How beautiful is death, when earn’d by virtue!
Who would not be that youth? What pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our country.
Joseph Addison, Cato (1712)
At age 21 Captain Nathan Hale was already marked as a man on the rise. A graduate of Yale, he was an early advocate of advanced education for women and had taught a class of college level subjects to twenty young ladies prior to the War. With the coming of the War he enlisted as a First Lieutenant in the 7th Connecticut regiment. During the battle of Long Island he distinguished himself by leading a raid seeking to burn the frigate HMS Phoenix. The raid failed in its main goal but several tenders of the frigate were destroyed and four cannon and six swivel guns were captured.
Due to his enterprise and courage Hale was invited to join the Ranger unit being formed by Colonel Thomas Knowlton. The ancestral outfit of modern American Army Rangers, Knowlton’s Rangers specialized in reconnaissance and raids and were given their orders directly by General Washington. On September 10, 1776 Knowlton brought to his officers a personal request from Washington that one of them volunteer to spy in New York to bring him back accurate intelligence on what the British army would do next. His request was met with stony silence. These were brave men, but they regarded the work of a spy morally dubious and a death by hanging if discovered, the fate of a common felon rather than a soldier. Hale, the youngest man present, broke the silence and said simply that he would do it. Captain William Hull, later a Major General in the War of 1812, remonstrated with his friend: “He said to him that it was not in the line of his duty, and that he was of too frank and open a temper to act successfully the part of a spy, or to face its dangers, which would probably lead to a disgraceful death.” Hale replied, “I wish to be useful, and every kind of service necessary to the public good becomes honorable by being necessary. If the exigencies of my country demand a peculiar service, its claim to perform that service are imperious.”
He was soon captured by the British after he arrived in New York, perhaps betrayed by his Tory cousin Samuel Hale. Interviewed by General Howe, his fate was a foregone conclusion: spies were always to be executed.
The night before he died he requested a Bible and a member of the clergy. Both requests were denied. According to British officer Frederick MacKensie, who was present, Hale met his death on September 22, 1776 with great fortitude:
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.
At the foot of the gallows, before he entered eternity, he uttered the comment that has ensured that his memory will be cherished as long as their is a United States of America. British Captain John Montresor, who was present, told under a flag of truce to American Captain William Hull the next day:
“On the morning of his execution, my station was near the fatal spot, and I requested the Provost Marshal 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.””
Then the light of the rising sun vanished before the eyes of Nathan Hale, but not, I trust, either the light of the Grace of God or the light of the American Revolution.