General Washington wanted a man. It was in September, 1776, at the City of New York, a few days after the battle of Long Island. The swift and deep East River flowed between the two hostile armies, and General Washington had as yet no system established for getting information of the enemy's movements and intentions. He never needed such information so much as at that crisis.
What would General Howe do next? If he crossed at Hell Gate, the American army, too small in numbers, and defeated the week before, might be caught on Manhattan Island as in a trap, and the issue of the contest might be made to depend upon a single battle; for in such circumstances defeat would involve the capture of the whole army. And yet General Washington was compelled to confess:
"We cannot learn, nor have we been able to procure the least information of late."
Therefore he wanted a man. He wanted an intelligent man, cool-headed, skillful, brave, to cross the East River to Long Island, enter the enemy's camp, and get information as to his strength and intentions. He went to Colonel Knowlton, commanding a remarkably efficient regiment from Connecticut, and requested him to ascertain if this man, so sorely needed, could be found in his command. Colonel Knowlton called his officers together, stated the wishes of General Washington, and, without urging the enterprise upon any individual, left the matter to their reflections.
Captain Nathan Hale, a brilliant youth of twenty-one, recently graduated from Yale College, was one of those who reflected upon the subject. He soon reached a conclusion. He was of the very flower of the young men of New England, and one of the best of the younger soldiers of the patriot army. He had been educated for the ministry, and his motive in adopting for a time the profession of arms was purely patriotic. This we know from the familiar records of his life at the time when the call to arms was first heard.
In addition to his other gifts and graces, he was handsome, vigorous, and athletic, all in an extraordinary degree. If he had lived in our day he might have pulled the stroke-oar at New London, or pitched for the college nine.
The officers were conversing in a group. No one had as yet spoken the decisive word. Colonel Knowlton appealed to a French sergeant, an old soldier of former wars, and asked him to volunteer.
"No, no," said he. "I am ready to fight the British at any place and time, but I do not feel willing to go among them to be hung up like a dog."
Captain Hale joined the group of officers. He said to Colonel Knowlton:
"I will undertake it."
Some of his best friends remonstrated. One of them, afterwards the famous general William Hull, then a captain in Washington's army, has recorded Hale's reply to his own attempt to dissuade him.
"I think," said Hale, "I owe to my country the accomplishment of an object so important. I am fully sensible of the consequences of discovery and capture in such a situation. But for a year I have been attached to the army, and have not rendered any material service, while receiving a compensation for which I make no return. I wish to be useful, and every kind of service necessary for the public good becomes honorable by being necessary."
He spoke, as General Hull remembered, with earnestness and decision, as one who had considered the matter well, and had made up his mind.
Having received his instructions, he traveled fifty miles along the Sound as far as Norwalk in Connecticut. One who saw him there made a very wise remark upon him, to the effect that he was "too good-looking" to go as a spy. He could not deceive. "Some scrubby fellow ought to have gone." At Norwalk he assumed the disguise of a Dutch schoolmaster, putting on a suit of plain brown clothes, and a round, broad-brimmed hat. He had no difficulty in crossing the Sound, since he bore an order from General Washington which placed at his disposal all the vessels belonging to Congress. For several days everything appears to have gone well with him, and there is reason to believe that he passed through the entire British army without detection or even exciting suspicion.
Finding the British had crossed to New York, he followed them. He made his way back to Long Island, and nearly reached the point opposite Norwalk where he had originally landed. Rendered perhaps too bold by success, he went into a well-known and popular tavern, entered into conversation with the guests, and made himself very agreeable. The tradition is that he made himself too agreeable. A man present suspecting or knowing that he was not the character he had assumed, quietly left the room, communicated his suspicions to the captain of a British ship anchored near, who dispatched a boat's crew to capture and bring on board the agreeable stranger. His true character was immediately revealed. Drawings of some of the British works, with notes in Latin, were found hidden in the soles of his shoes. Nor did he attempt to deceive his captors, and the English captain, lamenting, as he said, that "so fine a fellow had fallen into his power," sent him to New York in one of his boats, and with him the fatal proofs that he was a spy.
September twenty-first was the day on which he reached New York--the day of the great fire which laid one-third of the little city in ashes. From the time of his departure from General Washington's camp to that of his return to New York was about fourteen days. He was taken to General Howe's headquarters at the Beekman mansion, on the East River, near the corner of the present Fifty-first Street and First Avenue. It is a strange coincidence that this house to which he was brought to be tried as a spy was the very one from which Major André departed when he went to West Point. Tradition says that Captain Hale was examined in a greenhouse which then stood in the garden of the Beekman mansion.
Short was his trial, for he avowed at once his true character. The British general signed an order to his provost-marshal directing him to receive into his custody the prisoner convicted as a spy, and to see him hanged by the neck "to-morrow morning at daybreak."
Terrible things are reported of the manner in which this noble prisoner, this admirable gentleman and hero, was treated by his jailer and executioner. There are savages in every large army, and it is possible that this provost-marshal was one of them. It is said that he refused him writing-materials, and afterwards, when Captain Hale had been furnished them by others, destroyed before his face his last letters to his mother and to the young lady to whom he was engaged to be married. As those letters were never received this statement may be true. The other alleged horrors of the execution it is safe to disregard, because we know that it was conducted in the usual form and in the presence of many spectators and a considerable body of troops. One fact shines out from the distracting confusion of that morning, which will be cherished to the latest posterity as a precious ingot of the moral treasure of the American people. When asked if he had anything to say, Captain Hale replied:
"I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."
The scene of his execution was probably an old graveyard in Chambers Street, which was then called Barrack Street. General Howe formally notified General Washington of his execution. In recent years, through the industry of investigators, the pathos and sublimity of these events have been in part revealed.
In 1887 a bronze statue of the young hero was unveiled in the State House at Hartford. Mr. Charles Dudley Warner delivered a beautiful address suitable to the occasion, and Governor Lounsberry worthily accepted the statue on behalf of the State. It is greatly to be regretted that our knowledge of this noble martyr is so slight; but we know enough to be sure that he merits the veneration of his countrymen.