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First Name: Nathan

Last Name: Hale

Birthplace: Coventry, CT, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Continental Army (1775 - 1784)

Date of Birth: 06 June 1755

Date of Death: 22 September 1776

Rank: Captain

Years Served:
Nathan Hale

•  Revolutionary War (1775 - 1783)


Nathan Hale
Captain, Continental Army

Nathan Hale was born on 6 June 1755 in Coventry, CT, to Richard and Elizabeth Strong Hale.

In 1768, when he was thirteen years old, he was sent with his brother, Enoch, to Yale College. Nathan was a classmate of fellow patriot spy Benjamin Tallmadge. The Hale brothers belonged to the Yale literary fraternity, Linonia, which debated topics in astronomy, mathematics, literature, and the ethics of slavery. Graduating with first-class honors in 1773, Nathan became a teacher, first in East Haddam and later in New London.

After the Revolutionary War began in 1775, he joined a Connecticut militia and was elected First Lieutenant. When his militia unit participated in the Siege of Boston, Hale remained behind. It has been suggested that he was unsure as to whether or not he wanted to fight - or perhaps it was because his teaching contract in New London did not expire until several months later, in July 1775.

On 4 July 1775, Hale received a letter from a fellow classmate and friend, Benjamin Tallmadge. Tallmadge, who had gone to Boston to see the Siege for himself, wrote to Hale, "Was I in your condition..I think the more extensive Service would be my choice. Our holy Religion, the honour of our God, a glorious country, & a happy constitution is what we have to defend." Tallmadge's letter was so inspiring that, several days later, Hale accepted a commission as First Lieutenant in the 7th Connecticut Regiment under Colonel Charles Webb of Stamford. In the following spring, the Army moved to Manhattan to prevent the British from taking over New York City. In September, General Washington was desperate to determine the upcoming location of the British invasion of Manhattan Island. Washington sought to do this by sending a spy behind enemy lines - Hale was the only volunteer. Still having not physically fought in war yet, Hale saw this as a crucial opportunity to fight for the patriotic cause.

During the Battle of Long Island, which led to British victory and the capture of New York City via a flanking move from Staten Island across Long Island, Hale volunteered on 8 September 1776, to go behind enemy lines and report on British troop movements. He was ferried across on 12 September. It was an act of spying that was immediately punishable by death and posed a great risk to Hale.

During his mission, New York City (then the area at the southern tip of Manhattan around Wall Street) fell to British forces on 15 September and Washington was forced to retreat to the Island's northern tip in Harlem Heights (what is now Morningside Heights). On 21 September, a quarter of the lower portion of Manhattan burned in the Great New York Fire of 1776. The fire was later widely thought to have been started by American saboteurs to keep the City from falling into British hands, though Washington and Congress had already denied this idea. It has also been speculated that the fire was the work of British soldiers acting without orders, intending to punish and/or intimidate any remaining Patriots in the city - with unintended consequences, however. In the fire's aftermath, more than 200 American partisans were rounded up by the British.

An account of Nathan Hale's capture was written by Consider Tiffany, a Connecticut shopkeeper and Loyalist, and obtained by the Library of Congress. In Tiffany's account, Major Robert Rogers of the Queen's Rangers saw Hale in a tavern and recognized him despite his disguise. After luring Hale into betraying himself by pretending to be a patriot himself, Rogers and his Rangers apprehended Hale near Flushing Bay, in Queens, New York. Another story was that his Loyalist cousin, Samuel Hale, was the one who revealed his true identity.

British General William Howe had established his headquarters in the Beekman House in a rural part of Manhattan, on a rise between 50th and 51st Streets between First and Second Avenues. Hale reportedly was questioned by Howe, and physical evidence was found on him. Rogers provided information about the case. According to tradition, Hale spent the night in a greenhouse at the mansion. He requested a Bible; his request was denied. Sometime later, he requested a clergyman. Again, the request was denied.

According to the standards of the time, spies were hanged as illegal combatants. On the morning of 22 September 1776, Hale was marched along Post Road to the Park of Artillery, which was next to a public house called the Dove Tavern (at modern day 66th Street and Third Avenue), and hanged. He was 21 years old. Bill Richmond, a 13-year-old former slave and Loyalist who later became famous as an African-American boxer in Europe, was reportedly one of the hangmen, "his responsibility being that of fastening the rope to a strong tree branch and securing the knot and noose."

Nathan Hale scholar Mary Beth Baker has argued that some of Hale's posthumous fame arose from a desire by alumni of Yale to claim a Revolutionary War hero, in addition to Yale president Naphtali Daggett, John Trumbull, and others.

Hale's Famous Quote

The story of Hale's famous quote began with John Montresor, a British soldier who witnessed the hanging. Soon after the execution, Montresor spoke with the American officer William Hull about Hale's death. Later, it was Hull who widely publicized Hale's use of the phrase. Because Hull was not an eyewitness to Hale's speech, some historians have questioned the reliability of the account.

From the memoirs of Captain William Hull, quoting British Captain John Montresor, who was present and who spoke to Hull under a flag of truce the next day: "'On the morning of his execution,' continued the officer, 'my station was near the fatal spot, and I requested the Provost Marshal [the infamous William Cunningham] to permit the prisoner to sit in my marquee, while he was making the necessary preparations. Captain Hale entered: he was calm, and bore himself with gentle dignity, in the consciousness of rectitude and high intentions. He asked for writing materials, which I furnished him: he wrote two letters, one to his mother and one to a brother officer.' He was shortly after summoned to the gallows. But a few persons were around him, yet his characteristic dying words were remembered. He said, 'I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country.'"

Death and Burial

Captain Nathan Hale was hanged on 22 September 1776. He is buried at Nathan Hale Cemetery in Coventry, CT.

Honoree ID: 2588   Created by: MHOH




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