September 22nd 1776 - 'I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country'. These were purportedly the last words of Captain Nathan Hale of the 19th Regiment of the Continental Army just before he was hanged on the morning of September 22nd 1776 at the age of 21.
In the summer of 1776, the American Revolution had entered its second, bloody, year and the British had evacuated Boston.
The Americans waited, wondering where the next British attack would come from.
In late June a British naval force approached Staten Island and Americans fears were realised. New York would be the next target.
This could spell disaster for the Americans, for if New York were captured it would pave the way for the Red Coats to make their way North, following the Hudson River and link up with another invading force who were moving in from Canada. This link if made, would effectively separate New England from the rest of the colonies, a huge strategic loss for the Americans.
On September 10th 1776, General George Washington called for a volunteer to carry out an extremely dangerous mission. This mission was to gather intelligence behind enemy lines. The Americans needed as much information about the British plan of attack as possible in order to plan their own counter attack.
Captain Nathan Hale stepped forward. Hale was Yale educated and had worked as a schoolteacher before the revolution. He was to become one of the first known American spies of the Revolutionary war.
Hale disguised himself as a Dutch schoolmaster and managed to slip behind enemy lines on Long Island. Whilst he was in enemy territory the British attacked the island of Manhattan. They took control of the city on September 15th.
On September 20th the city was set on fire. British soldiers were put on high alert and were tasked with seeking out any sympathisers who could have committed this arson attack.
On the evening of the following day, Nathan Hale was captured whilst sailing across Long Island Sand, trying to make his way back into American controlled territory.
When apprehended he immediately declared his rank in the American army and his objective at being behind enemy lines. He had, on his person, sketches of the fortifications of the British army as well as notes of their number and their positions.
Hale was taken to the New York office of British General William Howe where he was interrogated. His fate was certain though with the findings of the incriminating documents and with his own admission of intent.
General Howe ordered his execution to take place the following morning.
There was no trial.
Captain Hale requested a member of the clergy to attend him, but was refused. His request for a bible was also denied.
On the morning of his execution, Hale, according to a witness, 'was calm and bore himself with gentle dignity'. He wrote two letters - one to his brother, who was also an Army officer, and one to his mother.
Nathan Hale's brave and patriotic last words were remembered by the few people that attended his hanging and although there is no historical record that proves that these words were spoken it is thought that, if they were, they may have been inspired by these lines in English author Joseph Addison’s 1713 play Cato: “What a pity it is/That we can die but once to serve our country.”
Rumours later surfaced that Hale was arrested as a result of a betrayal by his first cousin and British loyalist, Samuel Hale but this was not proven and we will never know how he came to be apprehended or how the course of the war may have been altered if he had managed to complete his mission and pass on his detailed information about the British movements to his commander.