The Life of Nathan Hale: Revolutionary War Soldier and Spy

Detail of Nathan Hale Memorial by Frederick William MacMonnies
Gail Mooney/Corbis/VCG / Getty Images

Nathan Hale (June 6, 1755 — September 22, 1776), the official state hero of Connecticut, lived a brief but impactful life. After graduating from Yale University in 1775, Hale sought employment as a schoolteacher and later joined the 7th Connecticut Regiment. When the Continental Army needed someone to gather information from behind enemy lines, Hale volunteered. Within a week, he was captured and hanged. He is remembered as a hero of the Revolutionary War and is perhaps best known for the statement, "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country."

Early Years & Personal Life

Yale University Old Campus
peterspiro / Getty Images

The second son of Richard Hale and Elizabeth Strong Hale, Nathan Hale was born in Coventry, Connecticut. His parents were staunch Puritans, and his upbringing was that of a typical young man in New England in the 18th century. Richard and Elizabeth sent Nathan to school, instilling in him the values of a well-rounded education, hard work, and religious piety.

When Nathan Hale was fourteen, he and his brother Enoch went off to Yale College, where they studied debate and literature. Both Nathan and Enoch were members of the secretive Linonia Society, a Yale debate club that met regularly to discuss both classical and contemporary topics. One of Nathan’s classmates at Yale was Benjamin Tallmadge. Tallmadge eventually became America’s first spymaster, organizing the Culper espionage ring at George Washington’s behest.

In 1773, Nathan Hale graduated from Yale with honors at age 18. He soon found employment as a schoolteacher in the town of East Haddon, then moved to a school in the port city of New London.

The Making of an Unlikely Hero

nathan hale at city hall, nyc, ny
Rudi Von Briel / Getty Images

In 1775, two years after Hale graduated from Yale, the Revolutionary War began. Hale enlisted in his local militia, where he was rapidly promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. Although his militia moved on to the siege of Boston, Hale stayed behind in New London; his teaching contract did not end until July 1775.

However, in early July, Hale received a letter from his old classmate, Benjamin Tallmadge, now serving as General George Washington’s aide de camp. Tallmadge wrote about the glory of serving God and country, and inspired Hale to enlist in the regular Continental Army, where he was commissioned as a First Lieutenant in the 7th Connecticut Regiment.

By January of the following year, Hale had been promoted to the rank of Captain, and under the command of General Charles Webb, the 7th Connecticut Regiment moved to Manhattan in the spring of 1776. Washington had moved his entire army there following the British siege of Boston because he believed that New York City would be the next target. Sure enough, in August, the British moved in, occupying Brooklyn and much of Long Island. Washington was at a loss as to what to do next — he needed someone to gather intelligence from behind enemy lines. Nathan Hale volunteered.

In September 1776, Hale left his post with the Continental Army. He was carrying books and papers to identify him as a teacher — a natural disguise for him — and made his way from Harlem Heights to Norwalk, Connecticut. On September 12, Hale ferried across Long Island Sound to the village of Huntington, which sits on the north shore of the island. 

While in Huntington, Hale played the role of an itinerant teacher looking for employment, while simultaneously attempting to gather information about enemy troop movements on Long Island. 

Capture and Execution

State of Nathan Hale in front of the Department of Justice, Washington D.C.
Carol M. Highsmith / Library of Congress

On September 15, the British took the southernmost part of Manhattan, and Washington’s army retreated to Harlem Heights. At some point that week, Hale’s true identity was discovered. There are several different accounts of how this may have happened. Nancy Finley, of the Connecticut History website, says,

“He left his uniform, commission, and official papers behind in Norwalk, and, dressed as a schoolmaster in a plain brown suit and a round hat... He should have made a convincing schoolmaster since he taught school for two years before joining the army, but he asked too many questions and soon aroused suspicion.”

One legend is that Nathan Hale's cousin, a loyalist named Samuel Hale, spotted him and reported him to British authorities on Long Island. Another possibility is that Major Robert Rogers, an officer in the Queen’s Rangers, recognized Hale in a tavern and lured him into a trap. Regardless, Nathan Hale was arrested near Flushing Bay, in Queens, and taken to the headquarters of General William Howe for questioning.

According to reports, physical evidence of reconnaissance activities was found on Nathan Hale at the time of his arrest. He was in possession of maps, drawings of fortifications, and lists of enemy troop numbers. At the time, spies were considered illegal non-combatants, and espionage was a hanging offense.

On September 22, 1776, twenty-one-year-old Nathan Hale was escorted down the Post Road to a tavern near what is now the corner of Third Avenue and 66th Street, where he was hanged from a tree. 

General Howe ordered that Hale’s body be left hanging for a few days in order to send a message to the Continental Army and Washington’s supporters. Once his corpse was cut down, Hale was buried in an unmarked grave.

That Famous Quote

Nathan Hale Statue, St. Paul, Minnesota
Jon Platek / Wikimedia Commons

After Hale’s death, reports began to surface that his final words had been the now-famous line, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” A few of variations of this “but one life to give” speech have trickled out over the years, including:

  • “At the gallows, he made a sensible and spirited speech; among other things, told them they were shedding the blood of the innocent, and that if he had ten thousand lives, he would lay them all down, if called to it, in defence of his injured, bleeding Country.” –The Essex Journal
  • “I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged, that my only regret is, that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.”  –The Independent Chronicle

There is no official record of what Hale actually said. However, historical sources support the idea that he gave a noble and memorable final speech.

Legacy

Printed illustration depicting Nathan Hale's final speech.
"Last Words of Captain Nathan Hale, the Hero-Martyr of the American Revolution.". Digital Public Library of America / New York Public Library

By all accounts, Nathan Hale wasn’t very good at being a spy. After all, he was involved in espionage for only a week, and his efforts didn’t end well. However, by volunteering to risk his life by gathering information behind enemy lines, Hale gained a reputation as an immensely brave and loyal patriot. 

Although there are no existing portraits of Nathan Hale created during his lifetime, there are a number of statues in his honor across New England. Many of these statues are based upon a physical description found in the memoirs of a former college classmate.

On October 1, 1985, Nathan Hale was designated as the official state hero of Connecticut

 

Key Takeaways

Men Dressed as American Revolutionary War Soldiers During Historical Reenactment
Bob Krist / Getty Images
  • Nathan Hale graduated from Yale in 1773 at age 18. He took a job as a schoolteacher and later enlisted in the 7th Connecticut Regiment.
  • Hale volunteered to go behind enemy lines to gather information for the Continental Army.
  • Nathan Hale was captured and executed as a spy at age 21. 
  • Hale is best known for a quote that was allegedly his final statement: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country." There is no official record of Hale's last words.

Selected Sources

Nathan Hale Schoolhouse.
Stephen Saks / Getty Images

Biography of Nathan Hale, Biography.com.

Nathan Hale: The Man and the Legend, by Nancy Finley, ConnecticutHistory.org.

Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of America's First Spy, by M. William Phelps. ForEdge Publishing (Reprint), 2015.

A Hale Of A Hero: Nathan Hale And The Fight For Liberty, by Becky Akers, Forbes.com,.

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Wigington, Patti. "The Life of Nathan Hale: Revolutionary War Soldier and Spy." ThoughtCo, May. 4, 2018, thoughtco.com/biography-of-nathan-hale-4163873. Wigington, Patti. (2018, May 4). The Life of Nathan Hale: Revolutionary War Soldier and Spy. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-nathan-hale-4163873 Wigington, Patti. "The Life of Nathan Hale: Revolutionary War Soldier and Spy." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-nathan-hale-4163873 (accessed May 20, 2018).