 22nd Hale was taken to an orchard to be hanged where he spoke his famed often misquoted last words.

I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged that my only regret is that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service”.

Hale was calm and collected as he accepted his death. Cunningham gave the order to “Swing the rebel off”. Nathan Hale’s body would be left hanging for three days before some sympathetic soul cut him down and buried him.

Source: Phelps, M. William. Nathan Hale.

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28 thoughts on “But One Life: Nathan Hale

    • Odd isn’t it, how some people in have been long dead and they can still be likable? In many ways his story reminds me of Major John Andre’s, but Hale was a completely different person from the unfortunate Major. It is amazing how so many people walked to their deaths so calmly knowing their end was so near. Thanks for commenting!

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    • Yes, both sides could be very brutal. Cunningham was known for being exceptionally wicked. He and his cohorts packed American prisoners into churches and starved them to death. There was hardly any fresh air, they couldn’t lay down to sleep and their water was stagnant. So yes, I pity anyone that fell into that miscreants hands. Thanks for commenting!

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  1. He does sound like an affable fellow. Too young and trusting, and, except for his patriotism and courage, completely unsuited for the business of spying. How much better it would have been if he had left the night before, or not confessed to a “friendly” stranger that he was a spy. Another great post, J.G. You always put a face on history!

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    • Thank you for the compliment, Naomi.

      I think, also that he was a bit too honest for his own good, the only time you’ll catch me saying something like that. Yes, he was definitely too trusting. Seems he should’ve known better than to trust someone claiming to be a Patriot and toasting Congress in a Tory tavern and with the place crawling with British. But the Phelps theorized that Rogers may have gotten Hale drunk, as he had a fondness for drink.

      Must have been not only saddening but also disappointing then, how America’s first spy was captured and executed. Thanks for commenting!

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  2. Dying young seems hard, but it was for a good and noble cause. Much better than silly, or unnecessary deaths due to street racing, drug use, etc. As a mother, I hope all of my children outlive me, but, if not, I do hope their lives count for something, as this young man’s did. Misremembered or no, it is inspiring.

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  3. Robert Rodgers is the famous leader of Rodger’s Rangers, an American unit within the British Army in the French and Indian War. By the time of the Revolution Rodgers was a raging alcoholic who eventually sided with the British using the Hale incident to do so.. The British didn’t use him much because he was a drunk. Great post as usual.

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  4. What an unfortunate end for someone who sounded like he could have done so much more given the chance.
    It sounds like he was too nice to be a successful spy. Easy for us to say with the benefit of hindsight though. He was the first American spy after all, it isn’t like he had anyone to ask for advice!

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    • Yes. Phelps said that what aroused Tory/Loyalist’s suspicions is when Hale had finished his mission and began asking questions. He may have been trying to root out Patriots, as New York City had a fair share of Torys. Still that seems like an unnecessary risk even for someone that inexperienced. Thanks for your comment!

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    • Glad you enjoyed the read. Yes, he was very young. But then the average life span there wasn’t long so he must’ve been something like halfway through his life providing a British bullet didn’t stop him later in battle.

      I wish he hadn’t either. Thanks for stopping by and for your comment!

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  5. I just read an article (I wish I could remember where…the Washington Post?) about the hunt for Nathan Hale’s grave. I don’t think it mentioned that his end was so grizzly, though. Definitely not something they told us in school. Thanks for the interesting post.

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    • You’re very welcome.

      No they don’t. Since it doesn’t quite achieve the same effect as the phony, I guess that’s why it was changed around somewhat and grew to what it is now. On the children’s show Liberty’s Kids they have Hale stating “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”, with the give being altered to lose.

      Thanks for your comment!

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  6. Conclusions:
    Whether some one is a likeable or a scoundral may have little to do with their other activities.

    Regarding war, spying, soldiering, rooting out, etc. our perspective probably depends on which side of the conflict we are on. IF the “spy” is on our side, he is a hero or may become a martyr. If the spy is on “their side”, he/she deserves the downfall. In our current state of affairs, what is the difference between a “IED” and “drone attacks”? The answer probably depends on what side of the conflict you are on.
    Oscar

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    • Actually in the case John Andre, who was a British ‘spy’, I feel sorry for what happened to him. As a spy he was a bit naive, as soldier he was somewhat of a ‘rascal’. I am glad that the British did not get the plans for West Point, but I think it was a pity Andre had to lose his life in the process.

      During the Civil War I am not sure which side my ancestors chose, whether North or South. It’s a bit hard to determine as they were in Kentucky. My G-grandfather had to register for the Union draft, but he never fought. In fact I don’t know if any of my ancestors did. And even if they had taken up for another side, I would still regard Rose O’Neal Greenhow in the same manner as I would Pauline Cushman.

      Thanks for your thought provoking comment!

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    • Interesting remarks regarding your family during the Civil War. Kentucky was a border state as you probably know. The “Orphan Brigade” was Confederate and were called orphans because the Union had effectively occupied the State. Thus, they could not go home and were orphaned. John Hunt Morgan was a famous Confederate Cavalry leader and he and his units of Kentucky Cavalry gathered a name for themselves. On the the whole however most Kentuckians stayed with the Union although in my experience in driving through Kentucky you’d think they all were Confederates 😉

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    • Yes, Kentuckians have always struck me as being very Southern.

      The “Orphan Brigade” must’ve felt like they were exiled, in that case.

      In regards to Morgan, he gained a bit of notoriety here in Indiana due to his raids. Newburgh which is just a stones throw from me was captured by Confederate forces in 1862. The local newspaper recently featured an article regarding it.

      Thanks for your comment!

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    • Sure, I recall it was his famous raid to the north, meaning raiding Indiana. My very first exposure to the raid was “Friendly Persuasion” featuring Gary Cooper as a Quaker who decided to fight to oppose Morgan. You live in an interesting part of the country. I’ve been to Lafayette a number of times but never got to the Ohio River in your area.

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    • There’s a beautiful view of the Ohio in Leavenworth, IN. Here in Evansville we get a fair share of river traffic. You should’ve been here, last year. Alot of us had the river in our backyard.

      On the riverfront there is a Civil War monument to Cpt. Henry Dexter.

      There is also a Korean War monument and a monument to the Vietnam War. Plus the LST-325. I guess I never realized how much history we had on the riverfront until now.

      I’d like to see the “Rendezvous” they hold up in Vincennes.

      Like

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