Nathan Hale Capture and Execution - page 2
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Montresor stood abruptly and walked to the door, nervously rubbing his fingertips against his palms. The rebel army was finished. They were out-numbered and out-maneuvered like the amateurs they were — trapped in upper York Island, surrounded by water with only one exit. Howe would probably encircle them with the navy, then, with the Southward retreat blocked, finish them off from the Northward. Classic. In a few weeks, Washington, Hancock, Adams, Jefferson and the rest of the villains would be hung — the Rebellion of '75, a footnote in history. Unfortunately, this worthy young teacher would still be dead. And for nothing. For a footnote. He looked out, but the soldiers were still trying to attach the crossbar between the A-frame and the tree. Montresor suddenly felt very angry. "Incompetent idiots!" He whispered under his breath, returning inside. He would tell this young man what he'd learned at headquarters, he should be sensible of the truth about the invisible message. "I think you..."
Nathan looked at him painfully, his clear blue eyes still shadowed with fear.
Quickly, Montresor changed his mind. What's the point? "I...ah...trust you received proper religious consolation."
"My request for a clergyman was denied outright, being told that no Episcopalian minister would so honor a republican religion. When I then asked for a bible, I was vilified with laughter, the provost marshall telling me that rebels belonged in hell...I pray you, sir, is that British propriety?"
Montresor shook his head in disgust. "I apologize for the provost marshall. Rebels are not the most popular of men at headquarters." He gestured in the direction of the fire. "Wait, I have a bible here, you are welcome..."
"No, I have made my peace with God. Today is the Sabbath, and even now as we are speaking, my family in Coventry is at the meetinghouse. I know they remember me in prayer...my father is a deacon, you see." He bit his lip. "But...if you would do me the courtesy, there is something."
"Name it." "I would like to write to my family, sir...if you think there would be time." Montresor opened his trunk without a further word. He handed Nathan a quill pen, ink and several sheets of paper. "Take all the time you need." With that, he left the tent quickly, before his moistening eyes betrayed him.
Nathan Hale stood at the door of the tent where Montresor waited a few feet away. He was standing ankle-deep in September wild flowers, arms folded across his chest, watching the activity by the elm tree. The A frame was standing solidly, with the crossbar firmly attached to the elm, but much of the crowd had dispersed impatiently. Cunningham was pacing up and down.
Montresor jumped slightly and turned around. "Have you finished?"
"A futile exercise in letterwriting, I fear, as I have no means of delivery; but yes, I'm finished," said Nathan, looking over Montresor's shoulder.
"And, as I see, so are they."
Montresor went up to him, staring at the three sealed letters in his hand. "I am to deliver a message from His Excellency to Mr. Washington's headquarters this afternoon, under the white flag. If you give your word the letters are harmless, I'll take them with me."
Nathan's face lit up in such a genuine smile it sent chills down Montresor's spine. He handed the letters over quickly, as if afraid the captain would change his mind. "Give them to Captain Hull, of the 19th Connecticut regiment. The letter to my commander assures him he is not responsible for my fate. The one to my brother is of love to my family."
"And the third?"
"To the Quintumviri, they..." Nathan looked up suddenly and Montresor saw the smile fade, the brief color in his face turned to chalk.
Cunningham was moving toward them.
"Do I have your oath?" said Montresor.
"Upon my sacred honor, the letters are personal." The blue eyes burning into Montresor's suddenly looked much older than twenty-one years. The American took a long, hard breath. "One more thing, sir."
"The blank paper...I must tell someone."
Montresor's heart skipped a beat. They had deciphered the invisible message the night before and it was monumental. Properly used, it could end the war. Nathan spoke quickly, his voice intense. "The paper was not mine, you must believe me, sir. Whatever calumny it proposes is undoubtedly false, placed falsely in my papers by the one who must have...betrayed me." They could hear Cunningham's footsteps now and the American spoke faster. "Most assuredly, sir, you must be sensible...that I am not in a position where one would lie."
Montresor smiled as best he could. "Certainly not a man of honor, Captain, such as yourself."
"Thank-you, sir." Nathan's voice softened with relief and he offered his hand. "Thank-you for your kindness...and for listening. I did not expect to make another friend in this lifetime, and certainly not here. I had expected to die alone. Wretchedly...miserably alone." He looked back at the makeshift gallows. "But I think I can do it now. I never got to fight for my country...but I'll show them that I can die for it."
"Capt'n, if ye please." It was Cunningham, puffing with suppressed frustration. Montresor turned to him, his own frustration barely under control. "It's your duty, Provost Marshall. One I do not envy."
The provost shrugged. "No need for ye to, Capt'n."
Two soldiers flanked the prisoner while Cunningham jerked his arms back and tied his wrists.
Nathan turned to Montresor, suddenly looking like an errant child in his muddied breeches and torn shirt. "Would you come with me?"
The older man nodded solemnly. "I would be honored to do so, Captain Hale."
Captain John Montresor stood quietly — a lone, secret friend in a crowd full of enemies. They had grown hushed in morbid fascination as Nathan was helped onto the cart.
"A fitting end to rebels!" Someone shouted.
Nathan turned to them with dignity as the rope was placed around his neck and pulled tight. "You should all be prepared to meet your death...in whatever shape it may appear." He looked down at them calmly as someone else tied his ankles together.
Richmond, the mulatto executioner, fixed the blindfold and jumped from the cart. He picked up his whip.
The soldier holding the horse's bridle let go and backed off a step, staring at the Sign of the Dove across the street, anticipating their good ale. Nathan Hale stood very still and waited as the crowd murmured to each other with grudging admiration. The young man's composure was extraordinary. Cunningham snorted his words. "Alright now, let us have the bastard's confession. Speak rebel! Confess your treason and your sins, for ye have but seconds ta live. Maybe God'll forgive ye!" He laughed as the crowd grew quiet. This was the good part.
Nathan shook his head and the blindfold slipped down around his neck. His voice was calm and steady. He might have been lecturing to his students in New London or giving a speech to his Linonia brothers at Yale.
"My name is Captain Nathan Hale of the Continental Army. I am not a rebel nor am I a traitor. I am an American. This country — where I was born — has declared itself an independent nation to which I proudly render all of my loyalty and allegiance. It is you British who are pleased to shed the blood of the innocent! You Tories are the traitors! To your own land! "I have committed no crime and I have nothing to confess — for it is the duty of every soldier to obey his commander-in-chief, as I have done, and without regret. Because we will never submit to the enemy! We will fight, as soldiers — in any way we can — to save our injured, bleeding country!!"
"You are not a soldier, you are a low, villainous spy!" shouted a British corporal.
"I'll wager that's something he regrets!" One of the Tories joked nervously and the crowd tittered.
"No!" Nathan looked at Montresor and then back at the crowd. He took a long, deep breath. "I am so satisfied with the cause I have chosen, even now...that my only regret is — I have but one life to lose for my country. IF I HAD TEN THOUSAND LIVES...I would give them all."
"Enough of this!" shouted Cunningham, as he observed the crowd, increasingly engrossed in the young man's words. "Swing the rebel off!"
Montresor squeezed Nathan's letters as he watched the executioner bring down the whip. He turned his head quickly but was not spared the awful crack of a neck breaking.
No one cheered...and that was unusual.
When it was completely over, Montresor went up to the provost marshall, who was headed for the Dove Tavern. "He was a brave man. I would have you bury his body with Christian decency."
Cunningham laughed as he started up the steps. "He'll be strung up on the post road like any other common criminal — let the birds eat off him a few days — then we dump what's left in an unmarked grave. A warning to other spies, lest they think they can escape the king's justice...now, if ye don't mind,sir." He gestured to the open tavern door.
Montresor turned and stomped back to his tent. He threw the letters violently down on the table. They were the most noble and elegant dying words he was ever likely to hear...and from a rebel, an enemy, from a boy. Such waste! What might that young man have become, but for this damnable war! He went back outside to take a long walk and clear his head. In his haste to leave, he hadn't noticed that the letter on top had slipped off the pile and landed on the other side of the table, under some maps.
September 22, 1776 Haarlem Heights, American-Occupied York Island
Looking stunning in his brilliant red regimentals, Captain John Montresor rode along the northern post road, which would one day be known as St. Nicholas Street. The engineer had led His Majesty's delegation through the British picket at McGowan's Pass and soon they entered the district of Haarlem, with its craggy bluffs towering high over their heads. There they were met by an unsmiling escort of American officers, who guided them toward rebel headquarters under their white flag of truce. Montresor's message from General Howe concerned British complaints about breaches of war-etiquitte, prisoner exchanges and other formalities to negotiate with the enemy.
As they mounted the steps of Roger Morris's beautiful hilltop mansion — now occupied by the American commander — Montresor recognized an artillery officer standing on the sidelines. He had known nineteen-year-old Alexander Hamilton when he was a student at King's College in New York City. The engineer motioned him over.
"We apprehended one of your officers last night, Captain Hamilton; unfortunately, under the denomination of a spy. A Captain Hale, serving with your Colonel Knowlton."
Hamilton hid his shock. "With respect, sir, that is nonsense; we don't use our officers as spies. When will the trial be conducted? General Washington will want to know immediately. We will demand that he be treated as a prisoner of war!"
Montresor looked at him incredulously. "He was executed, Captain...this morning."
"Already!?" Hamilton shouted.
"His Excellency is a trifle short tempered these days. Something to do with the New York City fire!"
"I see." Hamilton frowned. "Captain Hale...was hanged?"
Montresor turned away, losing his previous sarcasm. "Is that not the traditional punishment for spies?"
Hamilton cringed, in spite of himself. "I shall see that His Excellency is informed. Thank-you, sir." He answered stiffly, regretting to be the bearer of bad news. Washington was a trifle short tempered these days too.
"I would desire you be sensible..." Uncharacteristically, Montresor fumbled for words. "Alexander, please...ah...inform Mr. Washington that Captain Hale died, a credit to your...cause."
Hamilton also informed Nathan's friend, Captain Hull, who managed to get himself assigned to the delegation that brought Washington's reply to General Howe. Fortunately, Captain John Montresor was again required to meet and deal with the enemy as they entered the British lines under protection of the white flag. After Aides-de-Camp Webb and Tilghman transmitted Washington's message, they left the enemy's marquee to water their horses, not wishing to spend any more time with the British than they had to. William Hull lingered behind.
"Captain Montresor." Hull spoke hesitantly, knowing he was asking a favor of a man he would happily kill under different circumstances and to whom he could make no possible return. "Sir, I have been informed by Captain Hamilton that...ah...three days ago, when you were last in our camp, you told him..."
"You must be Captain Hull." The enemy smiled at him sympathetically and offered his hand, throwing Hull off all the more.
"Yes, I am." Hull said, awkwardly returning the handshake. "Everyone at headquarters is most distressed about the hanging, sir, but...Captain Hale, he was my best friend and comrade-in-arms, can you understand that?"
"I've been a soldier for more than twenty years, Captain, of course I understand that."
"Yes, sir, of course. Well, Captain Hale and I were in the same regiment and served together for the last year and we both attended Yale College, so I was desirous...that is, if..."
"I still bristle when I think of it, Captain." Montresor put his hands in his waistcoat pockets and walked a few steps away before turning back to Hull. "Understand, I have no wish to condemn our own provost, but some things are quite beyond the rules of civilized..." He stopped, seeing the painful anticipation in the young captain's eyes. He too was only a boy. The British officer took a deep breath and motioned Hull to sit down. He then related, as kindly as he could, Hale's last few moments, along with the noble words and manner that had so impressed him. "I admit to being quite touched by the unfortunate circumstances of Captain Hale's execution," said Montresor at the end of his story. "Although it was justified by the customs of warfare, he might have been better treated...war brings out the worst in people." He sighed. "And, I suppose, the best. He was an extraordinary young man. I will never forget him."
Hull stood, furious now. "I told him not to do it! He had a brilliant future, everything to live for!" He stomped his foot in the soft earth, forgetting his decorum in front of the enemy. "Damn this war!"
Montresor sighed as he reached into his waistcoat pocket. "I lament it, but his letters to Colonel Knowlton and his brother were stolen from my tent. This one survived."
"To the Quintumviri." Hull read its address aloud. "I know this group from Yale — Captain Hale was a member — they graduated the year after me. Do you know why he wrote to them, sir?"
"Yes, it is most important it be delivered. You must give me your word of honor that you will do so."
Hull turned toward his own delegation, who were mounting their horses, getting ready to leave. The white flag that guaranteed their safety fluttered in the breeze, testifying to how terribly civilized they all were.
He shrugged. "For Nathan's sake, you have it, sir."
"Captain Hull!" Lt. Col. Samuel Webb shouted irritably from outside the tent. Hull headed quickly for the door, but he stopped for a moment. "The information on Captain Hale's last moments, I will be pleased to tell his friends and family. They will be very proud." He sighed. "I am in your debt, Captain Montresor...and I thank you, sir...for your courtesy."
Montresor shook his head as he watched Hull mount his horse, but he couldn't escape it — the crack of the young schoolteacher's neck as it shattered under the elm tree near his tent. It was a memory he would carry to his grave. "Yes," he muttered under his breath, "we are all so damned courteous."
September 23, 1776 British-Occupied New York City
Provost Marshall Cunningham sat behind his desk drinking rum and reading, as well as his limited education would allow, the last letters of the rebel spy. He had sent his own spies to steal them from Captain Montresor but he was disappointed. The two letters were just simple statements of forgiveness to his commander, love for his family, and assurances to both that he had no regrets or misgivings. Such firmness and resolution didn't fit the accepted rebel stereotype of contentious, dishonorable rabble. Cunningham frowned in frustration. No propaganda value at all, not even good for a laugh.
"Sir?" One of his men stuck his head in the door. "Got a rebel officer to see ye, sir; one o' them what we caught at Kip's Bay."
Cunningham took swig of rum and wiped his mouth with his hand as the tall, dark-haired major stepped inside. The American prisoner-of-war had just been paroled on his own recognizance until an exchange could be arranged. He had the freedom of the city, but he'd spent most of his time helping his men, who were being held in one of the churches. Like them, he was filthy, unshaven and weak from hunger.
Major Wyllys tried to be polite to the enemy, but his voice sounded more nervous than he would have liked. "Provost Marshall, I would be obliged, that is...a rumor circulates about the city concerning a...hanging. Yesterday, at the artillery park." He swallowed hard. "'Tis said an American officer by the name of Nathanial Hales, but..."
"Hale, it was, Major." Cunningham gestured to the letters and the Yale diploma. "From your old school, Yale College, maybe ye knew the bastard?" He spat on the floor in disgust. "A fuckin' spy. Shows what ye get from rebel education...and rebel officers. Not a gentleman in the lot."
John Palsgrave Wyllys, whose great, great grandfather had been the Governor of Connecticut and whose father was Secretary of State, forgot his hunger as he focused on the documents.
"Nathan! Oh no. Oh, dear God, No!"
"You bet, sweetie, hung up — quick an' neat...and still hangin'." The provost laughed and took another swallow of rum. "Last I checked, he was twistin' in the breeze. Wanna go out and see for yourself? I'll take ye."
Wyllys bent over, choking. "You son of a bitch!" He whispered vehemently, under his breath.
"Why so surprised?" Cunningham continued, the grin never fading. "He wasn't a POW, and certainly not entitled ta the many courtesies ye rebels all receive from his majesty's government."
Wyllys held on to the desk as Cunningham picked up the letters, but he found the strength to reach out. "Provost Marshall, let me have them. I'll take them back to his family when I'm exchanged."
Cunningham smiled at him.
"Please...he was my classmate, my best friend...I'll pay you for them, whatever you desire. Lawful money...I can get English money."
Cunningham reached out his hand, palm up.
"I used what I had to buy food for my men, but..."
"I'll take your sister for ma whore, then...I jus' know she'll be a willin'." The Irishman took another swig of rum and laughed. "I hear them rebel girls..."
"Provost Marshall," Wyllys' voice shook with barely controlled rage. "I come from a wealthy family in Hartford. My father will send whatever I ask. You have my word of honor, sir!"
The Irishman continued to smile. "The honor of a rebel?...Ha!" His eyes never left Wyllys and his grin never slacked as he tore the documents slowly in half.
"You bastard! That was a letter to his brother!"
"We can't have anyone a knowin' that a rebel died with honor, can we now?" He threw the fragments into the fire, grinning wider, showing his black teeth. "Ye can go, rebel dog. An' don't come back, 'less you want ma foot up your backside!"
Wyllys uttered a single, disconsolate word as he stumbled from the room. Latin, thought Cunningham as he finished his rum. He wasn't sensible of what it meant, but he thought it sounded something like...Quintumviri.
March 26, 1777 New Haven, Connecticut
The Quintumviri were meeting in a private room at the White Horse Tavern near Yale College. It was the first time they'd seen each other since the war had begun in 1775. The terrible conflict was taking its toll and nothing in their faces resembled the carefree young college students of four years before. The British occupied all of York Island now and Washington was freezing in the Jersies. Everyone was beginning to realize that peace would not be negotiated, that this would not be a one-season war, that it would produce wounds that would never heal.
The four men, all in their early twenties, were seated at a round table set with five chairs and five tankards of ale. The empty place was there as a tribute because they weren't expecting anyone else. The Group of Five, once sworn to each other forever, had been hopelessly and forever shattered, robbed of its leader. The four remaining members stared at the sealed letter, laying in the center of the table like an unexploded bomb.
To the Quintumviri.
"Open it, James," said Wyllys, who had just been released from captivity on York Island. "At least the bastard didn't get this one."
Their new leader had been staring out the window, remembering the last meeting in March of 1775 — with Nathan there — laughing and sharing the latest New London gossip. Little had they known that within a month, a war would begin that would tear them all apart, that they would grow up too soon, and too early learn the meaning of hate.
James Hillhouse handled the letter gingerly, as if it were a sacred relic; his best friend had held this same paper minutes before his death and perhaps had thought of him. Gooseflesh stood out on his arms as he tried to picture Nathan with his hands bound, a noose over his neck, waiting to die like a criminal.
He looked into the cold eyes of his Yale colleagues, all destined to be powerful, committed men. "I remember Gridley telling me once that he and Nathan were out sailing in a storm. Isaac was terrified, but Nathan laughed. 'Don't worry, we are safe,' he said, 'I am to be hung, not drowned.'" The others stared at him.
"Remember the mole on his neck? It means you'll be hung — an old wives tale. Nathan joked about it sometimes..." Hillhouse stopped, unable to continue. John Wyllys felt a shiver run up his spine. He could still see the drunken, filthy Irishman burning Nathan's letters; and in his nightmares, Nathan — sweet, blond, beautiful Nathan — hanging dead by the roadside...twisting and twisting.
"Let us continue!" said Alden.
"Please, James," said Mead, almost at the same time. "We must be sensible of his last wishes!"
Hillhouse started to open the letter and stopped. "This seal has been broken and resealed."
"Just open it!" shouted Wyllys.
Hillhouse nodded and broke the seal. Nathan's letter was there, in his familiar, clear and simple script, as steady and unflinching as in the letters Hillhouse had enjoyed over the many years of their friendship. Nestled inside, however, like an intruder at a funeral, was a single sheet of similar paper. The handwriting was more elegant and styled — the hand of an engineer or a master draftsman perhaps — quite different from Nathan's. And so was the signature. John Montresor.
James Hillhouse read the letters immediately, without showing them to his colleagues, almost as if he had forgotten they were there. "It is worse than I feared." He sighed, laying the letters open on the table. The Quintumviri read them in silence, finally looking up at each other in muted rage. Wyllys, who was closer to the tragedy than the others, covered his eyes with his hand.
"How do we know this is true!?" shouted Alden.
"Do we take the word of an enemy?" said Mead.
"Gentlemen," said Hillhouse quietly, "you don't have to take the word of an enemy. There is someone waiting outside who would speak with us. He brought these letters from Captain Hull, but he is sensible of what really happened to Nathan...better than anyone."
Hillhouse got to his feet and opened the door. A man of medium height waited outside, dressed in the uniform of the Continental Army. There were no introductions needed as Lieutenant Benjamin Tallmadge walked into the room. He too had been their classmate at Yale College, class of '73.
"Captain Hull presents compliments, gentlemen."
No one answered and Tallmadge stared at the open letters on the table, his eyes grey and dull. "They've burned into me like poison all these long winter months and I confess to being glad to be rid of them."
"We thank-you for your favor, Ben," said Hillhouse. "Please, now...tell us what happened to Nathan."
"I've come all the way from Wethersfield to see you," continued the soldier, who had been spending the winter training calvary horses for the next campaign. "It haunts my nights and torments my days. But I came because I...wanted someone to be sensible of the truth, in case I am...killed in battle. You must know that Nathan's death," he swallowed hard as four pairs of eyes bore into him, "was because of a traitor...a traitor's vile scheme and a traitor's merciless betrayal."
The Quintumviri stared at him harder, the unspoken question in their eyes. Tallmadge pursed his lips. "And it has been covered over at headquarters. There will never be a record of it...he will never be avenged!"
"Then Captain Montresor is correct?" asked Hillhouse. Tallmadge leaned over and read the letter from the British engineer. "Yes, but there is more to it."
The lieutenant, who had lost his best friend in Nathan Hale, sat down wearily in the empty chair. "You must never repeat what I am about to tell you."
He took a drink of the ale they had symbolically set aside for their slain leader but the Quintumviri didn't mind. They could see the anguish in his eyes.
Finally he began.
At the end of Tallmadge's narration, the Quintumviri sat stunned, staring down at the letters — the only tangible link to the horror they had just heard. Benjamin Tallmadge took another long drink out of Nathan Hale's tankard because he sorely needed it.
"I may be damned for what I have just told you and I beg the Lord's mercy for breaking my word to His Excellency." He stood abruptly and his voice became brusque. "I demand your total silence in this matter, gentlemen. Should this subject ever come up again, I will deny that we ever met or I that ever spoke to you."
"We will honor your wishes, sir. It will never be repeated," said Hillhouse, his voice colder. "However...I trust you give us leave to avenge him."
Tallmadge nodded. "I am a soldier, sir. This will be a long war and His Excellency has given me many new and...peculiar responsibilities. There is no place in them for personal revenge."
"You can rest assured that it will be done," said Hillhouse as the others nodded their assent.
Tallmadge reached over and picked up the letter from Nathan Hale. "You may read it, of course, Ben," said Hillhouse softly. "No one has a better right."
Tallmadge read the short letter, inhaling raggedly, his eyes burning with feeling. It was a few minutes before he could speak again. "Nathan's death has already been forgotten by everyone," he said bitterly. "He received no honors of war, no commendations, no recognition, not even a Christian burial, NOTHING! And yet he saved us from..." The lieutenant took a deep breath. "Anyway..." Tallmadge's voice became a whisper, tight with emotion. "I just thought that someone should know."
With that, He drained the rest of the ale and left the room, his heavy footsteps echoing through the public house and down the steps onto Chapel Street.
It was ten minutes later and the Quintumviri still stared at the letters from Nathan Hale and John Montresor. They were very, very angry.
Notes to the Prologue of The Quintumviri.
This work is a fictitious dramatization based on what is known about the capture and execution of Nathan Hale. It forms the introduction to a novel, "The Quintumviri", based on Hale's story but taking place in modern times. It is about a modern Quintumviri descended from the original group. To set up the novel, a fictitious third letter is written by Hale at the gallows and the meeting of the Quintumviri at the White Horse Tavern is invented. The other events dramatized are accurate according to my best interpretation of current knowledge.
The people mentioned in the prologue, including the Quintumviri (who supposedly consisted of Hillhouse, Wyllys, Mead, Alden and Hale), were real. Captain Hale had just been assigned to Knowlton's rangers when he volunteered to spy for Washington behind British lines. His friend, Captain (later General) William Hull, tried very hard to dissuade him using the arguments paraphrased here (along with Nathan's recorded counterarguments). Most likely Knowlton gave him his orders which probably originated from Washington himself; however, there are no official American records of Hale's mission. The only reference to it by anyone at headquarters was by Tench Tilghman, one of Washington's aides, who mentioned in a letter that Hale had been sent into New York to "make discoveries." Tilghman also said that Washington was determined to hang a British spy in retaliation for Hale's execution.
Nathan Hale was captured on September 21, 1776, probably near Flushing Bay on Long Island, by Roger's Rangers (also known as the "Queens Rangers"). This was a newly formed Loyalist group commissioned to patrol the coastline of Western Long Island. Robert Rogers was an experienced soldier and Indian fighter whose earlier exploits were to be immortalized in the novel, "Northwest Passage".
Hale's adventures behind enemy lines, the details of his mission and the circumstances of his capture — although the objects of intense speculation for over two hundred years — are completely unknown.
Almost immediately after his fate became publicized, rumors flew that Nathan had actually been recognized while undercover and betrayed by his first cousin, Samuel Hale. Samuel, a Harvard-educated lawyer, was a Tory working for General Howe as deputy commissary of prisoners. The betrayal story is far-fetched but if Samuel Hale had been asked simply to identify a rebel spy named Hale, he would have been in a difficult situation (as dramatized herein). The betrayal allegations were eventually denied by Samuel and what part, if any, he had in his cousin's fate has never been substantiated. Nonetheless, "Samuel the Tory" was vilified for the remainder of his life and forbidden to return to his native state of New Hampshire. Even his descendants were stigmatized by accusations of Samuel's supposed betrayal of an American hero.
Nathan Hale was brought for interrogation to British headquarters (the Beekman Mansion — near what is now 1st Avenue and 51st street, NYC). His Yale diploma and obvious spy notes were found on his person. Since the latter were not in code or invisible ink, he was irrevocably compromised. Interrogated by General Howe, he thought it best to identify himself, his rank and the purpose of his mission. He may have done this so there would be a record of his fate or perhaps to regain some semblance of an honest soldier (rather than a spy).
Although Howe was moved by the young soldier's patriotism, the customs of war were clear and Nathan was sentenced to hang the next day at 11:00. According to legend, he was kept overnight in the mansion's greenhouse and the following morning marched north along the Post Road to the Park of Artillery (present 66th St. and 3rd Avenue, NYC). While they were making the preparations for his execution, John Montresor, Howe's chief engineer and aide-de-camp, sympathetically offered Hale the shelter of his marquee. This seems to be the only kind person Nathan met during his brief captivity, as his requests for a clergyman and a bible had been refused. LaFayette, in his memoirs, recorded that Hale was insulted to the last minute of his life.
At his request, Montresor gave Hale paper and pen to write to his brother and to Colonel Knowlton. Montresor's conversation with Nathan just before his execution is unrecorded but he later told Captain Hull that he was deeply touched by the patriot's composure in the face of death, that "he was calm and bore himself with gentle dignity, in the consciousness of rectitude and high intentions." Montresor also related Nathan's famous last words (doubtless paraphrased from Addison's popular play, "Cato").
William Hull, after hearing of his friend's death (perhaps from Alexander Hamilton — who was the first American to learn of it), contrived to visit the British camp with an American delegation under a white flag. There he was able to talk with eyewitness, John Montresor. Our record of Hale's last moments comes from this conversation related in Hull's memoirs. Hull was probably the source of the same story in an eighteenth century newspaper article (1781) and history book (1799).
According to another source — "The Essex Journal" (1777), Nathan identified himself at the gallows and made "a sensible and spirited speech" (which would be completely in character). I have thus included several other statements attributed to him by various contemporary sources, including newspapers, the Marquis de LaFayette and British diarists, making no judgment as to their veracity.
Since Hull's account is not that of a direct eyewitness, some writers have denied that Hale ever said he regretted "having only one life to lose for his country". This would mean that either Montresor or Hull lied about it, which seems like a strange thing for either of them to do. Given Nathan's classical education and the romantic idealism of young men of his time, he could easily have said something just like that. The quotation (from Horace) cited herein in Latin was attributed to Hale by a New Haven acquaintance just before he left to join the army. It indicated that he certainly considered dying for one's country to be a worthy endeavor. On the practical side, it is hard to believe that Hale would have been so well remembered had he not distinguished himself in some outstanding way at his execution. He was a junior officer of no significance and even his brief spy mission had failed.
Nathan Hale's body was indeed left hanging, according to custom, and was seen at least three days later, twisting on the post road (as recorded by a British diarist). He was eventually buried in an unmarked grave, probably somewhere near 3rd Avenue in New York City.
Cunningham, perhaps for some sadistic pleasure, actually showed Nathan's last two letters and his Yale diploma to Major John Wyllys, Hale's friend, classmate and fellow member of the Quintumviri. Wyllys was then a POW, having been captured during the British invasion of Manhattan. He later told Nathan's brother, Enoch Hale, about the letters but they have never been seen again and were probably destroyed by Cunningham.
Nathan Hale was the sixth of ten surviving siblings and the only one to be killed in the Revolutionary War (although five of his seven brothers also served). Enoch Hale was two years older than Nathan; they spent four years together at Yale, were friends, college roommates and fellow members of the literary fraternity, Linonia. They exchanged many letters while Nathan was in the army and were apparently very close. Enoch's diary (wherein he refers to Nathan as "Brother Captain") records the first horrible rumor of his brother's fate, which reached him on September 30, 1776. It continues with contradictory reports, and finally a letter from the front, after which his family had only "a gloomy, dejected hope."
Enoch finally rode from Coventry, CT, to the army's new encampment at White Plains, NY, to learn the truth and "to talk some of my brother" with his fellow officers. One can only imagine what that three-day trip was like for Enoch, especially when he rode through New Haven, where many of their mutual friends still resided. The diary later tells how Enoch first sorted through Nathan's recently returned belongings on June 6, 1777 (which would have been Nathan's 22nd birthday).
After more than two hundred years, those few sad entries cannot fail to evoke emotion over a very real human tragedy. It is also a poignant ending to the story that Enoch never received his brother's last letter, written minutes before his death. In 1784, Enoch's first son was born, whom he christened Nathan Hale.
Soon after they graduated from Yale, fellow Quintumviri member James Hillhouse, who was a law student in New Haven, prophetically wrote the following to Nathan Hale, who was teaching school in New London.
"Liberty is our reigning Topic, which loudly calls upon every one to Exert his Tallants & abilities to the utmost in defending of it — now is the time for heros — now is the time for great men to immortalize their names in the deliverance of their Country, and grace the annals of America with their glorious Deeds."
— James Hillhouse to Nathan Hale
July 11, 1774
It shows the attitude among young Connecticut intellectuals nine months before the revolution began in Massachusetts. Nathan was representative of many such men who interrupted their careers and put their lives on the line for America's independence. He choose to serve, although he could easily have justified remaining in his teaching position. Later, he volunteered for the extremely dangerous job of spying for Washington behind enemy lines even though he would have undoubtedly been justified by his peers in refusing. After his original mission on Long Island was negated by the British invasion, he courageously chose to enter British-occupied New York — where he was well known and in constant danger of discovery.
If his deeds did not qualify him as a hero, his choices certainly did, for the heroism is in the choice.