How beautiful is death, when earn’d by virtue!
Who would not be that youth? What pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our country.
Joseph Addison, Cato (1712)
At age 21 Captain Nathan Hale was already marked as a man on the rise. A graduate of Yale, he was an early advocate of advanced education for women and had taught a class of college level subjects to twenty young ladies prior to the War. With the coming of the War he enlisted as a First Lieutenant in the 7th Connecticut regiment. During the battle of Long Island he distinguished himself by leading a raid seeking to burn the frigate HMS Phoenix. The raid failed in its main goal but several tenders of the frigate were destroyed and four cannon and six swivel guns were captured.
Due to his enterprise and courage Hale was invited to join the Ranger unit being formed by Colonel Thomas Knowlton. The ancestral outfit of modern American Army Rangers, Knowlton’s Rangers specialized in reconnaissance and raids and were given their orders directly by General Washington. On September 10, 1776 Knowlton brought to his officers a personal request from Washington that one of them volunteer to spy in New York to bring him back accurate intelligence on what the British army would do next. His request was met with stony silence. These were brave men, but they regarded the work of a spy morally dubious and a death by hanging if discovered, the fate of a common felon rather than a soldier. Hale, the youngest man present, broke the silence and said simply that he would do it. Captain William Hull, later a Major General in the War of 1812, remonstrated with his friend: “He said to him that it was not in the line of his duty, and that he was of too frank and open a temper to act successfully the part of a spy, or to face its dangers, which would probably lead to a disgraceful death.” Hale replied, “I wish to be useful, and every kind of service necessary to the public good becomes honorable by being necessary. If the exigencies of my country demand a peculiar service, its claim to perform that service are imperious.” Continue Reading