Nathan Hale — The Patriot Spy

Battle of Lexington, April 19, 1775. illustration by John H. Daniels & Son, 1903.

When news came of the bloodshed at Lexington, young Hale was fired with enthusiasm. He attended a rousing mass meeting that very evening and was one of the most ardent speakers. “Let us march at once,” he cried, “and never lay down our arms until we obtain our independence!”

A company was formed at white heat, and marched for Cambridge the next day. The same promptness and dispatch marked his conduct after accepting Washington’s mission. Within a few hours he had taken leave of his friends and, in company with one of his own trusted soldiers, lay in wait for an opportunity to cross Long Island Sound. This was an impossibility in the vicinity of Harlem, on account of the British spy ships patrolling the Sound. So Hale and his companion crept stealthily along the Connecticut side until Norfolk was reached — a distance of 50 miles. Here a sloop was found to carry Hale across to the other side.

En route he changed his uniform for a suit of citizen’s clothes, and landed on Long Island as a schoolmaster in search of a school. Of course, he “accidentally” stumbled into a British camp and at once began to make friends with the dragoons, who, as Hale was a most likable young fellow, received him cordially.

Thus two weeks passed away. Hale journeyed from one point to another, always keyed to the highest pitch, and scarcely sleeping at night, so anxious was he to make note of everything which might be of service to the American cause.

At last his mission was completed. He had made the rounds of the British camps and returned to his starting point, unharmed and unsuspected. He had learned all that his General desired and more, and had his drawings and notes carefully concealed in the soles of his shoes. It seemed as if he was going to get home in safety. Perhaps this fact made him the least bit careless. He was very tired and hungry, and, feeling that no one would recognize him in the schoolmaster’s garb, he ventured boldly into a tavern kept by a woman nicknamed “Mother Chick” that was the favorite loafing place of all the Tories in the vicinity. Hale should have been wise enough to keep away from such a place, but the goal was so near that our hero felt no fear. He ate a good supper and spent the night at the tavern.

Bright and early next morning Hale was up and secretly on the lookout for the boat he expected to meet him. Suddenly old Mother Chick burst into the room, crying, “Look out, boys! A strange boat is heading close in shore!” The Tories scattered like wildfire, and Hale carefully reconnoitered. It was not exactly the spot where he had arranged to meet his friends, yet it looked very much like the sloop; so he hastened down to the beach.

It was not the boat he expected, but he did not find out his mistake until he was too close to retreat, with six British marines pointing their muskets straight at him, and the cry, “Surrender or die!” ringing in his ears. Escape was impossible, and poor Hale was forced to give himself up almost in sight of victory! But he did it bravely and unflinchingly, as became a true and noble soldier, and the British captain and sailors could but admire him. When young Hale was brought before General Howe he looked him fearlessly in the eye and bravely owned that he was an American officer. He said he was sorry that he had not been able to serve his country better. Without trial of any kind, the British General condemned him to die the death of a spy.

Poor, brave boy! how cruelly brief was the time left him. Yet he took the sentence as calmly and nobly as he had the capture, but this time no words of sympathy came from the heart of his captor. He was unfeelingly turned over to Cunningham, the brutal provost-marshal, and confined, under strong guard, in the greenhouse at the rear of the mansion where Howe had his headquarters.

Here he spent the night alone, denied by his heartless keeper even the Bible he had asked for; but morning found him calm and ready. At the last moment, while preparations for his execution were being made, a young officer, moved by Hale’s noble bearing, kindly allowed him to sit in his tent long enough to write brief messages of farewell to his mother and his sweetheart. These were passed to Cunningham to be sent. After reading these sacred letters, the brutal officer tore them into shreds before the eyes of his captive, declaring that the “rebels should never know they had a man who could die so bravely.”

Hanging of Nathan Hale

Hanging of Nathan Hale

Just before sunrise September 22, 1776, on a lovely Sabbath morning, Nathan Hale was led out to die. Early as it was, a number of men and women had gathered about the apple tree which was to serve for a gallows. This, perhaps, excited the provost-marshal to more than his usual show of cruelty, for, as the doomed youth mounted the ladder, he bawled coarsely, “Give us your dying speech, you young rebel!”

Nathan Hale paused where he was, and, lifting his eyes to heaven, said in a clear, steady voice, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

So perished Captain Nathan Hale, the earliest martyr in the cause of American freedom. He gave his life fully and freely to his beloved country, and thereby won immortal fame. More than a century later a handsome statue* was erected to his memory in the city of New York. It stands in City Hall Square, one of the busiest spots of the metropolis in which he made his great sacrifice.

By I.N. McFee 1913. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated October 2019.

About the Author: This article was written in 1913 by Inez Nellie Canfield McFee,  and included in her book American Heroes From History. McFee also authored several other books on American History, poetry, birds, and more.  The articles as it appears here; however, is not verbatim as it has been edited and includes some additional information.

Also See:

American Revolution

Early American History

Jamestown – First Successful English Settlement

Heroes and Patriots of America

Settling of America – The Old Dominion

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