Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from The Lives of Patriots and Heroes, by John S. Jenkins (1847). At the time this book was published, the memory of Nathan Hale, and his signal death in the cause of American independence, seems to have largely faded from public knowledge in the United States. In contrast, the equally heroic self-sacrifice of the British Army spy John André was still fittingly honored in his native England. Determined to restore a martyred countryman to his merited place in the pantheon of American champions, Jenkins gives a brief account of Hale’s clandestine mission, its consequences, and the character of a doomed man whose final words still ring with unconquered fortitude.
The firmness, intrepidity, and self-sacrificing devotion of Nathan Hale, to the welfare of his country, led to one of the most interesting, though painful incidents, that transpired during the revolutionary war. The circumstances under which he came to his melancholy end, are such as reflect the highest honor on his patriotism, and demand from his countrymen, for the protection of whose liberties he freely offered up his life, that grateful remembrance of which such deeds ought ever to inspire. The memory of Andre is, at this day, fondly and faithfully cherished by the true-hearted Englishman. Honors and rewards liberally bestowed on his family, and magnificent monuments reared to commemorate his services and name, have evinced to the world that the soldier, who assumes the character of a spy, in the service of his country, is untainted with reproach or dishonor. The fate of Hale was like his, dark and unfortunate. But the fame of the one has been rescued from oblivion, while that of the other is left to struggle, unaided, against the advancing current of time. Such things should not be. America is rich in proud memories, and hallowed associations; but her gratitude should be equal to them all – not one of her “jewels” should be left unprized, or unhonored.
On the night of the 29th of August, 1776, the American troops under Washington, in consequence of their severe defeat in the battle on Long Island, left their encampment at Brooklyn, and crossed the East river, unperceived by the enemy. The advanced sentinel of the British army was surprised, on the morning of the 30th, by the unusual stillness of the American lines. Calling two or three comrades, they proceeded to reconnoitre. On creeping near the embankment, and cautiously peeping into the camp, they perceived not a vestige of the army to whose challenges they had listened the night before. The alarm was given, and the party who rushed in to take possession of the works, saw, in the middle of the river, and beyond the reach of their fire, the last of the barges which had been employed to transport the American troops; and, beyond it, Washington himself was seated in a small boat, calmly surveying the scene. The whole army, consisting of nine thousand men, with all their artillery, stores, and ammunition, were thus transported to New York, without sustaining any loss or injury.
The retreat of Washington left the British in complete possession of Long Island; and it became of the highest importance to the American commander-in-chief, to obtain immediate and accurate information in regard to the numbers of the enemy, their situation, and their future movements. For this purpose he applied to Lieutenant Colonel Knowlton, who commanded a regiment of light infantry, which formed the rear of the American army, on its retreat to Harlem, to provide him with some suitable person to cross the river in disguise, and obtain the necessary information. Colonel Knowlton at once suggested the matter to Nathan Hale, who was a native of Connecticut, and at that time a captain in the regiment.
Hale instantly volunteered to undertake the enterprise himself, and after receiving his instructions, set out for the British camp. He passed over to Long Island, examined the British Army, and obtained all the information possible respecting their disposition, and their future operations. In attempting to return to New York, his disguise was penetrated. He was immediately apprehended and taken before Sir William Howe. The proof his intentions was so clear and convincing, that he did not hesitate to avow his name and rank, and the purposes for which he visited the island. With undaunted courage he boldly declared his attachment to the American cause, and refused to compromise his integrity, by listening to the tempting offers which were held out to him to betray his country.
The usages of war required the death of Hale, and Sir William Howe issued an order to have him executed the next morning. This order was carried into effect in the most barbarous and inhuman manner. With unflinching resolution and fortitude, Hale proceeded to the place appointed. He had voluntarily assumed the character of a spy, and he was prepared to abide the consequences of detection. He requested the presence of a clergyman for a few moments previous to his death, but this was refused. He then asked for a Bible, and this request was also denied. He had written several letters on the morning of his death, to his mother, his betrothed wife, and his other friends, which he desired should be forwarded to them. These innocent messages of filial affection and love, were wantonly destroyed by the provost marshall, who declared, “that the rebels should not know they had a man in their army who could die with so much firmness!”
Without making any further efforts to move his heartless persecutors, who were unwilling to accord him the last offices of kindness and sympathy, Hale submitted quietly to his fate, declaring with his dying breath, that “he only lamented, that he had but one life to lose for his country!” Yet, to the last, he displayed a Roman firmness, worthy of all commendation. Though in the midst of tribulation, he was sustained by the proud, true soul within him, and by his reliance on that Providence who watched over and protected his countrymen through the long night of the revolution.