Nathan Hale was born in Coventry, Connecticut, in 1755 to Richard Hale and Elizabeth Strong. In 1768, when he was fourteen years old, he was sent with his brother Enoch, who was sixteen, to Yale College. Nathan was a classmate of fellow patriot spy Benjamin Tallmadge. The Hale brothers belonged to the Linonian Society of Yale, which debated topics in astronomy, mathematics, literature, and the ethics of slavery. Nathan graduated with first-class honors in 1773 at age 18 and became a teacher, first in East Haddam and later in New London.
After the Revolutionary War began in 1775, he joined a Connecticut militia and was elected first lieutenant within five months. His militia unit participated in the Siege of Boston, but Hale remained behind. It has been suggested that he was unsure as to whether he wanted to fight, or whether he was hindered because his teaching contract in New London did not expire until several months later, in July 1775. On July 4, 1775, Hale received a letter from his classmate and friend Benjamin Tallmadge, who had gone to Boston to see the siege for himself. He wrote to Hale, "Was I in your condition, I think the more extensive service would be my choice. Our holy Religion, the honor of our God, a glorious country, & a happy constitution is what we have to defend." Tallmadge's letter was so inspiring that, several days later, Hale accepted a commission as first lieutenant in the 7th Connecticut Regiment under Colonel Charles Webb of Stamford.
In the following spring, the army moved to Manhattan Island to prevent the British from taking over New York City. In September, General Washington was desperate to determine the location of the imminent British invasion of Manhattan Island. To that end, Washington needed a spy behind enemy lines, and Hale was the only volunteer.
The Battle of Long Island led to British victory and the capture of New York City via a flanking move from Staten Island across Long Island. Hale volunteered on September 8, 1776, to go behind enemy lines and report on British troop movements. He was ferried across on September 12. It was an act of spying that was immediately punishable by death and posed a great risk to Hale.
During his mission, New York City (then the area at the southern tip of Manhattan around Wall Street) fell to British forces on September 15 and Washington was forced to retreat to the island's north in Harlem Heights (what is now Morningside Heights). On September 21, a quarter of the lower portion of Manhattan burned in the Great New York Fire of 1776. The fire was later widely thought to have been started by American saboteurs to keep the city from falling into British hands, though Washington and the Congress had already denied this idea. It has also been speculated that the fire was the work of British soldiers acting without orders. In the fire's aftermath, more than 200 American partisans were rounded up by the British.
An account of Nathan Hale's capture was written by Consider Tiffany, a Connecticut shopkeeper and Loyalist, and obtained by the Library of Congress. In Tiffany's account, Major Robert Rogers of the Queen's Rangers saw Hale in a tavern and recognized him despite his disguise. After luring Hale into betraying himself by pretending to be a patriot himself, Rogers and his Rangers apprehended Hale near Flushing Bay in Queens, New York. Another story was that his Loyalist cousin, Samuel Hale, was the one who revealed his true identity.
British General William Howe had established his headquarters in the Beekman House in a then rural part of Manhattan, on a rise between what are now 50th and 51st Streets between First and Second Avenues, near where Beekman Place commemorates the connection. Hale reportedly was questioned by Howe, and physical evidence was found on him. Rogers provided information about the case. According to tradition, Hale spent the night in a greenhouse at the mansion. He requested a Bible; his request was denied. Sometime later, he requested a clergyman. Again, the request was denied.
According to the standards of the time, spies were hanged as illegal combatants. On the morning of September 22, 1776, Hale was marched along Post Road to the Park of Artillery, which was next to a public house called the Dove Tavern (at modern-day 66th Street and Third Avenue), and hanged. He was 21 years old. Bill Richmond, a 13-year-old former slave and Loyalist who later became a boxer in Europe, was reportedly one of the hangmen, responsible for securing the rope to a strong tree and preparing the noose.
By all accounts, Hale comported himself well before the hanging. Over the years, there has been speculation as to whether he specifically uttered the line: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." The line may be a revision of "I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged that my only regret is that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service."
The story of Hale's quote began with John Montresor, a British officer who witnessed the hanging. Soon after the execution, Montresor spoke with the American officer William Hull about Hale's death. Hull later publicized Hale's use of the declaration. Because Hull was not an eyewitness to Hale's speech, some historians have questioned the reliability of the account.
If Hale did not originate the statement, it is possible he instead repeated a passage from Joseph Addison's play Cato, an ideological inspiration to many Whigs:
No official records were kept of Hale's speech. However, Frederick MacKensie, a British officer, wrote this diary entry for the day:
He behaved with great composure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good Officer, to obey any orders given him by his Commander-in-Chief; and desired the Spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.
It is almost certain that Nathan Hale's last speech contained more than one sentence. Several early accounts mention different things he said. These are not necessarily contradictory, but rather, together they give an idea of what the speech must have been like. (The following quotes are all taken from George Dudley Seymour's book, Documentary Life of Nathan Hale, published in 1941 by the author.)
From the diary of Enoch Hale, Nathan's brother, after he went to question people who had been present, October 26, 1776: "When at the Gallows he spoke & told them that he was a Capt in the Cont Army by name Nathan Hale."
From the Essex Journal, February 13, 1777: "However, at the gallows, he made a sensible and spirited speech; among other things, told them they were shedding the blood of the innocent, and that if he had ten thousand lives, he would lay them all down, if called to it, in defence of his injured, bleeding Country."
From the Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser, May 17, 1781: "I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged, that my only regret is, that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service."
From the memoirs of Captain William Hull, quoting British Captain John Montresor, who was present and who spoke to Hull under a flag of truce the next day:
"On the morning of his execution," continued the officer, "my station was near the fatal spot, and I requested the Provost Marshal [William Cunningham] to permit the prisoner to sit in my marquee, while he was making the necessary preparations. Captain Hale entered: he was calm, and bore himself with gentle dignity, in the consciousness of rectitude and high intentions. He asked for writing materials, which I furnished him: he wrote two letters, one to his mother and one to a brother officer. He was shortly after summoned to the gallows. But a few persons were around him, yet his characteristic dying words were remembered. He said, 'I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country.'"
Two early ballads also attempt to recreate Hale's last speech. Songs and Ballads of the Revolution, collected by F. Moore (1855) contained the "Ballad of Nathan Hale" (anonymous), dated 1776: "Thou pale king of terrors, thou life's gloomy foe, Go frighten the slave; go frighten the slave; Tell tyrants, to you their allegiance they owe. No fears for the brave; no fears for the brave."; and "To the Memory of Capt. Nathan Hale" by Eneas Munson, Sr., was written soon after Hale's death:
Munson had tutored Hale before college, and knew him and his family well, so even though the particulars of this speech may be unlikely, Munson knew firsthand what Hale’s opinions were.
Aside from the site at 66th Street and Third Avenue, currently a Nike store and three other sites in Manhattan claim to be the hanging site:City Hall Park, where a statue designed by Frederick William MacMonnies was erected in 1890
Inside Grand Central Terminal
The Yale Club at 44th Street and Vanderbilt Avenue, near Grand Central Terminal, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) hung a plaque which states the event occurred there
Nathan Hale's body has never been found. His family erected an empty grave cenotaph in Nathan Hale Cemetery in South Coventry Historic District, Connecticut.
His statue also stands in Nathan Hale Park in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Hale was the great-grandson of John "Reverend Hale" Hale, an important figure in the Salem witch trials of 1692. Nathan Hale was also the uncle of orator and statesman Edward Everett (the other speaker at Gettysburg) and the grand-uncle of Edward Everett Hale (quoted above), a Unitarian minister, writer, and activist noted for social causes including abolitionism. He was the uncle of Nathan Hale who founded the Boston Daily Advertiser, and helped establish the North American Review.
Statues of Nathan Hale are based on idealized archetypes; no contemporaneous portraits of him have been found. Documents and letters reveal Hale was an informed, practical, detail-oriented man who planned ahead. Of his appearance and demeanor, fellow soldier Lieutenant Elisha Bostwick wrote that Nathan Hale had blue eyes, flaxen blond hair, darker eyebrows, and stood slightly taller than average height (of the time), with mental powers of a sedate mind and pious. Bostwick wrote:
I can now in imagination see his person & hear his voice- his person I should say was a little above the common stature in height, his shoulders of a moderate breadth, his limbs strait & very plump: regular features—very fair skin—blue eyes—flaxen or very light hair which was always kept short—his eyebrows a shade darker than his hair & his voice rather sharp or piercing—his bodily agility was remarkable. I have seen him follow a football and kick it over the tops of the trees in the Bowery at New York, (an exercise which he was fond of)—his mental powers seemed to be above the common sort—his mind of a sedate and sober cast, & he was undoubtedly Pious; for it was remark’d that when any of the soldiers of his company were sick he always visited them & usually Prayed for & with them in their sickness.
Hale has been honored with two standing images:A statue designed by Frederick William MacMonnies was dedicated on the anniversary of Evacuation Day, November 25, 1893, at City Hall Park, New York. The statue established Hale's modern idealized square-jawed image.
A statue of Hale, sculpted 1908–12 by Bela Pratt, was cast in 1912 and stands in front of Connecticut Hall where he resided while at Yale. Copies of this sculpture stand at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts; the Nathan Hale Homestead in Coventry; the Connecticut Governor's Residence in Hartford, Connecticut; Fort Nathan Hale in New Haven, Connecticut; Mitchell College in New London, Connecticut; the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.; Tribune Tower in Chicago; and at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency, Langley, Virginia.
Other statues/markers include:A statue of Nathan Hale, with an inscription of his reported last words on the first floor of the Connecticut State Capitol in Hartford. Statues of Nathan Hale are also located in the Tulane University Law School reading room; and at the corner of Summit and Portland Avenues in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
A memorial for him located in Huntington, New York where he landed for his fatal spying mission.
A historical marker in Freese Park, Norwalk, Connecticut that is denoted as the embarkation point.
A 45-foot (14 m) obelisk known as the Captain Nathan Hale Monument was erected in his honor in 1846 in his birthplace of Coventry, Connecticut.
The hamlet of Halesite, New York (formerly Huntington Harbor) on Long Island, New York, is named after Hale. There is a memorial plaque set into a large boulder, which was removed from the beach nearby where Hale is thought to have landed on his fateful mission.
Nathan Hale Army Depot, a U.S. Army installation, is located in Darmstadt, Germany.
Fort Nathan Hale, a Revolutionary War-era fort and historic site in New Haven, Connecticut, is named after him.
The Nathan Hale Inn and Nathan Hale dormitory on the University of Connecticut campus in Storrs, Connecticut, are named after Hale.
The Nathan Hale dormitory, traditionally a freshman girl's dorm, at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, is named after Hale.
Nathan Hale Hall is a Building at Farmingdale State College in Farmingdale, New York, which is home to Biology and Art Centers.
Nathan Hale Hall is a Barracks Building at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland.
Nathan Hale Hall is the main academic building at Mitchell College, New London, Connecticut.
Nathan Hale Memorial Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution. Organized June 6, 1900, in East Haddam, Connecticut. Ceremony took place at the one-room schoolhouse where he once taught.
High schools named after Hale include Nathan Hale-Ray High School in East Haddam, Connecticut (where he was schoolmaster), Nathan Hale High School in Seattle and high schools in West Allis, Wisconsin, and Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Middle schools named after Hale include Nathan Hale-Ray Middle School in East Haddam, Connecticut, Nathan Hale Middle School in Norwalk, Connecticut (the departure point for his final mission), Captain Nathan Hale Middle School in Coventry, Connecticut (his birthplace), as well as middle schools in Northvale, New Jersey; Omaha, Nebraska; Cleveland; and Crestwood, Illinois.
There are elementary schools named after Hale in Roxbury, Boston; New London, Connecticut (where he was schoolmaster); Enfield, Connecticut; Manchester, Connecticut; Meriden, Connecticut, New Haven, Connecticut, Whiting, Indiana; Schaumburg, Illinois; Mesa, Arizona; Minneapolis; Lansing, Illinois, Crestwood, Illinois, Carteret, New Jersey, Northvale, New Jersey, and in Chicago.
The United States Navy submarine USS Nathan Hale (SSBN-623) was named in his honor.
The Nathan Hale Ancient Fife and Drum Corps from Coventry, Connecticut, is named after him and includes a division called Knowlton's Connecticut Rangers.
The main character of Resistance: Fall of Man and Resistance 2 is named Nathan Hale and is a soldier, but doesn't have any direct relation to the original one.
"Nathaniel Hale" Battalion is the name of the Battalion for Army ROTC based at the University of Connecticut, with Knowlton Company (Company A) at University of Connecticut and Sillman Company (Company B) at Sacred Heart University.
Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales by Nathan James Hale are a graphic novel series. The first book "One Dead Spy" tells the story of Nathan Hale. The character of Nathan Hale appears in other books in the series as the narrator.