Nathan Hale was born in Connecticut in 1755. Before his fourteenth birthday, he and his brother, Enoch, were sent to Yale University to get an education. Nathan’s father was a minister and planned for Nathan to follow in his footsteps.
At Yale, Nathan became close friends with Benjamin Tallmadge and William Hull, a man who worked with Tallmadge. Hale’s university days created in him a desire to be free from the rule of the British Crown as it did with most of his contemporaries. When he graduated, instead of becoming a minister, he took a job teaching at a private school in East Haddam.
When war broke out, Hale was reluctant to join the army, but at the urging of Tallmadge in a letter, joined up in 1775. For the next year, he saw no action. It disturbed him because he felt he was doing nothing to further the independence of the American Colonies.
In September, Washington was desperate for intelligence about the British troop movements in Manhattan. That information would determine his next move. He asked for volunteers. At that time, most didn’t consider spying a respectable occupation, and nobody was willing to volunteer for such a dangerous mission. Nathan Hale, who was eager to do something to help his country, stepped up and said he would do it.
Hale snuck into Manhattan and got the information he needed. Before heading back, he stopped at a tavern where he was recognized by Robert Rogers, commander of Rogers’ Rangers. Earlier, Rogers had attempted to get free passage behind enemy lines, telling Washington he was a patriot. His real intentions were to spy for the British. Washington denied his request, but during that time, he had seen Hale in uniform.
Rogers needed proof Hale was a spy and invited him to his home where he informed Hale that he was a patriot. Hale fell into the trap, and was arrested. After admitting he was a spy, he was sentenced to hang by General William Howe.
When Hale was at the gallows, the last sight he probably saw was New York City burning. A fire had started accidently, but knowing it would help the Americans, many patriot civilians started more fires or did things to slow the British in putting out the fires. Many of these patriots were captured and executed. The fire did stop the British from taking up residence in the city.
Hale’s last words were immortalized as the sentiment of American Patriots. “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” This quote is reported by Tallmadge and Hull, Hale’s friends who were not present at the execution. The quote is probably a condensed quote of what he really said. Hull and Tallmadge were at the site shortly after the execution to facilitate a prisoner exchange and talked to a British officer, John Montresor about what Hale’s last words were. Others reported other things Hale may have said, so his speech was longer than the reported quote.
Frederick MacKensie, a British officer, wrote this diary entry for the day, “He behaved with great composure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good Officer, to obey any orders given him by his Commander-in-Chief; and desired the Spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.”
Whatever the case, at his death, Hale was a patriot and the first American spy executed for his exploits of bravery.