“I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country”
In 1755 a son was born to Richard Hale and Elizabeth Strong in Coventry, Connecticut. Nathan Hale would not live on this earth very long, but he lives forever in the hearts of America’s patriots. His final words echo through the centuries, stirring men to sacrifice and persevere. A highly intelligent young man, he was sent to Yale at the age of 14. It was there he would form a bond of brotherhood with Benjamin Tallmadge, who would also distinguish himself in the American Revolution.
Nathan stood just under six feet tall, with bright blue eyes, and was in favor with the ladies. He was well rounded in achievement, balancing his academic success with athletics. He was a wrestler, played football, and set records in broad jumping. Liberty was near and dear to his heart, and the correspondence that exists tells a tale of young men with fire in their hearts, burning for freedom.
“Liberty is our reigning Topic, which loudly calls upon every one to Exert his Tallants & abilities to the utmost in defending of it — now is the time for heros — now is the time for great men to immortalize their names in the deliverance of their Country, and grace the annals of America with their glorious Deeds.” — James Hillhouse to Nathan Hale, July 11, 1774
Nathan volunteered with the militia, and planned to leave when his teaching contract was up. Benjamin Tallmadge wrote him after the Siege of Boston; “Was I in your condition, I think the more extensive service would be my choice. Our holy Religion, the honor of our God, a glorious country, & a happy constitution is what we have to defend.”
This letter on July 4, 1775, inspired the young teacher to ride into legend, and join the war. Within a few days of receiving the letter, Hale accepted a commission as first lieutenant in the 7th Connecticut Regiment under Colonel Charles Webb of Stamford.
In the spring of 1776 New York was under attack. General Washington desperately needed someone to sneak into the occupied areas and report on the British troop movements. This was the most dangerous task he could ask of a man, as any spy caught out of uniform was subject to summary execution, generally on the spot. Only one man was brave enough to volunteer, Nathan Hale. He answered Washington’s call on September 8, 1776, and was ferried into New York City on September 12. The city fell September 15, leaving him behind enemy lines, and a few days later the city burned in a massive fire, blamed on revolutionaries. In retaliation, 200 partisans were rounded up by the British, although some historians suspect the British may have started the fire themselves. Nathan had a loyalist cousin named Samuel Hale, and against this backdrop it is believed he tipped off the British to the presence of his Patriot relative.
The story goes that Major Robert Rogers of the Queen’s Rangers saw Hale in a tavern and recognized him despite his disguise, and he apprehended Hale near Flushing Bay in Queens, New York. Hale had evidence on his person of espionage, which was given to General William Howe, who questioned Hale at the Beekman House in Manhattan. That evening Hale requested a bible, and a clergyman, both requests were denied.
On the morning of September 22, 1776, Hale was marched along Post Road to the Park of Artillery, which was next to a public house called the Dove Tavern (at modern-day 66th St and 3rd Ave). Bill Richmond, a 13-year-old former slave and Loyalist who later became a boxer in Europe, was reportedly one of the hangmen, responsible for securing the rope to a strong tree and preparing the noose. At the age of 21 years old, Nathan Hale was hung by the neck until dead.
From the memoirs of Captain William Hull, quoting British Captain John Montresor, who was present and who spoke to Hull under a flag of truce the next day:
“On the morning of his execution,” continued the officer, “my station was near the fatal spot, and I requested the Provost Marshal [William Cunningham] to permit the prisoner to sit in my marquee, while he was making the necessary preparations. Captain Hale entered: he was calm, and bore himself with gentle dignity, in the consciousness of rectitude and high intentions. He asked for writing materials, which I furnished him: he wrote two letters, one to his mother and one to a brother officer. He was shortly after summoned to the gallows. But a few persons were around him, yet his characteristic dying words were remembered. He said, ‘I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country.'”
“To the Memory of Capt. Nathan Hale”
by Eneas Munson, Sr.
“Hate of oppression’s arbitrary plan,
The love of freedom, and the rights of man;
A strong desire to save from slavery’s chain
The future millions of the western main,
And hand down safe, from men’s invention cleared,
The sacred truths which all the just revered;
For ends like these, I wish to draw my breath,”
He bravely cried, “or dare encounter death.”
And when a cruel wretch pronounced his doom,
Replied, “‘Tis well, —for all is peace to come;
The sacred cause for which I drew my sword
Shall yet prevail, and peace shall be restored.
I’ve served with zeal the land that gave me birth,
Fulfilled my course, and done my work on earth;
Have ever aimed to tread that shining road
That leads a mortal to the blessed God.
I die resigned, and quit life’s empty stage,
For brighter worlds my every wish engage;
And while my body slumbers in the dust,
My soul shall join the assemblies of the just.”