Beginning in 1775, thirteen American colonies waged an eight-year struggle against the mightiest empire in the world. American victory was not possible without sacrifice nor was it possible without the services rendered by everyone who considered himself a patriot. Not every act of valor occurred on the battlefield however. Some of the country’s bravest were those men and women who served behind enemy lines gathering information on British forces. This list of spies included a young Connecticut schoolteacher who had joined the Continental Army. He had no experience in spy craft, but he still believed he had a duty to serve his country in any capacity it required. His name was Nathan Hale. This is the story of how he took on the role of America’s first spy.
Even before the War of Independence broke out, Nathan Hale was already a committed patriot. He was born in Coventry, Connecticut in June 1755, at the beginning of the French and Indian War, and spent his early years harvesting hemp and flax for the British army. After the war ended in 1763, however, his family faced ruin when Parliament demanded the colonists buy British products rather than make their own. His cousin, Reverend Nathan Strong, attacked this policy, claiming it would strangle colonial businesses. Nathan’s opposition increased after he entered Yale University in 1769 and joined the Linonia fraternity where he discussed the rising political tumult with like-minded students. By the time he graduated in 1773, he and his fellow New Englanders were ready to fight to protect their freedom. Even though he was only a simple schoolteacher, Nathan’s vocal support for the patriot cause inspired his friends in New London, Connecticut. In his free time, he wrote letters to former classmates expressing a love of country. He even denounced a close friend for supporting British policies. Throughout 1774 he and most of Connecticut rallied to the side of their oppressed brethren in Boston. When war came, Nathan determined to stand with his fellow colonists in their struggle for independence.
By the spring of 1775, Nathan was ready to join the ranks of the new American army and drive the British out of the colonies. On April 22nd, three days after the battles of Lexington and Concord, he was part of the crowd that greeted a messenger relaying news of the fighting. That evening he attended a town meeting where he announced his intent to leave the classroom for the battlefield. As his students listened in awe, he publicly exhorted his fellow New Londoners to “never lay down our arms until we obtain our independence.” Within days, Governor Jonathan Trumbull commissioned Nathan a captain in the 7th Connecticut Regiment, and upon his arrival in camp, he set to work training his soldiers. In late September 1775 he received orders to march north to Boston, and after only four days, he and his troops reached American lines. After a brief stay in Roxbury, just outside of Boston, his company was transferred to Cambridge, across the river from the British-occupied town. Nathan was witness to several skirmishes as winter set in, including a vicious but successful fight with British regulars at Lechmere’s Point, not far from Boston Harbor, in mid-November. As December began, Nathan was posted along the picket line to ensure the British did not launch a raid to capture the few remaining American supplies. He spent hours listening to British soldiers discuss the tactical situation and call out passwords in order to ensure safe passage between guard shacks. In March 1776 his company seized control of Dorchester Heights and, along with American artillery, threatened the British army in Boston. This show of strength eventually forced the British to evacuate Boston. Along with the rest of the country, Nathan now turned his eyes south to New York City.
With the British gone from Boston, Nathan and the Continental Army hurriedly marched to New York City to prepare the city for a massive British invasion. He and his company were positioned on Long Island and ordered to fortify Brooklyn Heights on Long Island. As he set to work, he was distressed to discover his men were still low on provisions. To overcome these shortages, he devised a daring plan to seize a British sloop loaded with supplies. He gathered a select few and crept to the edge of British lines along the East River. After hearing British sentries call out that all was well, Nathan dashed through the water, climbed aboard the sloop, and piloted it back to American lines to “the cheers of the patriot camp.” The army gladly received these provisions even as the British prepared to destroy the American force on Long Island. His daring so impressed Connecticut Colonel Thomas Knowlton that he was offered a position in Knowlton’s Rangers, a forerunner of the modern-day Special Forces. Soon after joining the Rangers, Nathan was given an even more vital mission than seizing a supply ship.
Following his withdraw from Long Island and up Manhattan to Harlem Heights, General Washington ordered Knowlton to send a ranger behind enemy lines and gather information on enemy intentions. The intelligence was vital because it would enable Washington to formulate his own strategy. The general also needed to know the number of British troops facing him. Though the information was crucial, the stakes were high. The danger was that the ranger would have to dress in civilian clothes so as not to raise suspicions. In accordance with Washington’s orders, Knowlton called a meeting of the rangers and asked for a volunteer. Despite suffering from influenza, Nathan attended the meeting and proudly announced he would do it — he would spy on the enemy. Those around him were shocked and tried to convince him it was not only a suicide mission but also a dishonorable profession for a man of his character. Nathan replied that he thought “I owe to my country the accomplishment of an object so important, and so much desired by the commander of her armies.” He then added “I wish to be useful, and every kind of service, necessary to the public good, becomes honourable by being necessary.” He was undeterred by the efforts to discourage him from the mission. The army, and the nation itself, was at a crisis point. Something had to be done to before the war was lost and the flame of independence was extinguished.
Nathan left camp on the evening of September 15, 1776 dressed in a frock coat “made of white linen, and fringed.” After traversing through the Bronx, he reached Norwalk, Connecticut on the Long Island Sound and, after changing into civilian clothes and placing a broad-brimmed hat on his head, secured passage on the sloop Schuyler. He arrived at Huntington, Long Island the next morning and was soon walking the roads as an itinerant Dutch schoolteacher in need of employment. Hours later he arrived at William Johnson’s farmhouse and successfully convinced the farmer he was on his way to the city to take charge of unruly students. After a brief rest, he continued on his way, doing his best to evade known Tory residences. It took him two days to reach Brooklyn, and along the way, he conversed with local farmers about the presence of the British troops. After two days, he knew he was close to British lines, and he prepared for the danger to come.
Nathan arrived in Brooklyn on September 18th and passed through the British camps along the East River. He casually strolled along and took time to chat with the private soldiers. As he talked, however, he made mental note of their positions, and once out of sight, he drew maps of the encampments. He finally reached the ferry landing and expressed his wish to cross over the river to the city. To his enormous relief, the British guards did not question his intentions and allowed him to board the ferry. He mentally noted the soldiers being unloaded by the Royal Navy ships and marching along the riverbank. When the ferry docked, Nathan stepped off and found himself standing on one of the city’s bustling streets. Almost immediately, he was surrounded by thousands of British and Hessian soldiers patrolling the shops and taverns near the waterfront. He pulled out a notepad and started drawing maps of the city’s layout. On each street, he referenced the various units he saw passing by. At the edge of the city, he observed new fortifications emerging. Seeing they were formidable, he hurriedly drew scaled models of the forts. By September 20th he believed he had the information General Washington required and returned to Brooklyn in hopes of safely reaching the Schuyler and American lines. Sadly, he never made it that far.
As he made his way back across Long Island, Nathan had the bad luck to run into Robert Rogers, one of Britain’s most ruthless Tory commanders. The young undercover captain was sitting inside a Huntington tavern when Rogers, having received reports of a spy, entered the tavern dressed similarly to Hale and sat down next to him. In an attempt to draw the captain out, Rogers told Nathan how he was on a similar mission to aid America. Naively, Nathan believed Rogers and shared his orders with the Tory commander. Satisfied with his work, Rogers invited Nathan to breakfast the next morning, and when Nathan showed up, Rogers arrested the young man and took him back to New York. In the late afternoon Nathan appeared before General Howe and “at once declared his name, his rank in the American army, and his object in coming within British lines.” He only expressed regret “that I had not been able to serve my country better.”
Even though he admired Nathan’s forthrightness, there was but one sentence Howe could order for a spy. He declared Nathan would be hanged the next morning and summarily denied Nathan’s requests for a chaplain and a Bible. The former schoolteacher spent his last night in a greenhouse not far from Howe’s headquarters. At 11:00 the next morning, September 22nd, he was marched to an apple orchard near the British artillery park and asked if he had any final words. Though often misquoted, he stated he was “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.” Moments later his body hung limp from the tree, and he was buried in an unmarked grave. His final resting place may be unknown, but the memory of this patriot is not.
The United States owes its very birth and continued existence to heroic individuals like Nathan Hale. He did not shirk his duty when his country asked him to serve. He did not dismiss being a spy because it did not meet with his view of honorable warfare. Instead, he treated the position as a badge of honor. If his country needed a spy to advance the cause of freedom, he would selflessly accept it and do his best to carry out his mission. To the very end, as he faced his own death, his only thought was the service he wished to render his beloved country.