Nathan Hale
hanged by the British as an American spy

1755 - 1776

Nathan Hale was an American patriot of the Revolutionary War. He was hanged by the British as an American spy when he was only 21 years old. His conduct and his courage have made him one of America's most-remembered heroes.

Hale, one of 12 children, was born in Coventry, Connecticut, on June 6, 1755. He had an athletic body and a calm, pious temperament. As a boy, he enjoyed taking part in sports competitions.

Hale also took advantage of opportunities for education. He prepared for college and learned the classics under the tutorship of Joseph Huntington, a clergyman. In 1769, Hale entered Yale College. After graduation in 1773, he taught school for a year at East Haddam, Connecticut. He then moved to New London, Connecticut.

Although Hale was highly successful in his teaching, he was also deeply concerned about American rights. In July 1775, he received a lieutenant's commission from the Connecticut assembly and helped in the siege of Boston. When the British forces evacuated Boston and entered the New York area, Hale, along with other patriot soldiers, went there to meet the new threat. By this time, he had become a captain in the Continental Army. Hale's resourceful leadership, especially in capturing a supply-loaded vessel from under the guns of a British warship, won him a place in a select fighting group called the Rangers. The Rangers were known for their daring leadership and fighting qualities in dangerous missions.

Unknown to Hale or anyone else, the time had come for a dramatic moment of the Revolutionary War. General George Washington asked the Rangers' commander to select a man to pass through the British lines to obtain information on the British position. The commander called for a volunteer. Hale agreed to undertake the mission.

Disguising himself in civilian clothes as a Dutch schoolmaster, Hale succeeded in crossing the British lines. He obtained the information that Washington requested. But as Hale returned to the American lines on Sept. 21, 1776, he was captured by the British. Many believe that Hale's cousin, an ardent British loyalist, betrayed him.

Hale was taken before General William Howe, the British commander. Howe saw that Hale was out of uniform and condemned him to hang the next day as a spy. With remarkable calmness of mind and spirit, Hale prepared for his execution. Before the hanging he made a speech. Historians are not sure what Hale really said. According to tradition, he ended his speech with the inspiring words, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

There are several Hale monuments. A boulder marks Halesite near Huntington, New York, where it is believed Hale was captured. A Nathan Hale Homestead stands in South Coventry, Connecticut.

Contributor: James Kirby Martin, Ph.D., Prof. of History, Univ. of Houston.

Additional resources

Brown, Marion. Young Nathan. Westminster, 1949. For younger readers.

Darrow, Jane. Nathan Hale: A Story of Loyalties. Century Co., 1932. Suitable for younger readers.

Johnston, Henry P. Nathan Hale, 1776: Biography and Memorials. Rev. ed. Yale, 1914. A standard work.


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