Nathan Hale

Nathan Hale (June 6, 1755 – September 22, 1776) was an American soldier and spy for the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. He volunteered for an intelligence-gathering mission in New York City but was captured by the British and executed. Hale has long been considered an American hero and, in 1985, he was officially designated the state hero of Connecticut.[1]

Nathan Hale
BornJune 6, 1755
DiedSeptember 22, 1776(1776-09-22) (aged 21)
Cause of deathHanged
Alma materYale College
Espionage activity
AllegianceUnited States

Coat of Arms of Nathan Hale
Nathan Hale Signature.svg

Early lifeEdit

Nathan Hale was born in Coventry, Connecticut, in 1755, to Deacon Richard Hale and Elizabeth Strong, descendant of Elder John Strong. [2] In 1769, when he was fourteen years old, he was sent with his brother Enoch, who was sixteen, to Yale College. Nathan was a classmate of fellow Patriot spy Benjamin Tallmadge.[3] The Hale brothers belonged to the Linonian Society of Yale, which debated topics in astronomy, mathematics, literature, and the ethics of slavery. Nathan graduated with first-class honors in 1773 at age 18 and became a teacher, first in East Haddam and later in New London.[4]

American Revolutionary WarEdit

After the Revolutionary War began in 1775, Hale joined a Connecticut militia unit and was elected first lieutenant within five months.[5] His company participated in the Siege of Boston, but Hale remained behind. It has been suggested that he was unsure as to whether he wanted to fight, or possibly that he was hindered because his teaching contract in New London did not expire until several months later, in July 1775. On July 4, 1775, Hale received a letter from his classmate and friend Benjamin Tallmadge, who had gone to Boston to see the siege for himself. He wrote to Hale, "Was I in your condition, I think the more extensive service would be my choice. Our holy Religion, the honor of our God, a glorious country, & a happy constitution is what we have to defend."[6] 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.

Hale was also a part of Knowlton's Rangers, the first organized intelligence service organization of the United States of America, led by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton. In the spring of 1776, the Continental Army moved to Manhattan to defend New York City against the anticipated British attack. In August, the British soundly defeated the Continentals in the Battle of Long Island via a flanking move from Staten Island across Brooklyn. General George Washington was desperate to determine the location of the imminent British invasion of Manhattan; to that end, Washington called for a spy behind enemy lines, and Hale was the only volunteer.[4]

Commission of Nathan Hale, captain in nineteenth regiment of foot commanded by Colonel Charles Webb. Signed by John Hancock. January 1, 1776.
Nathan Hale as depicted in bronze (1890) by Frederick William MacMonnies at the Brooklyn Museum
Beekman House, Manhattan

Intelligence-gathering missionEdit

Hale volunteered on September 8, 1776, to go behind enemy lines and report on British troop movements. It was an act of spying that was immediately punishable by death and posed a great risk to Hale. He was ferried across the Long Island Sound to Huntington, New York, on British-controlled Long Island, on September 12. Hale planned to disguise himself as a Dutch schoolteacher looking for work,[7] though he did not travel under an assumed name and reportedly carried with him his Yale diploma bearing his real name.[8]

While Hale was undercover, New York City (then the area at the southern tip of Manhattan, mostly south of what is now Chambers Street) fell to British forces on September 15, and Washington was forced to retreat to the island's north in Harlem Heights (what is now Morningside Heights).[9] Shortly after, on September 21, 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 in order to keep the city from falling into British hands,[10] and though setting fire to New York during Washington's retreat had indeed been proposed, Washington and the Congress had rejected the idea and denied responsibility for the fire after its outbreak. It has also been speculated that the fire was the work of British soldiers acting without orders. In the fire's aftermath, more than 200 American partisans were detained by the British for questioning.

An account of Hale's capture, later obtained by the Library of Congress, was written by Consider Tiffany, a Connecticut shopkeeper and Loyalist. 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 his allegiance by pretending to be a Patriot himself, Rogers and his Rangers apprehended Hale near Flushing Bay in Queens, New York.[11] Another story is that Hale's cousin, a Loyalist named Samuel Hale, was the one who revealed his true identity.[citation needed]

British General William Howe had established his headquarters in the Beekman House in a then-rural part of Manhattan, on a rise between what are now 50th and 51st Streets between First and Second Avenues,[12] near where Beekman Place commemorates the connection. 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 September 22, 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.[13] He was 21 years old.


Hanging siteEdit

The British hang Nathan Hale in New York City, 1776

Aside from the site at 66th Street and Third Avenue, three other sites in Manhattan claim to be the hanging site:

Another account places Hale's execution at Bergen Beach, Brooklyn, but there is no evidence to support this claim.[16]

Nathan Hale's body has never been found. His family erected an empty grave cenotaph in Nathan Hale Cemetery in South Coventry Historic District, Connecticut.[3]


Nathan Hale appeared on U.S. postage stamps issued in 1925 and 1929. The likeness is from a statue by Bela Lyon Pratt.

By all accounts, Hale comported himself well before the hanging.[17][18][19] It has traditionally been reported that his last words, either entirely or in part, were: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." Over the years, there has been a great deal of speculation as to whether or not he specifically uttered this line, or some variant of it.[20] The line may be an abbreviation of: "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."[21]

The story of Hale's quote began with John Montresor, a British officer who witnessed the hanging. Soon after the execution, Montresor allegedly spoke with the American officer William Hull about Hale's death. Hull later publicized Hale's quote. Because Hull was not an eyewitness to Hale's speech, some historians have questioned the reliability of this account.[13]

If Hale did not originate the statement, it is possible he instead repeated a passage from Joseph Addison's play Cato,[22] which was widely popular at the time and an ideological inspiration to many Whigs:

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.

No official records were kept of Hale's speech. However, Frederick MacKensie, a British officer, wrote this diary entry for the day:[17]

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.

It is almost certain that Hale's last speech contained more than one sentence. Several early accounts mention different things he said. These are not necessarily contradictory, but rather, together they give an idea of what the speech might have been like. The following quotes are all taken from George Dudley Seymour's book, Documentary Life of Nathan Hale, published in 1941 by the author.

From the diary of Enoch Hale, Nathan's brother, after he went to question people who had been present, October 26, 1776: "When at the Gallows he spoke & told them that he was a Capt in the Cont Army by name Nathan Hale."[23]

From the Essex Journal, February 13, 1777: "However, at the gallows, he made a sensible and spirited speech; among other things, told them they were shedding the blood of the innocent, and that if he had ten thousand lives, he would lay them all down, if called to it, in defence of his injured, bleeding Country."[24]

From the Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser, May 17, 1781: "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."[21]

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 [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.'"[25]

Two early ballads also attempt to recreate Hale's last speech. Songs and Ballads of the Revolution (1855), collected by F. Moore, contained the "Ballad of Nathan Hale" (anonymous), dated 1776: "Thou pale king of terrors, thou life's gloomy foe, Go frighten the slave; go frighten the slave; Tell tyrants, to you their allegiance they owe. No fears for the brave; no fears for the brave.";[26] and "To the Memory of Capt. Nathan Hale" by Eneas Munson, Sr., was written soon after Hale's death:[27]

Hate of oppression's arbitrary plan,
The love of freedom, and the rights of man;
A strong desire to save from slavery's chain
The future millions of the western main,
And hand down safe, from men's invention cleared,
The sacred truths which all the just revered;
For ends like these, I wish to draw my breath,"
He bravely cried, "or dare encounter death."
And when a cruel wretch pronounced his doom,
Replied, "'Tis well,—for all is peace to come;
The sacred cause for which I drew my sword
Shall yet prevail, and peace shall be restored.
I've served with zeal the land that gave me birth,
Fulfilled my course, and done my work on earth;
Have ever aimed to tread that shining road
That leads a mortal to the blessed God.
I die resigned, and quit life's empty stage,
For brighter worlds my every wish engage;
And while my body slumbers in the dust,
My soul shall join the assemblies of the just.

Munson had tutored Hale before college, and knew him and his family well, so even though the particulars of this speech may be unlikely, Munson knew first-hand what Hale's opinions were.



Hale was the great-grandson of Reverend John Hale, an important figure in the Salem witch trials of 1692. Nathan Hale was also the uncle of orator and statesman Edward Everett (the other speaker at Gettysburg) and the grand-uncle of Edward Everett Hale (quoted above), a Unitarian minister, writer, and activist noted for social causes including abolitionism. He was the uncle of journalist Nathan Hale, who founded the Boston Daily Advertiser and helped establish the North American Review.[28]

Statues and appearanceEdit

Statue by Bela Pratt at the Tribune Tower, Chicago
Statue by Enoch Smith Woods at Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, erected 1894
Bust in East Haddam, Connecticut, sculpted by Enoch Smith Woods between 1885–1900
Nathan Hale statue flanked by Yale servicemen, Yale campus, New Haven, Connecticut, November 1917
Marker in Freese Park, Norwalk, Connecticut that is denoted as the embarkation point for Nathan Hale's fatal mission

Statues of Nathan Hale are based on idealized archetypes; no contemporaneous portraits of him have been found.[3][29] Documents and letters reveal Hale was an informed, practical, detail-oriented man who planned ahead.[3] Of his appearance and demeanor, fellow soldier Lieutenant Elisha Bostwick wrote that Hale had blue eyes, flaxen blond hair, darker eyebrows, and stood slightly taller than the average height of the time, with mental powers of a sedate mind and pious. Bostwick wrote:[3][30]

I can now in imagination see his person & hear his voice—his person I should say was a little above the common stature in height, his shoulders of a moderate breadth, his limbs strait & very plump: regular features—very fair skin—blue eyes—flaxen or very light hair which was always kept short—his eyebrows a shade darker than his hair & his voice rather sharp or piercing—his bodily agility was remarkable. I have seen him follow a football and kick it over the tops of the trees in the Bowery at New York, (an exercise which he was fond of)—his mental powers seemed to be above the common sort—his mind of a sedate and sober cast, & he was undoubtedly Pious; for it was remark'd that when any of the soldiers of his company were sick he always visited them & usually Prayed for & with them in their sickness.[30]

Hale has been honored with two standing images:

Other statues/markers include:

Namesake itemsEdit

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ "Sites, Seals, Symbols". Interactive Connecticut State Register & Manual. State of Connecticut. 2006. Archived from the original on December 16, 2006. Retrieved January 4, 2007.
  2. ^ The History of the Descendants of Elder John Strong, Northampton, Mass by Benjamin Dwight, pages 331-332
  3. ^ a b c d e Mobed, Desiree; Baker, Mary Beth. "FAQ". The Nathan Hale website. Archived from the original on November 1, 2006. Retrieved January 22, 2007.
  4. ^ a b "Capt. Nathan Hale (1755-1776) - Sons of the American Revolution, Connecticut - CTSSAR". Archived from the original on November 5, 2006. Retrieved January 16, 2016.
  5. ^ "Nathan Hale: Yale 1773 :: Curator: Richard E. Mooney". p. 2. Retrieved January 16, 2016.
  6. ^ "Documentary Life of Nathan Hale".
  7. ^ McCullough, David (2005). 1776. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-7432-2671-4.
  8. ^ Smith, Jr., John L. (May 21, 2015). "9 Rules of Spying That Nathan Hale Failed to Follow". Journal of the American Revolution. Retrieved November 13, 2019.
  9. ^ Neff, p. 299–308.
  10. ^ "Nathan Hale". Retrieved February 9, 2007.
  11. ^ Hutson, James (July–August 2003). "Nathan Hale Revisited— A Tory's Account of the Arrest of the First American Spy". Information Bulletin. The Library of Congress. Retrieved February 9, 2007.
  12. ^ Haswell, p. 22.
  13. ^ a b Ortner, Mary J. (2001). "Captain Nathan Hale (1755 - 1776)". Patriots. The Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. Archived from the original on July 5, 2008. Retrieved February 9, 2007.
  14. ^ a b "Permanent Revolution". New York magazine. September 10, 2012.
  15. ^
  16. ^ Black, Frederick R. (1981). "JAMAICA BAY: A HISTORY" (PDF). United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service: 11–12. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  17. ^ a b Seymour, p. 292.
  18. ^ Seymour, p. xxxi.
  19. ^ Seymour, p. 438.
  20. ^ Donnelly, F. K. (January 1, 1985). "A Possible Source for Nathan Hale's Dying Words". The William and Mary Quarterly. 42 (3): 394–396. doi:10.2307/1918934. JSTOR 1918934.
  21. ^ a b Seymour, p. 327.
  22. ^ Seymour, p. xxxii.
  23. ^ Seymour, p. 301.
  24. ^ Seymour, p. 303.
  25. ^ Seymour, p. 310.
  26. ^ Seymour, p. 356.
  27. ^ Seymour, p. 361.
  28. ^ Sherman, Sherman (1885). "The Century". 29. New York, NY: The Century Co.: 339. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  29. ^ George Dudley Seymour (1907). The familiar Hale: an attempt to show by what standards of age, appearance and character the proposed statue to Nathan Hale for the campus of Yale college should be judged. The Yale publishing association. pp. 6–7. Retrieved October 17, 2010.
  30. ^ a b "The Last Days and Valiant Death of Nathan Hale". American Heritage Magazine. American Heritage Inc. April 1964. Archived from the original on September 29, 2007. Retrieved January 22, 2007.
  31. ^ "City Hall Park, Nathan Hale". New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
  32. ^ "The CIA campus. A walk outside headquarters". Central Intelligence Agengy. July 9, 2009. Retrieved July 10, 2014.
  33. ^ "ConneCT Kids Connecticut Government The Connecticut State Capitol 4". Retrieved September 13, 2014.
  34. ^ "Nathan Hale". Saint Paul Minnesota. Retrieved September 25, 2017.
  35. ^ "Nathan Hale: Patriot Spy" (PDF). Revolutionary Connecticut. Retrieved February 15, 2017.
  36. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on August 20, 2008. Retrieved September 24, 2007.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)


Further readingEdit

External linksEdit