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A Look Back … The Story of Nathan Hale

Since the 19th century, Nathan Hale has been widely viewed as an American hero. He was the first American executed for spying for his country. Statues of him stand in New York City, at Yale University, and at the Central Intelligence Agency's headquarters. Schoolchildren once memorized his alleged final words, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

After graduation from Yale in 1773, Hale taught school in Connecticut, and was promoted to captain in that state's contingent of the Continental Army. In mid-September 1776, he landed on Long Island to spy on the British, who had just driven George Washington and his Continentals out of New York City. Hale's brother, Enoch, soon infiltrated British lines and learned on Sept. 30 that Nathan had been hanged a week earlier.

What happened to Nathan Hale has always been a little obscure. Until recently, the only real evidence about Hale's fate came from British sources. An orderly book reported that he was apprehended on Sept. 21 and hanged without trial at 11 a.m. on Sept. 22, 1776. The diary of British officer Lt. Frederick Mackenzie confirmed this report and added that Hale had been arrested on Long Island.

In 1933, a third piece of evidence emerged in the diary of British Captain William Bamford, who stated that Hale had been "taken by Major Rogers." Rogers was the famous Robert Rogers who led Rogers' Rangers, guerrillas who had wreaked havoc on the American Colonies' enemies during the French and Indian War of 1754-63. A native of New Hampshire, Rogers failed in business in England and returned to North America in 1775 seeking a commission in the Continental Army, but was not trusted. Eventually, British general William Howe commissioned him to create another ranger regiment in New York. He spent the month of September 1776 roaming Long Island for recruits.

More evidence emerged in 2000 when the Library of Congress obtained the manuscript of a history of the American Revolution written by Connecticut loyalist and storekeeper Consider Tiffany, someone who knew Nathan Hale. In Tiffany's tale, Hale met with Rogers, who suspected him as a possible patriot sympathizer. Rogers pretended to be a patriot himself and got Hale to reveal his mission. Rogers then arranged for Hale to meet with other "patriots" the next evening, when he was promptly arrested. Several loyalists from Connecticut recognized Hale as he was marched to New York City to be hanged.

Hale's bravery has made him an icon, but his skills as an intelligence officer have long been seen as lacking (indeed, he was given virtually no training for his perilous mission). Director of Central Intelligence William Casey later pointed to the Revolutionary spy Hercules Mulligan as a better role model than Hale for American intelligence officers. Mulligan was a "stay-behind" agent who reported successfully on the British from their capture of New York City in 1776 until they left New York at the end of the Revolutionary War seven years later.

 

 


Historical Document
Posted: Sep 20, 2007 09:13 AM
Last Updated: Jun 20, 2008 08:59 AM