Nathan Hale: A True Patriot
“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Those were the reported final words of 21-year-old Captain Nathan Hale before he was executed by the British for spying on September 22, 1776.
Born in Coventry, Connecticut in 1755, Hale was a graduate of Yale College and a schoolmaster. He was also one of six brothers who stepped forward to serve during the American Revolution. Although he enlisted in early July 1775, Hale spent over a year in the army without seeing any action. An ardent Patriot, he was determined to contribute to the American cause in a meaningful way and accepted an opportunity that he hoped would allow him to do just that.
After the British scored a crushing victory over the Americans at the Battle of Brooklyn Heights in late August 1776, Crown forces held Long Island and General George Washington’s Continental Army maintained a very fragile existence in Manhattan. Desperate for information on the enemy, orders from Washington called for a volunteer to go behind British lines and gather intelligence for the Americans. Despite the attempts of a fellow Connecticut officer who tried to talk him out of it, Nathan Hale volunteered to carry out the mission.
Disguised as a Dutch schoolmaster searching for work, Hale made his way over to the British side. Although he was brave, the young soldier’s lack of knowledge in the art of espionage doomed his efforts. As historian David McCullough writes, “Apparently it was from naïvely confiding the truth of his mission to the wrong people that led to his capture.”
After his arrest, Hale admitted to being a spy and he was promptly ordered to be hanged without trial. On the morning of September 22, 1776, he was taken to an artillery park at what is now Third Avenue and 66th Street in Manhattan to be executed. It was here that he reportedly declared his immortal final words before he was hanged from a tree: “I only regret that I have but one life to lost for my country.”
To this day, Nathan Hale remains an enduring symbol of the unbreakable American spirit. In 1985, he was officially designated as Connecticut’s state hero.
1776 by David McCullough
Connecticuthistory.org: Nathan Hale: The Man and Legend.