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.
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. 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.
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.