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


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


"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


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


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


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


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


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


"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


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.