Nathan Hale: Heroes of History Spotlight

Drum roll please! If you are anything like me, you crave learning and reading about history’s incredible heroes. Some of them are very well known, while others have unfortunately been pushed to the recesses of the history books. Regardless of how well known they are though, I love studying them.

Growing up, one of my very first heroes was Nathan Hale. The first time I ever heard his story, I was hit with an incredible somberness. My little girl’s mind was finally starting to wrap around the idea of what a hero was and what it meant, and Nathan Hale definitely fit the bill. The more I’ve studied him, the more I have come to respect and admire him for his courage and faith.

For years, the account of Nathan Hale has been taught and enumerated in American history books. America’s children were taught about his death, and his last words were spoken again and again so that it came to be engrained in our minds at young ages. The sad thing is that our schools have stopped teaching the greatness in American history. Children of this generation, and even several generations back, have not been taught the treasured truths from our past. I kid you not, I have met some people who have never even heard of Nathan Hale.

Thankfully I was homeschooled by parents who understand the value of teaching American history. (Yes, that is a shameless shout-out to my amazing parents. Thanks for teaching me right, Dad and Mom.) I am all for learning world history as well, because it is important. But if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times, if you never teach your children any other history, at least teach them American history!

When children understand the illustrious history of our country, then patriotism will run in their veins.

That’s one reason why I am beginning this series. America needs to be educated on her greatness. So let’s get going!

What made Nathan Hale a hero? I mean at a quick glance, someone might be tempted to really wonder. He was just another Patriot living during the time of our nation’s fight for Independence. He was a schoolteacher, turned soldier. He never saw much battlefield combat during his short time serving, and he failed his first and final mission as a spy. At a quick glance, he was just another twenty-one year old Patriot who died. There were thousands of boys his age who were killed in the War for Independence. So what made him a hero? Why has he been remembered and revered for over two-hundred years? Even his enemies saw that there was something incredible different about this boy Patriot.

Let me draw for you a portrait of who this man was, and you can decide for yourself if and why you think he was a hero.

Nathan Hale was raised being taught the truth of the Bible by his parents. As a young boy he memorized large portions of the Bible. Throughout his life we can see the evidence that he had made that faith his own. I believe he was a true believer, and that he is in Heaven today.

Nathan attended Yale University, where he worked toward becoming a teacher. We read many amazing things about Nathan from the personal writings of his friends and classmates during his time there. He was described as being kindhearted, gentle, and incredibly athletic. Many of their writings spoke openly of how Nathan was a believer and held tightly to Bible values. In all honesty, he probably wouldn’t have been the type to be considered someone who would become a hero. As was before stated, he was a gentle soul—not what most think of as becoming a war hero.

During his time at Yale, he was being molded into the patriot we have all come to admire. Relations between Great Britain and the Colonies had almost reached its boiling point. Nathan was quickly becoming swept up in the revolutionary idea of a free nation. By the time war broke out, his heart fully belonged to the Patriot cause. After war was declared, he wrestled with the decision to remain where he was—teaching in a highly elite private school—or go join a cause that would brand him as being a traitor and rebel. A letter he received from Benjamin Tallmadge, one of his good friends from Yale, put into words what he already knew in his heart.

“Was I in your condition…I think the more extensive Service would be my choice. Our holy Religion, the honour of our God, a glorious country, and a happy constitution is what we have to defend.”

~Benjamin Tallmadge
Taken from a letter to Nathan Hale.

Nathan resigned his position at the school and accepted a commission as a 1st Lieutenant in the 7th Connecticut regiment, Continental army. His heart belonged to the Patriot cause.

He was only twenty years old at the time he was commissioned, yet he was highly loved and respected by his men. In the course of the next year, he would rise to the rank of Captain.

The year of 1776 was one of America’s lowest points during the war. We had declared independence, yes, but more and more our troops were becoming discouraged. Enlistments were expiring, and soldiers were longing to go home. Some were deserting, others were dying from the terrible sicknesses that ravaged the camps. During this time, Nathan’s own men were becoming discouraged. They hadn’t been paid, and their families were starving back home. There was talk of leaving. Nathan gathered his men, and divided his own pay between them, with the only request from him being that they stay and fight just one month longer.

It was commonly known among his soldiers that if they needed to find him, he could be found more often than not with his men who were sick or wounded. He would spend hours beside them, praying with and for them. His soldiers knew that if one of them fell sick, Nathan would be there. It was this character and care for his men that set him apart, and caused him to be loved by so many.

One night, Nathan was called to a meeting by one of his superiors, along with several other officers. The group that had been called together had several things in common. They were all known to be incredibly brave, fiercely loyal to the Patriot cause, and trustworthy to a fault.

The reason for these being the qualifying factors in who was called to the meeting, soon became evident. General Washington was looking for a man to carry out a daring mission. The Patriot’s were struggling on the brink of utter destruction if they didn’t figure something out soon. Washington needed information on British movements, positions, etc. The position however would have to be strictly volunteer basis. This was for two reasons.

  1. The punishment for spying was death
  2. Espionage was considered to be a breach of a gentleman’s honor

The group was quiet as each processed what was being asked of them. Nathan stepped forward boldly. He would go. Someone had to, and it may as well be him. When asked if he was bothered by the fact that his honor would be marred by carrying out such a task, he replied, “I wish to be useful, and every kind of service to the public good and freedom becomes honorable by being necessary.”

By September 12th, Nathan was in Long Island—the place where he was sent to spy. Not much was heard from Hale in the first week of his arrival in Long Island. We do know that he went under the guise of being a school teacher looking for work. Those first days after Nathan had left, Washington was heavily burdened. He felt deeply responsible for Nathan’s safety.

No-one is really quite sure how it happened, but on the 21st of September, Nathan Hale was captured. Upon discovery of some maps and letters on his person, he was taken to General Howe. When questioned as to who he was, Nathan made no feeble attempt to lie, but instead boldly told General Howe what his name and rank was. He informed General Howe that he was in fact a soldier following orders on behalf of his country. General Howe would later state that he was actually quite impressed with the young Captain who stood before him that day. However, he was a soldier behind enemy lines and out of uniform.

Nathan wasn’t given a trial by his British captors, but was immediately sentenced to “be hanged by the neck until dead.” He was informed that his hanging would take place at dawn the next day. He was locked up and placed under guard of the Provost Mashall, William Cunningham. Cunningham was a heartless man known for his cruelty. Nathan asked for a Bible to read. It was denied him. He requested to speak to a preacher. It too was denied.

From the account of a British soldier who witnessed the events of that night, Nathan was oddly calm through the entire ordeal. Some may have spent their last night mournfully weeping and pleading for mercy. Nathan, however, slept peacefully. Early on the morning of the 22nd, Nathan was led out of the room he had been kept in, and marched about a mile up the road. Things were still being prepared for his hanging when they arrived. A British officer who felt sympathy for Nathan, requested of the guards that they allow him to wait in the his own marquee in order to spare him from having to watch the gallows being prepared. By the officer’s own testimony, Nathan carried himself with gentle dignity and calm composure. Nathan had previously been refused any paper with which to write his family. Seeing though that this officer seemed to be slightly more amiable, Nathan asked him to be allowed to write to them. The officer granted him permission. We know that Nathan wrote letters to his commanding officer, his mother, and his closest brother, Enoch Hale. Upon finishing the letters, he was taken to his place under an apple tree. A large crowd had gathered, anxious to see the young spy that was to be hung.

Nathan calmly climbed the ladder, and stood resolute as the noose was placed around his neck and tightened. He was asked if there was anything he wanted to say. One British officer present at his hanging, recorded in his diary what took place.

“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.”

~ Lt. Robert MacKensie

From other eyewitness accounts, we know that his very last words were,

“You are shedding the blood of the innocent; if I had ten thousand lives, I would lay them all down, if called to it, in defence of my injured, bleeding country. I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

~ Captain Nathan Hale

The ladder was jerked out from under him, and Nathan took his last fleeting breath in this world. Those who had gathered that day to witness his execution, spoke in hushed tones of his fearlessness in the face of death and how he had urged those that had gathered to “at all times be ready to die”.

The British left his body hanging there for several days. Then took it down and buried it in an unmarked grave.

You may ask, “What ever became of the letters he wrote?”

In a rather cruel, sadistic move, the Provost Marshall took the letters and Nathan’s Yale diploma, and used them to taunt Major John Wyllys, one of Nathan’s best friends and classmates from Yale. Wyllys was at the time being held as a prisoner, and the Provost Marshall’s actions were intended to add to the distress he already felt while being a prisoner, by showing him proof of his best friend’s death by hanging.

The letters never reached Nathan’s family, presumably because the Provost Marshall destroyed them. From diary entries written by Enoch Hale, we learn that the family first heard rumors of Nathan’s death on September 30th, but no-one seemed to have proof that he was in fact dead. Then as the entries continue, we see Enoch’s devastation over finally receiving confirmation that his closest brother was dead. The next year, on June 6th, Enoch wrote an entry detailing that he was going through Nathan’s personal belongings that had only just recently been given back to the family. It would’ve been Nathan’s 22nd birthday.

What made Nathan Hale a hero, you ask? He believed so deeply in the righteous cause of freedom, and was willing to give his life for it. He understood what every American since has known in their own heart—America was destined for greatness, born to be free, and worth living and dying for.

What do you think made Nathan Hale a hero? Had you ever heard of him? Tell me what you think in the comments!

A. M. Watson

Hebrews 13:8

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