The hanging of Nathan Hale

The hanging of Nathan Hale

“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” were the last words of 21-year-old American patriot Nathan Hale, who was hanged by the British without a trial on Sept. 22, 1776.

A Yale graduate, 1773, Nathan Hale almost became a Christian minister, as his brother Enoch did, but instead became a teacher at Union Grammar School. When the Revolutionary War began in 1775, Nathan Hale joined a Connecticut militia and served in the siege of Boston.

On July 4, 1775, Hale received a letter from his Yale classmate, Benjamin Tallmadge, who was now General Washington’s chief intelligence officer: “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.”

Nathan Hale accepted a commission as first lieutenant in the Seventh Connecticut Regiment under Colonel Charles Webb of Stamford. Tradition has it that Nathan Hale was part of daring band of patriots who captured an English sloop filled with provisions from right under the guns of British man-of-war.

Following the Battle of Brooklyn Heights, Aug. 27, 1776, the British went from Staten Island across Long Island and were intent on capturing New York City. General Washington was desperate to know British plans and wrote on Sept. 6, 1776: “We have not been able to obtain the least information on the enemy’s plans.”

Washington sought a spy to penetrate the British lines to get information. On Sept. 8, 1776, Nathan Hale stepped forward as the only volunteer. Knowing that the act of spying on the British, if caught, would be punishable by death, his fellow officer Captain William Hull attempted to talk him out it.

Hale responded: “I wish to be useful, and every kind of service necessary to the public good becomes honorable by being necessary. If the exigencies of my country demand a peculiar service, its claim to perform that service are imperious.”

On Sept. 12, 1776, Hale was ferried behind enemy lines to Long Island to discover British troop movements. On Sept. 15, 1776, 4,000 British troops landed at Kip’s Bay at the east end of 33rd Street and proceeded to capture New York City. General Washington retreated to Harlem Heights on Manhattan Island’s north end. On Sept. 21, 1776, Hale was captured by the “Queen’s Rangers” commanded by an American loyalist, Lieut. Col. Robert Rogers. General William Howe ordered Hale to be hanged the next morning.

Hale wrote a letter to his mother and brother, but the British destroyed them, not wanting it known a man could die with such firmness. Hale asked for a Bible, but was refused. He requested a clergyman, but was denied. Nathan Hale was marched out and hanged from an apple-tree in Rutgers’ orchard, near present-day 66th Street and Third Avenue in New York City on Sept. 22, 1776.

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The Essex Journal stated of Nathan Hale, Feb. 13, 1777: “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 defense of his injured, bleeding Country.”

Nathan Hale may have drawn inspiration for his last words “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” from the well-known English play “Cato.” The play “Cato” was written by Joseph Addison in 1712, as Hale had been involved in theater while a student at Yale:

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.

Cato the Younger (95-46 B.C.), was a leader during the last days of the Roman Republic who championed individual liberty against government tyranny; representative republican government against a despotic dictatorship; and logic over emotion. Attempting to prevent Julius Caesar from becoming a dictator, Cato was know for his immunity to bribes, his moral integrity, and his distaste for corruption. George Washington had the play “Cato” performed for the Continental Army while they were encamped at Valley Forge.

American Heritage Magazine’s article, “The Last Days and Valiant Death of Nathan Hale” (April 1964), gave fellow soldier Lieutenant Elisha Bostwick’s description of Nathan Hale: “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.”

Nathan Hale’s nephew was Massachusetts Governor Edward Everett, who spoke at the dedication of the battlefield right before Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address, Nov. 19, 1863. Nathan Hale’s grand nephew was well-known author Edward Everett Hale, who wrote: “We are God’s children, you and I, and we have our duties. … Thank God I come from men who are not afraid in battle.”

Capturing this patriotic spirit, American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his poem, “Voluntaries” (1863):

So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low, ‘Thou must’
The youth replies, ‘I can.’

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