Frequently Asked Questions

Was Nathan a bad spy?
Why would Nathan Hale take on such a mission?
Who captured Nathan?
Was Nathan engaged to his step-sister?
 
Was Nathan Hale betrayed by his cousin Samuel?
Was Nathan Hale involved in the burning of New York?
 
How do we know what Nathan said at his execution?
What is the difference between a spy and a military scout?  
Where was Nathan Hale buried?
Was Nathan Hale born at Hale Homestead?

What did Nathan look like?   

By all accounts Nathan Hale was handsome; surviving portraits of other family members reveal good-looking people.  Perhaps the most detailed description of him comes from one of the soldiers who served with him in the Revolutionary War, Lt. Elisha Bostwick:
"I can now in imagination see his person & hear his voice his person I should say was a little above the common stature in height, his shoulders of a moderate breadth, his limbs straight & very plump: regular features very fair skin - blue eyes - flaxen or very light hair which was always kept short his eyebrows a shade darker than his hair & his voice rather sharp or piercing his bodily agility war remarkable I have seen him follow a football & kick it over the tops of the trees in the Bowery at New York, (an exercise which he was fond of) his mental powers seemed to be above the common sort his mind of a sedate and sober cast, & he was undoubtedly Pious; for it was remark’d that when any of the soldiers of his company were sick he always visited them & usually Prayed for & with them in their sickness.

“A little anecdote I will relate; one day he accidentally came across some of his men in a bye place Playing Cards he spoke what are you doing this won’t do, give me your cards, they did so, & he chopd them to pieces, & it was done in such a manner that the men were rather pleased than otherwise his activity on all occations was wonderful he would make a pen the quickest & best of any man…”

Was Nathan a bad spy?  Most writers on Hale assume that Nathan was inept as a spy, too honest to lie, sent on a mission impossible and premature.  Some writers say that the whole reason for the mission to gather information about British fortifications on Long Island was obviated when the British gained control of Manhattan, which they had on the eve of Nathan’s departure.

 In fact, almost nothing is known of the nature of Nathan’s mission(s) or what he may have accomplished during the spring and summer of 1776.  Key narrators of the story based their information on hearsay or newspaper accounts and spoke many years after the event.  Still, it can be argued that the only spies we’ll ever know about are the failed ones.

It has usually been assumed that the Americans had little or no organized undercover network in 1776.  Yet in the spring and summer of 1776, while the Americans were digging in for a siege in New York and the British amassing troops for a rout, there was another war being waged in the coffeehouses, taverns, and in the press.   New York was a spy center.  In the 1920s Morton Pennypacker pieced together Washington’s successful undercover operations and discovered the secret identities of two important American operatives, who with others had worked for intelligence officer Benjamin Tallmadge, Hale’s schoolmate and a fellow teacher before the war. Pennypacker concluded that although the date when systematic American intelligence began remains uncertain, it was in place earlier and in a more efficient manner than historians have credited.

Why would Nathan Hale take on such a mission?   As students of Latin and Greek literature, Hale and his friends were profoundly affected by stories of classical heroes and wanted to copy their actions on behalf of American liberty.  That Nathan Hale was patriotic there can be no doubt.  He was deeply committed to the cause of freedom and accepted that the path to victory would not be easy.  “You are a larger lump of Ideas than I am,” wrote Benjamin Tallmadge, friend and classmate of Nathan’s. 

Everything we know about Hale from documents and letters gives a picture of an informed, practical, detail-oriented young man who may not have been a tactical genius but was assuredly informed and not unsophisticated.  Thoughtful and idealistic, his journal, accounts, and letters reveal a careful person in the habit of studying a thing before undertaking it.  Nathan repeatedly sought the advice of those he respected before making  a move.  Hale was also no suicidal fanatic with nothing to lose.  A number of early writers collected interviews with surviving friends of  Nathan’s  Their collective picture  is summed up by one writer:  “No young man of his years put forth a fairer promise of future usefulness and celebrity; the fortunes of none were fostered more sincerely by the generous good wishes of his associates, and the hopes and encouraging presages of his superiors.” 

Perhaps Nathan’s reasons can best be summed up by his nephew:   “It was not chivalry, nor the love of fame, nor the desire of ladies’ love, nor honor as it is generally understood, that moved him.  …It was a deep sense of duty which moved those men.”    

Who captured Nathan?  

Who captured Nathan?  Information is sketchy and comes from British records.  The most detailed report has Nathan being captured around Long Island by Major Robert Rogers, hero of the French and Indian War, turned Loyalist Ranger.  Nathan was then transported to British headquarters in New York City and hanged the next morning.

Was Nathan engaged to his step-sister?

Nineteenth-century romantic stories of Hale often have him engaged to someone.  The descendants of his step-sister, Alicia Adams, have made this claim, which lacks evidence.  

Was Nathan Hale betrayed by his cousin Samuel?

According to an early newspaper account, Nathan was betrayed to the British by his first cousin, a Loyalist from Newburyport, Mass., Samuel Hale. Other believers of the betrayal story were boyhood friend and camp attendant,  Asher Wright and a friend from New London, Stephen Hempstead.   Wright in his  82nd year  dictated his story and talked of Nathan;  “Some say his cousin, Samuel Hale, a tory, betrayed him,  I don’t know; guess he did.”

Hempstead’s story echoes the same theme.  “He was met in the crowd by a fellow-countryman, and an own relation (but a tory and a renegado) who had received the hospitality of ths board, and the attention of a brother from Captain Hale, at Hs quarters at Winter Hill, in Cambridge, the winter before.  He recognized him, and most inhumanely and infamously betrayed him…”

Both men were of sterling character and were close to Nathan, however, their stories were told in their much later years and with Hempstead contain some factual errors. 

 Samuel was indeed in New York at this time, and he was employed by the British, but after the war, Samuel firmly denied any part in Nathan’s death.  Depend upon it there never was the least truth in that infamous newspaper publication chargeing me with ingratitude, &c.  I am happy that they have had recourse to falsehood to vilify my character.  Attachment tp the old Constitution of my country is my only crime with them…”  Nathan’s father disbelieved the newspaper account, though he assumed his son had been pointed out to British by someone.  “Betra’d he doutless wass by somebody…”  Since Nathan carried his own diploma, however, a villain need not have been involved.  Still, the story of the betrayal has found acceptance among many writers and makes for an interesting subplot.  

Was Nathan Hale involved in the burning of New York?

Some historians have claimed that Hale was involved in setting the fire which burned over a quarter of New York City  the night preceding Hale’s capture but there is no  evidence of this.  British records of his capture describe Hale as a spy, captured on Long Island which puts him no where near the scene of the fire.  The fire however certainly contributed to Nathan’s capture making the British more alert to anyone trying to leave the area.     

How do we know what Nathan said at his execution? 

Nathan’s death and last words were reported to the American lines by a British officer and aide-de-camp to Gen. William Howe, Capt. John Montressor, under a flag of truce.  Montressor had invited Hale into his tent in the last moments before his execution, had allowed him to write some last letters, and had then witnessed the hanging.  Nathan’s friend, Capt. William Hull had learned of Hale’s execution and asked to take the return letter to the British side and thus learned the details from Montressor in person.     

What is the difference between a spy and a military scout?

Not all spies are scouts, but any scout may act as a spy when the need arises.  Scouts are often in uniform; spies not though it should be noted that many American soldiers in the Revolutionary War lacked uniforms in any event.  Scouts did not operate under an assumed identity; did not generally write in code or use cyphers.    The nature of the scouts’ reconnaissance usually had more to do with gathering info on the location, numbers, and fortifications of the enemy than with inside information from other operatives.  In this sense, Hale may have been acting more as a scout than as a spy but it was a distinction of no interest to the British.  

Where was 
Nathan Hale buried?

After Nathan was hanged, his body was left there for three days a typical custom of the day. His body was then cut down and thrown into an unmarked grave.  His remains have never been found.  

"Years after his death, Nathan's family erected a cenotaph in the Coventry cemetery to honor his memory."

Click here for  a larger view of the "cenotaph"



Was Nathan Hale born at Hale Homestead?

Nathan Hale was born at the Homestead but not in the existing house which dates to 1776.  In that year the family rebuilt their home, recycling parts of the old house into the new one.  “Tore down old house, eyebrow hurt,” writes one Hale brother in November of 1776.  Family records and archaeological evidence suggest the original house was just southeast of the current structure.   A 100-foot long lengthy ell projecting from the rear of this building is believed to incorporate portions of the original farmhouse in which Nathan grew up".