A Time for Heroes: The Story of Nathan Haleby Circian
IntroductionNathan Hale was a young man who had every prospect for a happy and fulfilling life. He was very well educated for his day — a Yale graduate in an era when very few went to college. Although there are many contemporary accounts regarding his appearance and personality, no negative statements have been recorded; indeed, he was vividly remembered and admired by his acquaintances — longer than 60 years after his death.
Accounts from classmates, friends, relatives, fellow soldiers, teachers, and students all carry the same general theme: that he was kind, gentle, religious, athletic, intelligent, good looking and as one contemporary testified, "the idol of all his acquaintances."
Both men and women commented on his striking appearance. He had fair skin and hair, light blue eyes and stood just under six feet tall. No wonder it was said that all the girls in New Haven were in love with him. Nathan's love of sports included wrestling, football and broadjumping (stakes marking one of his record-breaking broad jumps are said to have stood on the New Haven Green for many years). Those who knew him commented on his kindness and strong Christian ideals. We know that he attended religious services while in the army and prayed with his men who were ill.
His amiability, intelligence, and love of learning are mirrored in his remarkable collection of friends, his outstanding career at Yale, and his growing success as a schoolmaster. Yet in spite of the above, this remarkable young man ended his life in the most ignominious manner known to his day and age: death by hanging — the ultimate degradation — reserved only for the most despicable of criminals.
This short biography outlines Hale's life and examines the myths and facts surrounding his remarkable story and his famous last words. He is representative of many young 18th century professionals obsessed with being of service, who — foreshadowing a 20th century brand of patriotism — asked not what their country could do for them but rather what they could do for their country.
"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
CAPTAIN NATHAN HALENathan Hale of Coventry, CT was born in 1755 into two respectable New England families. His parents, Richard Hale and Elizabeth Strong Hale, were staunch Puritans who believed in religious devotion, a strong work ethic, and education. The Hale family boasted many Harvard graduates and the Strongs included numerous ministers and teachers with solid ties to Yale College. As a prosperous farmer and deacon of the church, Richard Hale was a pillar of the Coventry community.
The sixth of ten surviving siblings, 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. They became part of the shinning Class of '73, many of whom were destined to have admirable careers in the service of their state and country.
Yale at the time provided a Spartan life for its students including a thorough, disciplined education in religion, mathematics, science, and the classics. Its main purpose was to prepare young men for the ministry; however, many of them chose other occupations such as law, medicine, or business. During his college years, Nathan was exposed to the cosmopolitan atmosphere of New Haven and to many new, progressive ideas of the eighteenth century. It was doubtless a different world from the isolated, farming community where he had been raised.
Both Nathan and Enoch belonged to the literary fraternity, Linonia, that discussed and debated educational topics and also issues of the day, including astronomy, literature, and the ethics of slavery. Meetings were held in the students' rooms at New College — a large brick dormitory in the center of campus. This beautiful building, where Nathan and Enoch were roommates, still stands at Yale and is now called Connecticut Hall.
These years were full of activity, friends, and varied interests. Nathan was very involved in Linonia, participating in numerous debates, plays, parties, and speech-making. During his three year membership (freshmen weren't admitted), he held every office in the fraternity, including chancellor, and also helped form the first secular library at Yale. Nathan graduated from college 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 took a position teaching school — first in East Haddam and later in New London, CT. The purpose of this temporary work was for the young men to make a modest living while deciding what to do in life. In rural East Haddam, however, Hale appears to have been lonely, missing the lively company of his college friends. In one letter he complains somewhat sarcastically about his isolation, lack of mail, or any noteworthy news. 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, 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 school for young ladies from 5 to 7 AM. 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 for him 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 attributed to Hale. Elizabeth married in 1775 while Nathan was in the army (at the Siege of Boston). She lived into her 90s and in 1837 wrote a stunningly beautiful remembrance of her friend, Nathan Hale, then dead for sixty-one years.
Nathan enjoyed 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. It is interesting that his uncle, Major Samuel Hale, a veteran of the French and Indian War, was a famous educator and master of the prestigious Latin School in Portsmouth, NH. Nathan soon wrote to this uncle asking for some quick advice about accepting the permanent position and its proposed salary. Samuel most likely replied in the affirmative because Nathan decided to take the offer and make teaching his profession.
During this same year, like many patriotic young men in New London, Hale joined a local militia and was soon elected 1st sergeant by his comrades — the highest rank of any new recruit. Apparently his enthusiasm and military talent were 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, nineteen-year old Nathan Hale also continued several close friendships with his former Yale classmates. Their surviving letters tell of the joys, frustrations, romances, and boredom experienced by young people on the threshold of life and painfully impatient for it all to unfold. By the spring of 1775 therefore, civic-minded Nathan Hale had many interesting friends, a great job that 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. Hale's militia marched immediately but he remained behind — perhaps because of his current teaching contract which did not expire until July, 1775. Or perhaps he was unsure. Contemporary letters tell of the conflict that went on in his friends' minds — doubtless mirrored in his own — whether to join the new army and fight in Boston 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. The new master of a prestigious private school does not without considerable risk take on the label of rebel and traitor.
In early July 1775, Nathan received a heartfelt letter from a Yale classmate and one of his best friends — Benjamin Tallmadge [Note: Tallmadge would later became famous as a Revolutionary War soldier, Washington's friend and spymaster, a prosperous businessman and a US Congressman from Litchfield, CT]. Always the pragmatist, Tallmadge (then teaching in Wethersfield, CT) had gone to see the war for himself. 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 engagement in a noble public service (teaching school),
After a last visit to Yale and several weeks recruiting men, Hale was ready to join in the siege against Boston. No doubt amid much fanfare — fifes and drums blaring — the 7th Connecticut Regiment paraded defiantly out of New London on September 23, 1775. 1st Lieutenant Nathan Hale marched proudly among them — strong and eager, ready for anything — his new officer's commission and his precious Yale diploma folded carefully in his camp bag. He had exactly one year to live.
During these early army days Nathan kept a diary which records the mostly tedious and mundane activities of a young officer on the siege line. Stationed at Winter Hill, 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 George Washington reorganized the army in January, 1776, Nathan received a captain's commission in the new 19th CT regiment and — to his credit — several men asked to be placed under his command. When spring arrived, Washington's army moved to Manhattan to prevent the British from taking New York City. Nathan spent six months camped at Bayard's Mount, building fortifications and preparing for the inevitable battle. During that time it was commented that he cared very much about his men's welfare, even praying with them when they were ill. He was also a strict disciplinarian, once cutting up forbidden playing cards but in a lighthearted manner that did not cause resentment.
When the British invaded Long Island in August 1776, Hale had still not seen combat. Later, during the disastrous Battle of Long Island (August 27th), his regiment manned the forts which were never attacked. He doubtless helped with Washington's brilliant retreat across the East River but his military career was not living up to the exciting discussions of war that had marked his student days at Yale. After almost a year in the army, he had kept records, drawn supplies, written receipts, and supervised guard duty (although there is one unconfirmed report that he led a daring night assault on a British sloop, stealing some much needed supplies). These were not the exploits young men dreamed of when they went to war.
At the beginning of September 1776, with the British in command of Western Long Island and the rebel army trying to defend Manhattan, Washington formed an elite, green beret-type group of New England Rangers. They were placed under the command of Lt. Col. Thomas Knowlton of Ashford, Connecticut. Knowlton had distinguished himself at Bunker Hill and was rapidly becoming one of Washington's most favored officers. The rangers were assigned to patrol the Westchester and Manhattan shorelines and other points around Hell Gate. Hale was soon invited to command one of the four ranger companies whose mission was forward reconnaissance.
Since he could never defend all of Manhattan, Washington desperately needed to know the probable site of the upcoming British invasion. The best way to obtain this pivotal information was to send a spy behind enemy lines. Because paid civilian spies were often unreliable or turncoats, Washington sought army volunteers for this critical mission. A memo written at this time outlines his desperation, pressuring his generals to find someone, anyone, fast. Unfortunately, in honor-conscious 18th century minds, spying was considered to be a demeaning, dishonest, and indecent activity, unworthy of a gentleman.
Nevertheless, Knowlton was under enormous pressure to find such a volunteer and by whatever inducement, persuaded Nathan to go behind enemy lines on Long Island. He may also have been sent into New York City (then at the lower tip of Manhattan Island) to "make discoveries". Before leaving, Nathan asked his army buddy, Captain William Hull, for advice. Hull tried hard to dissuade him from the dangerous and controversial mission but in the end Nathan justified it by saying that any task necessary for the public good became honorable by "being necessary". Most likely he also wanted to do something exciting and useful for a change (with a bit of adventure added in).
Accompanied by his sergeant, Steven Hempstead, Hale left Harlem Village in early September and headed north along the East River. Although armed with an order allowing him to commandeer any armed American vessel, Hale was prevented from crossing to Long Island by numerous British ships on patrol. He finally found passage at Norwalk, CT and crossed the L.I. sound in a rebel longboat. Leaving his uniform, commission, silver shoe buckles and other personal possessions with Hempstead, Nathan Hale slipped into the darkness at Huntington Bay, L.I. and dropped out of sight.
Unfortunately, details of his spying activities are lost to history. He doubtless spent several days behind enemy lines in his contrived disguise as an schoolmaster looking for work. Before he could return with any useful information, however, 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 probably 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 rebel sympathizers. By this time, Hale is thought to have returned to Long Island, probably for a planned rendezvous with the longboat. On the evening of September 21, 1776, 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).
The circumstances of his capture have never come to light although many theories have been proposed. Almost immediately after Hale's death, rumors flew that he had actually been recognized while undercover by his first cousin, Samuel Hale. A Harvard-educated lawyer, Samuel was a dedicated Loyalist then in New York working for the British as deputy commissary of prisoners. Back home in New England, Samuel was accused of heartlessly betraying Nathan and turning him over to the enemy. These 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 after the war (he had fled to England). Even his descendents were stigmatized by Samuel's alleged betrayal of an American hero.
Nathan Hale was immediately brought for questioning before the British commander, General William. Howe, who had just moved into the Beekman Mansion (near the present corner of 51st Street and 1st Avenue). Intelligence information was found on Hale's person and since this was not in code or invisible ink, he was irrevocably compromised. He therefore thought it best to identify himself, his rank, and the purpose of his mission. This may have been done to establish 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 man's demeanor and patriotism, it could not be denied that he was out of uniform behind enemy lines. The customs of war were clear and Nathan was sentenced to hang the next day.
A tradition says that Hale spent the night confined in a greenhouse on the Beekman estate and that he was denied a minister or even a bible by the provost marshall, an unsavory character named William Cunningham. We 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 limits. This mileage along the Post Road corresponds closely with the traditional site of the Dove Tavern at the present NW corner of 66th Street 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 and classmate, Enoch Hale, and the other to his military commander (these letters have never been found and were probably destroyed by the provost marshall, Cunningham, who later gained possession of them).
Captain Montresor witnessed the hanging and was touched by the event, the patriot's composure, and his last words. As fate would have it, Montresor was ordered to deliver a message from General Howe to Washington (under a white flag) that very afternoon. While at American headquarters, he told Alexander Hamilton, then a captain of artillery, about Hale's fate. A few days later, Hale's friend, Captain Hull, went with the delegation returning Washington's answer to Howe 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. He must have been telling 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 in bad shape in September 1776. The much-defeated and demoralized rebel army had been chased into 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 on the gallows — that his "country" was still worthwhile and worth dying for. The enemy was duly impressed, seeing that most of them considered the rebels to be a dirty, rag-tag bunch of contentious rabble.
William Hull later told the world about his friend's patriotism, bravery, and sacrifice; however, since Hull's account is not that of an eyewitness, many historians have denied his story as a unsubstantiated folk legend. If this is true, it means that either Montresor or Hull lied about Hale's last words, which seems like a strange thing for either of them to do. Montresor was a staunch Tory with no reason to contrive a complimentary quote surrounding an insignificant rebel's death. Hull was a Yale graduate and an army officer bound by an code of honor. He had no reason to make up such a quote nor did he even mention it until many years later (his account of Hale was first published in a 1799 history book). From a practical standpoint, 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.
Another credible statement purporting to be from Nathan Hale's execution is found in the diary of Lt. Robert MacKensie, a British officer in New York at the time. The diary entry was made on the very day of Hale's execution, September 22, 1776:
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. (Independent Chronicle, May 17, 1781, Hull may have been the source.)
There is no death which would not be rendered noble in such a glorious cause. (Memoirs, 1837, Marquis de LaFayette. Note: LaFayette was not in America at the time and is probably reporting stories he heard at headquarters)
Nathan Hale's body was left hanging for several days near the site of his execution and later was buried in an unmarked grave. He was 21 years old.
EpilogueProvost Marshall Cunningham, perhaps for some sadistic pleasure, showed Nathan's last two letters and his Yale diploma to Major John P. Wyllys, Hale's friend and fellow Yale classmate. Wyllys was then a POW in New York, having been captured during the British invasion of Manhattan. He later told Nathan's brother, Enoch Hale, about them, but Enoch never saw his brother's last letter.
Nathan and Enoch 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 diary 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. After the war, Enoch Hale became a well respected minister and teacher in Westhampton, MA. In 1784, Enoch's first son was born, whom he christened, Nathan Hale.