Nathan Hale was the sole volunteer for the spy mission proposed by George Washington to go behind enemy lines and discover where the British planned to attack during the Battle of Long Island. Hale went undercover as a schoolteacher from Connecticut, which was exactly who he was before the Revolutionary War. He had yet to see battle, but he was still ready as ever to be of service.
Description of Nathan Hale by fellow soldier, Elisha Bostwick
Sadly, it wasn’t long before Hale was caught behind enemy lines. The stories as to how it occurred, however, are disputed. Most evidence claims that he was duped by Major Roberts of the Queen’s Rangers, who somehow recognized him and convinced Hale that he was a patriot as well. Hale, who then thought he was among friends, confessed his secret and was sent to General Howe of the British Army to be hanged. Other popular claims involve Hale’s loyalist cousin betraying him or Hale accidentally exposing himself when he flagged down the incorrect ship to take him back to Long Island.
Whatever really happened, the result was still the same: Howe ordered that Nathan Hale be hanged. However, the details regarding the execution are also argued. Hale’s own record was destroyed, and a memoir by William Hull, a college classmate of Hale, includes many particulars that he was never an eyewitness to. Hull gathered some facts from British officers who were present at the hanging, which is where the famous quote accredited to Hale comes from. On the morning of 22 September 1776, Hale went to the gallows, where he supposedly uttered these last words, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” This may have been a revision of his actual statement (which is unknown) or quoted from Cato.
Regardless of the validity of the quote, it can safely be said that Hale remained dedicated to his cause at his execution. A British officer, Frederick MacKensie, wrote in his journal for that 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.”
Discover more about Nathan Hale and his mission in the Documentary Life of Nathan Hale by George D. Seymour.