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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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? 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.
Nathan engaged to his step-sister?
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.
Nathan Hale betrayed by his cousin Samuel?
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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
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?
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.
Nathan Hale buried?
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.
after his death, Nathan's family erected a cenotaph in the
Coventry cemetery to honor his memory."
Click here for
a larger view of
Nathan Hale born at Hale Homestead?
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