Today in History: Nathan Hale volunteers to spy behind British lines in 1776

September 10th, 2013

On September 10, 1776, General George Washington sought volunteers to gather intelligence about the British military behind enemy lines. Captain Nathan Hale agreed to serve as a spy and undertook a reconnaissance mission for two weeks before he was captured and executed by the British.

Nathan Hale enlisted in the Army at just 20 years old, after graduating from Yale College and working as a schoolteacher in Connecticut. On September 12, Hale disguised himself as a Dutch schoolmaster and was ferried to New York City to begin his espionage mission for Washington. Hale gathered intelligence about British troop movements for two weeks but was captured by Major Robert Rogers on September 21. The precise details of Hale’s capture are disputed, with some accounts suggesting that his loyalist cousin, Samuel Hale, turned him in to the British, while others suggest Rogers tricked Hale by pretending to be a Patriot sympathizer.  

After his capture, Hale was interrogated by British General William Howe and sentenced to death when incriminating documents were found in his possession. Hale’s last words were reportedly, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” though several different versions of Hale’s final remarks have been recorded. If those were Hale’s final words, they closely parallel a passage from Joseph Addison’s play Cato, a source of inspiration for many Whigs. The play reads:

How beautiful is death, when earn’d by virtue!

Who would not be that youth? What pity is it

That we can die but once to serve our country.

Hale was hanged as an illegal combatant the morning of September 22, 1776.  A British officer, Frederick MacKensie, described Hale’s calm demeanor at the gallows in his diary entry:

He 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.

Nathan Hale is the great-uncle of Edward Everett Hale, the author of “The Man without a Country.” For another perspective on patriotism, check out our lesson plan on Edward Everett Hale’s story, which explores themes of national identity and belonging.

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