“Not that Washington hadn’t been impressed with Hale. Quite the opposite in fact. The passion, boldness , and just a touch of cockiness that Hale (above, Hale confers with Washington) had demonstrated seemed to Washington to perfectly encapsulate the patriot movement. But just as many questioned the American’s challenge to the British Crown, Washington, too, found himself wondering whether Hale’s fervor, while certainly admirable, was not also a little naive. Did he really know what he was getting into? The again, did any of them? The Americans had yanked the lion’s mane and now Hale had walking into one of its lairs.”
On today’s date in 1776, Captain Nathan Hale volunteered for a dangerous mission to spy on British preparations for the new Continental Army. And author Brian Kilmeade above summarizes what General George Washington was likely thinking when accepted Hale for the mission. Did Hale know what he was getting into? Indeed, did any of them?
The American Position and the Need for Intelligence
American fortunes in this revolution against our mother country had never seemed so precarious as in the autumn of 1776. From the siege, and the successful ejection of the Brits from the city of Boston in March to the bold Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, our fortunes had fallen. The strategically vital city of New York had mostly fallen into British hands in the Battle of Long Island on August 27. With the (God-sent) help of a heavy fog, Washington had managed to ferry all
9,000 of his remaining troops out of Brooklyn and to safety in Manhattan on August 30, but this was temporary safety at best. The British each day consolidated their hold on the rest of New York, and their push to eject the Americans from Manhattan, bag the whole lot, and put a quick end to these upstarts and their rebellion would come any day now. Gen. Washington badly needed intelligence on the British dispositions, and he needed it quickly. Past attempts at such intelligence gathering had been unsuccessful… what was needed was a man to go behind British lines, dressed as an average citizen, and to make what observations he could, and to listen for any idle talk that might contain useful information.
Nathan Hale Volunteers
Washington had Lt. Colonel Thomas Knowlton assemble a group of officers, and to inform them of what was needed for this mission. This was a lot to ask; capture carried with it the certainty of execution… the sure fate of spies both then and now. And in the eighteenth century, spying was looked upon as somehow beneath the dignity of a gentleman. This was a mission that required a volunteer, and nobody stepped forward at first. But just when it looked as if nobody would,
” ‘a young officer appeared, pale from the effects of recent severe sickness.’ Knowlton repeated the invitation, when almost immediately the voice of the young soldier was heard uttering the immortal words, ‘I will undertake it!’ It was the voice of Nathan Hale.” Hale (above) was a Yale graduate, and hardly looked the part of a spy. But he was filled with patriotic ardor, and had barely gotten a shot off at the Brits in his service so far. He was anxious to strike at the enemy. He said later to his friend William Hull, “… for a year I have been attached to the army and have not rendered any material service.. if the exigencies of my country demand a peculiar service its claims to perform that service are imperious.” As Alexander Rose has pointed out, friends didn’t really talk to each other in flowing words like that even in 1776. but the meaning is clear, even if the words have been dressed up.
Hale’s Mission Fails, He is Captured and Hung
Well, even the least scholarly of you know how this story ended up. The main thrust of Hale’s mission had been to collect whatever information he could on what the British plan of attack was to on Manhattan. But the British move came on September 15, a mere three days after Hale arrived in Long Island on his mission. He had little or no time to establish his cover as a Dutch Schoolmaster, let alone get any useful information to Washington on an attack which was already in progress.
Hale had to change his mission while keeping up his cover story and it all proved too much. Although the exact circum- stances of his capture are unclear, he was discovered, captured, and hung by the British on September 22,1776 (above). Legend has it that as his final words he said “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country”. As with the earlier quote about “exigencies” that quotation was likely applied by his friend William Hull, who was of course not there for Hale’s execution. The British officer who was there says that Hale “Behaved with great composure and resolution…” But again the dressed-up version was very much in the character of the man. Washington was deeply affected by Hale’s death and resolved to learn from this costly mistake, and to establish a working ring of spies in New York (see also “Washington’s Spies”).
“George Washington’s Secret Six” by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, Sentinel Publishers, New York, 2013
“Washington’s Spies” by Alexander Rose, Bantam Publishers, New York, 2006
“General Washington’s Spies” by Morton Pennypacker, Long Island Historical Society, Brooklyn, New York, 1939