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The Patriot Spy






It was plain that Washington was troubled. As he paced the piazza of
the stately Murray mansion one fine autumn afternoon, he was saying
half aloud to himself, "Shall we defend or shall we quit New York?"

At this time Washington's headquarters were on Manhattan Island, at
the home of the Quaker merchant, Robert Murray; and here, in the
first week of September, 1776, he had asked his officers to meet him
in council.

Was it strange that Washington's heart was heavy? During the last
week of August, the Continental army had been defeated in the battle
of Long Island. A fourth of the army were on the sick list; a third
were without tents. Winter was close at hand, and the men, mostly new
recruits, were short of clothing, shoes, and blankets. Only fourteen
thousand men were fit for duty, and they were scattered all the way
from the Battery to Kingsbridge, a distance of a dozen miles or more.

The British army, numbering about twenty-five thousand, lay encamped
along the shores of New York Bay and the East River. The soldiers
were veterans, and {51} they were led by veterans. A large fleet of
war ships, lying at anchor, was ready to assist the land forces at a
moment's notice. Scores of guard ships sailed to and fro, watching
every movement of the patriot troops.

To give up the city to the British without battle seemed a great
pity. The effect upon the patriot cause in all the colonies would be
bad. Still, there was no help for it. What was the use of fighting
against such odds? Why run the risk of almost certain defeat?
Washington always looked beyond the present, and he did not intend
now to be shut up on Manhattan Island, perhaps to lose his entire
army; so, with the main body, he moved north to Harlem Heights. Here
he was soon informed by scouts that the British were getting ready to
move at once. Whither, nobody could tell. Such was the state of
affairs that led Washington to call his chief officers to the Murray
mansion, on that September afternoon.

Of course they talked over the situation long and calmly. After all,
the main question was, What shall be done? Among other things, it was
thought best to find the right sort of man, and send him in disguise
into the British camp on Long Island, to find out just where the
enemy were planning to attack.

"Upon this, gentlemen," said Washington, "depends at this time the
fate of our army."

The commander in chief sent for Colonel Knowlton, the hero of the
rail fence at Bunker Hill.

{52} "I want you to find for me in your regiment or in some other,"
he said, "some young officer to go at once into the British camp, to
discover what is going on. The man must have a quick eye, a cool
head, and nerves of steel. I wish him to make notes of the position
of the enemy, draw plans of the forts, and listen to the talk of the
officers. Can you find such a man for me this very afternoon?"

"I will do my best, General Washington," said the colonel, as he took
leave to go to his regiment.

On arriving at his quarters that afternoon, Knowlton called together
a number of officers. He briefly told them what Washington wanted,
and asked for volunteers. There was a long pause, amid deep surprise.
These soldiers were willing to serve their country; but to play the
spy, the hated spy, was too much even for Washington to ask.

One after another of the officers, as Knowlton called them by name,
declined. His task seemed hopeless. At last, he asked a grizzled
Frenchman, who had fought in many battles and was noted for his rash
bravery.

"No, no! Colonel Knowlton," he said, "I am ready to fight the
redcoats at any place and at any time; but, sir, I am not willing to
play the spy, and be hanged like a dog if I am caught."

Just as Knowlton gave up hope of finding a man willing to go on the
perilous mission, there came to him the painfully thrilling but
cheering words, "I will undertake {53} it." It was the voice of
Captain Nathan Hale. He had just entered Knowlton's tent. His face
was still pale from a severe sickness. Every man was astonished. The
whole company knew the brilliant young officer, and they loved him.
Now they all tried to dissuade him. They spoke of his fair prospects,
and of the fond hopes of his parents and his friends. It was all in
vain. They could not turn him from his purpose.

"I wish to be useful," he said, "and every kind of service necessary
for the public good becomes honorable by being necessary. If my
country needs a peculiar service, its claims upon me are imperious."

These patriotic words of a man willing to give up his life, if
necessary, for the good of his country silenced his brother officers.

"Good-by, Nathan!" "Don't you let the redcoats catch you!" "Good luck
to you!" "We never expect to see you again!" cried his nearest
friends in camp, as, in company with Colonel Knowlton, the young
captain rode out that same afternoon to receive his orders from
Washington himself.



{54} Nathan Hale was born, as were his eight brothers and his three
sisters, in an old-fashioned, two-storied house, in a little country
village of Connecticut. His father, a man of integrity, was a stanch
patriot. Instead of allowing his family to use the wool raised on his
farm, he saved it to make blankets for the Continental army. The
mother of this large family was a woman of high moral and domestic
worth, devoted to her children, for whom she sought the highest good.
It was a quiet, strict household, Puritan in its faith and its
manners, where the Bible ruled, where family prayers never failed,
nor was grace ever omitted at meals. On a Saturday night, no work was
done after sundown.

Young Nathan was a bright, active American boy. He liked his gun and
his fishing pole. He was fond of running, leaping, wrestling, and
playing ball. One of his pupils said that Hale would put his hand
upon a fence as high as his head, and clear it easily at a bound. He
liked books, and read much out of school. Like two of his brothers,
he was to be educated for the ministry. When only sixteen, he entered
Yale College, and was graduated two years before the battle of Bunker
Hill. Early in the fall of 1773, the young graduate began to teach
school, and was soon afterwards made master of a select school in New
London, in his native state.

At this time young Hale was about six feet tall, and well built. He
had a broad chest, full face, light blue eyes, fair complexion, and
light brown hair. He had a {55} large mole on his neck, just where
the knot of his cravat came. At college his friends used to joke him
about it, declaring that he was surely born to be hanged.

Such was Nathan Hale when the news of the bloodshed at Lexington
reached New London. A rousing meeting was held that evening. The
young schoolmaster was one of the speakers.

"Let us march at once," he said, "and never lay down our arms until
we obtain our independence."

The next morning, Hale called his pupils together, "gave them earnest
counsel, prayed with them, and shaking each by the hand," took his
leave, and during the same forenoon marched with his company for
Cambridge.

The young officer from Connecticut took an active part in the siege
of Boston, and soon became captain of his company. Hale's diary is
still preserved, and after all these years it is full of interest. It
seems that he took charge of his men's clothing, rations, and money.
Much of his time he was on picket duty, and took part in many lively
skirmishes with the redcoats. Besides studying military tactics, he
found time to make up wrestling matches, to play football and
checkers, and, on Sundays, to hold religious meetings in barns.

Within a few hours after bidding good-by to General Washington,
Captain Hale, taking with him one of his own trusty soldiers, left
the camp at Harlem, intending at the first opportunity to cross Long
Island Sound. There were so many British guard ships on the watch
{56} that he and his companion found no safe place to cross until
they had reached Norwalk, fifty miles up the Sound on the Connecticut
shore. Here a small sloop was to land Hale on the other side.

Stripping off his uniform, the young captain put on a plain brown
suit of citizen's clothes, and a broad-brimmed hat. Thus attired in
the dress of a schoolmaster, he was landed across the Sound, and
shortly afterwards reached the nearest British camp.

The redcoats received the pretended schoolmaster cordially. A captain
of the dragoons spoke of him long afterwards as a "jolly good
fellow." Hale pretended that he was tired of the "rebel cause," and
that he was in search of a place to teach school.

It would be interesting to know just what the "schoolmaster" did in
the next two weeks. Think of the poor fellow's eagerness to make the
most of his time, drawing plans of the forts, and going rapidly from
one point to another to watch the marching of troops, patrols, and
guards. Think of his sleepless nights, his fearful risk, the
ever-present dread of being recognized by some Tory. All this we know
nothing about, but his brave and tender heart must sometimes have
been sorely tried.

From the midst of all these dangers Hale, unharmed, began his return
trip to the American lines. He had threaded his way through the
woods, and round all the British camps on Long Island, until he
reached in safety the point where he had first landed. Here he had
{57} planned for a boat to meet him early the next morning, to take
him over to the mainland.

Many a patriotic American boy has thought what he should have done if
he could have exchanged places with Nathan Hale on this evening. Near
by, at a place then called and still called "The Cedars," a woman by
the name of Chichester, and nicknamed "Mother Chick," kept a tavern,
which was the favorite resort of all the Tories in that region. Hale
was sure that nobody would know him in his strange dress, and so he
ventured into the tavern. A number of people were in the barroom. A
few minutes afterwards, a man whose face seemed familiar to Hale
suddenly left the room, and was not seen again.

The pretended schoolmaster spent the night at the tavern.

Early the next morning, the landlady rushed into the barroom, crying
out to her guests, "Look out, boys! there is a strange boat close in
shore!"

The Tories scampered as if the house were on fire.

"That surely is the very boat I'm looking for," thought Hale on
leaving the tavern, and hastened towards the beach, where the boat
had already landed.

A moment more, and the young captain was amazed at the sight of six
British marines, standing erect in the boat, with their muskets aimed
at him. He turned to run, when a loud voice cried out, "Surrender or
die!" He was within close range of their guns. Escape was {58} not
possible. The poor fellow gave himself up. He was taken on board the
British guard ship Halifax, which lay at anchor close by, hidden from
sight by a point of land.

Some have declared that the man who so suddenly left the tavern was a
Tory cousin to Hale, and saw at once through the patriot's disguise;
that, being quite a rascal, he hurried away to get word to the
British camp. There seems to be no good reason, however, to believe
that the fellow was a kinsman.

However this may be, the British captured Captain Hale in disguise.
They stripped him and searched him, and found his drawings and his
notes. These were written in Latin, and had been tucked away between
the soles of his shoes.

"I am sorry that so fine a fellow has fallen into my hands," said the
captain of the guard ship, "but you are my prisoner, and I think a
spy. So to New York you must go!"

General Howe's headquarters were at this time in the elegant Beekman
mansion, situated near what is now the corner of Fifty-First Street
and First Avenue. Calm and fearless, the captured spy stood before
the British commander. He bravely owned that he was an American
officer, and said that he was sorry he had not been able to serve his
country better. No time was to be wasted in calling a court-martial.
Without trial of any kind, Captain Hale was condemned to die the
death of a spy. {59} The verdict was that he should be hanged by the
neck, "to-morrow morning at daybreak."



That night, which was Saturday, September 21, the condemned man was
kept under a strong guard, in the greenhouse near the Beekman
mansion. He had been given over to the care of the brutal Cunningham,
the infamous British provost marshal, with orders to carry out the
sentence before sunrise the next morning.

"To-morrow morning at daybreak."

How cruelly brief! Nathan Hale, the patriot spy, was left to himself
for the night.

When morning came, Cunningham found his prisoner ready. While
preparations were being made, a young officer, moved in spite of
himself, allowed Hale to sit in his tent long enough to write brief
letters to his parents and his friends. The letters were passed to
Cunningham to be sent. He read them, and as he saw the noble spirit
which breathed in every line, the wretch {60} began to curse, and
tore the letters into bits before the face of his victim. He said
that the rebels should never know they had a man who could die with
such firmness.

It was just before sunrise on a lovely Sabbath morning that Nathan
Hale was led out to death. The gallows was the limb of an apple tree.
Early as it was, a number of men and women had come to witness the
execution.

"Give us your dying speech, you young rebel!" shouted the brutal
Cunningham.

The young patriot, standing upon the fatal ladder, lifted his eyes
toward heaven, and said, in a calm, clear voice, "I only regret that
I have but one life to lose for my country."

These were his last words. The women sobbed, and some of the men
began to show signs of sympathy.

"Swing the rebel off!" cried Cunningham, in a voice hoarse with
anger. The order was obeyed.


Half an hour later, the body of the patriot spy was buried, probably
beneath the apple tree, but the grave {61} was not marked, and the
exact spot is now unknown. A British officer was sent, under a flag
of truce, to tell Washington of the fate of his gallant young
captain.

Thus died in the bloom of life, Captain Nathan Hale, the early martyr
in the cause of our freedom. Gifted, educated, ambitious, he laid
aside every thought of himself, and entered upon a service of the
greatest risk to life and to honor, because Washington deemed it
important to the sacred cause to which they had both given their best
efforts.

"What was to have been your reward in case you succeeded?" asked
Major Tallmadge, Hale's classmate, of the British spy, Major Andre,
as his prisoner was being rowed across the Hudson River to be tried
by court-martial.

"Military glory was all I sought for," replied Andre; "the thanks of
my general and the approbation of my king would have been a rich
reward."

Hale did not expect, nor did he care, to be a hero. He had no thought
of reward or of promotion. He sacrificed his life from a pure sense
of what he thought to be his duty.





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