REVIEW: Nathan Hale – The Life and Death of America’s First Spy – Forward Observer Shop

REVIEW: Nathan Hale – The Life and Death of America’s First Spy

Nathan Hale grew up in Connecticut at a time when church attendance wasn’t just a moral or social obligation, but also a legal one.  His father instilled in him the virtues of being a devout Christian early and often throughout Nathan’s short life.  Later as a young man and student at Yale, Nathan became friends with Benjamin Tallmadge, who would become General George Washington’s chief intelligence officer.  This friendship connected the dots between Hale, a schoolmaster from Connecticut, and the work of spying for General Washington.  Unfortunately, it also cemented the process by which Nathan Hale would be hung by the British as an American spy.

Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of America’s First Spy documents the formative years, including young Hale’s service as a Patriot officer, that lead to his first, only, and very short spying mission.  It seems to me that Hale was nearly destined for this Patriot purpose.   For instance, as a student writing back and forth to Ben Tallmadge, Hale signed the name Pythias, a reference to the Greek legend who was sentenced to death for his plot against the tyrant Dionysus I of Syracuse.

By the winter of 1774/75, the “possibility of conflict was already being considered,” as British General Thomas Gage sailed to Boston with a contingent of troops, Samuel Adams began the work of molding the Sons of Liberty, and Hale (at the age of 20) took up an assignment as schoolmaster while considering his future in the war that, to him, seemed inevitable.  (Quite a shock considering today’s attitude: Yale staged military drills in the College Yard, promoting the rebel cause.)  According to the book, citing historians and scholars, Hale was responsible for the first Revolutionary sentiment made publicly when he said:

Let us march immediately and never lay down our arms until we obtain our independence.

Nathan Hale was soon commissioned as a lieutenant, and found himself as a captain in Knowlton’s Rangers in 1776 (at the ripe old age of 21).  Had had been selected by Knowlton specifically to gather intelligence.  Hale was to pass behind General Howe’s forces in New York and report on the strength and disposition of the British forces there.  Of this mission, Hale said:

I think I owe to my country the accomplishment of an object so important, and so much desired by the commander of her armies – and I know of no other mode of obtaining the information, than by assuming a disguise and passing into the enemy’s camp.

I am fully sensible of the consequences of discovery and capture in such a situation…

Of that situation, many stories have been told – that Hale was captured with map drawings of British forces, that Hale’s cousin (a Tory soldier) turned him in, that Hale was drunk and talking about his mission when captured, and that Hale was tricked by Robert Rogers are the most often told.  This book’s account of Hale’s identification as a spy is probably the most accurate and best cited that I’ve read.

What’s most true is that Nathan Hale’s spy career lasted only three weeks until his capture and hanging in September of 1776.  Denied a trial along with his two last requests (the presence of clergy and a Bible), Hale was sentenced to hanging the morning after.  There was no report of Hale’s famous quote, “My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country.”  What’s more likely is, according to a British lieutenant’s diary, that Hale said the duty of any good officer is to follow the orders of his superiors, and that any good officer should be prepared to die in the service of his country.

If you want a full-scope history of Nathan Hale, along with stories surrounding those early American intelligence and military operations, then I suggest reading this book.

Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.

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