A Short Biography of Captain Nathan Hale (1755-1776)

contributed to the TimePage by circian@aol.com
Originally posted - 9/8/95, Last Revised - 3/17/96

Nathan Hale, American Revolution Patriot

Nathan Hale was a sober, serious, young man who was extremely well educated for his day. Although there are many contemporary accounts about his appearance and personality, I have never encountered anything negative; indeed, he was vividly remembered and admired--even 50 years after his death. The themes that come across are that he was kind, gentle, religious, intelligent, athletic, good looking and "the idol of all his acquaintances." Nathan had fair skin and hair, light blue eyes, stood around six feet tall and was very athletic. No wonder it was said that all the girls in New Haven were in love with him.

He was born in 1755--the sixth of ten surviving siblings--into two very respectable New England families. His parents, Richard Hale and Elizabeth Strong, were staunch Puritans who stressed religious devotion, work ethic and education. His father, a prosperous farmer and a deacon of the church in Coventry CT, was considered a pillar of the community. Nathan's early years were marred by sickness but he eventually grew into a strong, healthy child with a quick mind. Both his mother and grandmother encouraged his education and he was tutored by the local minister, Rev. Dr. Joseph Huntington who greatly influenced his love of learning.

Both Nathan and his older brother, Enoch, were sent to Yale College in 1769 at the ages of 14 and 16, respectively. At the time, Yale provided a Spartan life for its students and a thorough, disciplined education in religion and the classics. Its main purpose was to prepare young men for the ministry; however, this was not required and many of them chose other occupations such as law or business. During his college years, Nathan was exposed to the cosmopolitan atmosphere of New Haven and to new and interesting ideas of the time. Both he and Enoch belonged to a secret literary fraternity (Linonia) that held weekly meetings to discuss the issues of the day, including astronomy, literature, and the ethics of slavery. The meetings were held in the student's rooms at New College. This large brick dormitory, where Nathan and Enoch roomed, still stands on the Yale campus (Connecticut Hall).

Nathan was very active in Linonia, participating in numerous debates, plays, parties and speech-making. He helped form a secular library at Yale and held numerous offices in the fraternity, including Chancellor. Nathan graduated with first honors at the age of eighteen, participating in the 1773 commencement debate: "Whether the education of daughters be not without any just reason, more neglected than that of sons."

Like many young graduates, Hale's initial job was teaching school--first in East Haddam and then in New London, CT. The purpose of this temporary work was for the young men to make a living and to decide what to do in life. In rural East Haddam, however, Hale appears to have been lonely, missing the lively company of his college friends and complaining of his lack of mail. He was delighted when, a few months later, he was offered a fantastic job with the prestigious "Union School" in a bustling seaport town on the Connecticut coast.

New London was definitely more to his liking--it even had a newspaper, liberal in character and published by Timothy Green, a proprietor of the Union School. Nathan's classes consisted of about 30 young men who were taught Latin, writing, mathematics, and the classics. In 1774, he also conducted a summer morning class from 5 to 7 AM for young ladies. That the young ladies of New London were willing to attend a 5 AM class in the classics was perhaps more a tribute to the schoolmaster's good looks that any attraction to the subject at hand. Nathan Hale has been posthumously linked with many ladies and several romances have been contrived by their descendants and fanciful historians. Although he never appears to have been serious about marriage, during 1774 he was teased by two college friends about an infatuation with his landlord's niece, Elizabeth Adams. Little is known about this relationship or any of the other romances that are vaguely attributed to Hale.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Nathan really liked teaching and his mild manner of imparting knowledge was greatly appreciated by both students and parents alike. Consequently, in late 1774 he was offered a permanent teaching position as the Master of the Union School. After some soul-searching, he decided to accept and to become a professional school teacher. Also in 1774, like many patriotic young men, Hale joined the local militia and was elected 1st sergeant by his comrades--the highest rank of any new recruit. Apparently his enthusiasm and military talent was also being recognized by his peers.

His time in New London must have been happy and stimulating. While his amiability made him many delightful acquaintances among the town's best families, he also continued several close friendships with his former Yale classmates. Their letters that still survive tell of the joys, frustrations and boredom experienced by young people on the threshold of life and painfully impatient for it all to unfold. By the spring of 1775, then, the civic-minded Nathan Hale had many interesting friends, a job he enjoyed, perhaps a girl friend (or more) and an enjoyable life in a bustling cosmopolitan seaport city. Everything was going his way.

When war broke out in April, many chapters of Connecticut militia rushed to Massachusetts to help their neighbors during the Siege of Boston and at Bunker Hill. Hale's militia marched immediately but he remained behind--perhaps due to his teaching contract which did not expire until June. Or perhaps he was unsure. Contemporary letters tell of the conflict that went on in his friends' minds, doubtless mirrored in his own--to join the new American Army and fight or to keep quiet and wait. This was not the clear decision we all see today and these young professionals had a lot to lose.

In early July, Nathan received a heartfelt letter from one of his best friends and fellow classmate--Benjamin Tallmadge. Always the pragmatist, Tallmadge had gone to Cambridge, MA to see the siege for himself. [BTW--Tallmadge would later became famous as a RW soldier, spymaster, businessman and US Congressman.] Upon his return, Ben poured out his heart in a letter to Nathan Hale dated July 4, 1775--the last year that date would be just another day. After analyzing the pros and cons of joining up, Tallmadge finally told Nathan that, in spite of his friend's commitment to teaching, "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."

The day after receiving Tallmadge's letter, Nathan accepted a commission as 1st lieutenant in Col. Charles Webb's 7th CT regiment. He resigned his teaching job with great regret and it was said that his students were distressed at his leaving. After a last visit to Yale and several weeks recruiting men for his company, Nathan Hale marched with his regiment for Cambridge, MA--off for a great adventure.

At the Siege of Boston, Nathan kept a daily diary which records the mostly tedious and mundane activities of a young officer on the siege line. He enjoyed military life and threw himself wholeheartedly into the duties of a company commander, trying to be the best officer he could, yet yielding to and clearly enjoying the new, macho experiences of camp life. Like most young soldiers, he complained about his superiors and worried about his subordinates--on one occasion offering his own salary to his men if they would stay in the army another month. Still--he told his friends--he was enthusiastic, happy to be there and wouldn't accept leave even if he could get one (which he couldn't).

When the army was reorganized in January, 1776, Nathan received a captain's commission in the new 19th CT regiment and--to his credit--several men asked to be under his command. In the spring of 1776, Washington's army moved to Manhattan in an attempt to prevent the British from taking New York City. Nathan spent almost six months there, building fortifications and preparing for the inevitable battle. In New York it was commented that he cared very much about his men's welfare, even visiting them and praying with them when they were ill.

When the British invaded Long Island, Hale (after a year in the army) had still not seen combat. During the disastrous Battle of Long Island (August 27, 1776), his regiment manned the forts which were never attacked. Thus after a year in the army, Nathan had mostly kept records, supervised guard duty and drawn supplies (although there is one unconfirmed report that he led a daring night assault on a British sloop, stealing some much needed supplies).

Anyway, around September 1, 1776, with the British in command of Western Long Island and Washington's army trying to defend Manhattan, GW formed an elite, "green baret" group of New England Rangers. They were placed under the command of Lt. Col. Thomas Knowlton, who, having distinguished himself at Bunker Hill, was one of GW's best officers. Hale was invited to command one of the four companies--whose job was forward reconnaissance--to patrol the Westchester and Manhattan shorelines and other points around Hell Gate.

Since he could never defend all of Manhattan, GW desperately needed to know the probable site of the upcoming invasion. At Knowlton's request, Hale volunteered to go behind enemy lines on Long Island to report on British troop movements. It is possible that he was also sent into New York City to "make discoveries". It should be remembered that in addition to being extremely dangerous, spying was considered highly dishonorable and unworthy of a gentleman (besides, you could get hung). Hale's best army buddy, Captain (later General) Wm. Hull, tried hard to talk him out of it but Hale justified his mission by saying that any task that was necessary for the "public good" became honorable. Most likely he also wanted to do something worthwhile for a change (with a bit of adventure added in).

Hale crossed the L.I. sound from Norwalk, CT and spent several days behind enemy lines disguised as an unemployed schoolmaster. Unfortunately, before he could return, the British invaded Manhattan at Kip's Bay (East River at 34th St.), taking most of the island on September 15th and 16th. His mission negated, Hale decided to cross into British-occupied New York City presumably to gain whatever intelligence he could for Washington, who was now entrenched behind the bluffs at Harlem Heights.

On September 20th, New York City was set on fire, causing confusion, rioting and a heightened alert for anyone suspicious. By this time, Hale is thought to have returned to Long Island, probably trying to get back to LI Sound and a friendly boat. On the night of September 21, he was somehow stopped (perhaps near Flushing Bay) by a company of Queen's Rangers led by Lt.Col. Robert Rogers (of Northwest Passage fame). Hale was brought for questioning before the British commander, General Wm. Howe, who had just moved into the Beekman Mansion (once located near 51St and 1st Avenue).

Intelligence information was found on Hale's person and he freely admitted his identity and the purpose of his mission. Rumors later flew that Hale had been betrayed (or perhaps only identified) by his first cousin, Samuel Hale, who was a Tory working for General Howe. Samuel later denied it, and his role in the affair, if any, has been long debated but never proven. A tradition says that Nathan spent the night confined in a greenhouse on the estate and that he was denied a minister or even a bible by the provost marshall.

We do know that the next morning, Sunday, September 22, 1776 at 11:00 AM, Nathan Hale was marched north, about a mile up the post road to the Park of Artillery. It was located next to a public house called the Dove Tavern, about 5 1/2 miles from the city. This mileage along the old Boston Post Road corresponds closely with the traditional site of the Dove Tavern at the NW corner of present 66th St. and 3rd Avenue. After making a "sensible and spirited speech" to those few in attendance, the former schoolteacher and Yale graduate was executed by hanging--an extremely ignominious and horrible fate to one of his time and class.

Whether Hale said that he only regretted having one life to lose for his country has been debated. The quote comes from a British Engineer, John Montresor, who kindly sheltered Nathan in his marquee while they were making preparations for the hanging. Hale entered and appeared calm, asking Montresor for writing materials. He then wrote two letters--one to his favorite brother, Enoch, and one to his military commander (these letters were probably destroyed by the provost marshall, Wm. Cunningham, who later gained possession of them). Captain Montresor witnessed the hanging and was touched by the event and the patriot's last words.

As fate would have it, Montresor delivered a message from Howe to Washington that very afternoon and told Alexander Hamilton (then a captain of artillery) about Hale's fate. Hale's friend, Captain Hull, went with the delegation returning GW's answer to Howe (under a white flag) and managed to speak with Montresor. The British engineer told Hull that Nathan had impressed everyone with his sense of gentle dignity and his "consciousness of rectitude and high intentions." Montresor quoted Nathan's words on the gallows as "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." This elegant statement, doubtless paraphrased from Addison's popular play, "Cato", is the quotation best remembered from the execution of Nathan Hale.

I think that Hale was trying to tell the British that his cause still had great merit and that someone like himself--intelligent, educated and decent--was willing to die for it "without regret". It should be put in prospective that the "cause" was really in bad shape in September, 1776. The much-defeated and demoralized rebel army had been chased to upper Manhattan, ripe for total destruction by the vastly superior British forces. Its soldiers were deserting in droves now--sometimes whole companies at once--and the end seemed only a matter of time. But Hale told the British straight--standing by the gallows--that his "country" was still worthwhile and worth dying for. The enemy was duly impressed, seeing that most of them still considered the rebels to be a dirty rag-tag bunch of contentious rabble.

So, anyway...an insignificant schoolteacher who never wrote anything important, never owned any property, never had a permanent job, never married or had children, never fought in a battle and who failed in his final mission--made history and is known today by every American schoolchild. All this because of his actions during the last few seconds of this life. I only state this fact because of the irony, not to disparage Hale. I greatly admire his courage in accepting a horrible mission (both dishonorable and dangerous) that he did *not* have to do. Then he had the cool and presence of mind to tell the British off, literally in the shadow of the gallows. I don't know what exactly he said, but it must have been impressive and Hale deserves to be remembered for his genuine dedication, his courage, and his willingness to pay the price with honor and dignity.

Nathan Hale's body was left hanging for several days on the post road near the site of his execution and later was buried in an unmarked grave. He was 21 years old.

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