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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Nathan Hale Volunteers To Spy, September 10, 1776

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Today in 1776, Nathan Hale became the United States' first spy when he volunteered for a mission that would cost him his life. He is remembered today not for his final mission, but for the honorable way in which he met his death.

Nathan Hale was 21 years old during the summer of 1776 and was a captain in the Continental Army. During August and September the colonists fought and lost the Battle of Long Island, which resulted in the British occupation of New York City. George Washington ordered a retreat to the northern tip of Manhattan to the area now known as Morningside Heights. While the Continental Army was in no shape to meet the reinforced British Army, there was a need to discover exactly what assets were arrayed on the southern tip of Manhattan, Long and Staten Islands. Hale volunteered to sneak behind enemy lines and report British troop movements.

On September 10, 1776, while the Continental Army was still making their retreat out of New York, Hale landed on the northern part of Long Island near Huntington Bay and assumed his role as a Dutch schoolmaster. As proof of his profession, he carried his real diploma from Yale. He began traveling around the area, monitoring British activities and talking to local people who might have useful information.

On the evening of September 21, a fire broke out in Manhattan. In what would become known as the Great New York Fire of 1776, 25% of lower portion of the island was consumed. The British assumed that American rebels had set the fires, but there was no evidence of this. In truth, George Washington had asked for permission to burn the city during his retreat to the north, but the Continental Congress had denied him permission to do so. It has also been theorized that the fire was started by British soldiers, but this theory is also without support.

Regardless of the cause of the tragedy, it served as the impetus for the British to round up American partisans in the city. According to Consider Tiffany, a Loyalist living near a tavern frequented by Hale during his mission, Hale met a British officer, Major Robert Rogers. Rogers soon saw through Hale's disguise and convinced the younger man that he, too, was a patriot. Hale was lured from the tavern and arrested near Flushing Bay, which is today part of Queens, New York.

Hale was questioned by General William Howe, the British general in charge of all British forces in the area. Enough physical evidence was found on Hale that little doubt remained as to what his real purpose. After spending the night locked in a greenhouse located near the General's headquarters, he was marched off the premises marked for execution.

Most of what we know of Nathan Hale's hanging comes to us from John Montresor, a British soldier who witnessed the event. He later told the story to Continental Army officers, who spread the word of Hale's courage. In history classes during grade school and high school, most Americans are told that Hale said one thing before his hanging:

"I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

Assuming this is correct, then it is a paraphrasing of a passage from the play Cato, which was very popular among American patriots and was said to be George Washington's favorite play. While we will never know if this is exactly what Hale said, Robert MacKensie, a British officer who was present that day, wrote in his diary:

"He behaved with great composure and resolution..."

There are three locations in Manhattan which claim to be the site on which Nathan Hale was hanged. The first is the modern intersection of 66th and Third Streets; the second is at City Hall Park, where a statue of Hale stands today; and on the property of the Yale Club at 44th and Vanderbilt.

Today Nathan Hale has several schools named for him in the United States. Also, the Lafayette-class submarine USS Nathan Hale was named after the patriot.

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