On September 22, 1776, American patriot Nathan Hale was hanged for spying on British troops. As he was led to the gallows, Hale’s famous last words—inspired by a line from Joseph Addison’s popular play, Cato, reportedly were—”I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Hale allegedly spoke these words to British Captain John Montresor, chief engineer of His Majesty’s Forces in North America and aide-de-camp to British General William Howe, while the preparations for his hanging were underway.
Nathan Hale was born in Coventry, Connecticut, on June 6, 1755. He graduated with honors from Yale College in 1773 and then taught, first in East Haddam, and next in New London, Connecticut.
After hearing news of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Hale left his teaching job and joined the army. He was commissioned a first lieutenant on July 1, 1775, and was promoted to captain on January 1, 1776.
General George Washington believed that General Howe, who had evacuated Boston in March 1776, would continue the battle in New York. In fact, the British had captured Staten Island and had begun a military buildup on Long Island.
Further intelligence was needed. At the battle of Harlem Heights, Washington, again facing Howe, requested a volunteer to undertake a reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines. Hale stepped forward.
Disguised as a schoolmaster seeking work, Nathan Hale set out on about September 10, 1776. He gathered information on the position of British troops until his capture on September 21 by General Howe, who ordered his hanging as a spy the following day. Hale’s possession of incriminating papers led to the charge of espionage. It is said that his cousin, Samuel Hale, a Loyalist British sympathizer under Howe’s command, betrayed him.
- George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799 provides a wealth of materials on the early campaigns.
- Search on Harlem Heights to examine letters, communiques, and general orders issued by General Washington during the Harlem Heights campaign, just before and after Nathan Hale’s death.
- Search on William Howe to read General Washington’s correspondence with British General Howe, most of which pertains to prisoner exchange.
- Read James Hutson’s “Nathan Hale Revisited: A Tory’s Account of the Arrest of the First American Spy” for more information on the circumstances of Hale’s mission and his subsequent arrest.
- View the June 27, 1834, application to erect a monument to the memory of Nathan Hale presented before the Senate, 23d Congress, 1st Session, in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1785. Search on Nathan Hale for other documents on erecting a monument to Hale.
- Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789 includes a timeline of important events in the Age of Revolution, 1764-89.
- A Guide to the American Revolution, 1763-1783 contains materials relating to the American Revolution on the Library’s Web site as well as on external sites. The guide also has a bibliography with selections for both general and younger readers.