Today in 1776, the Redcoats hanged Captain Nathan Hale, a 21-year-old Patriot spy. His last words — “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country” — became a rallying cry for the Continental Army.
A Yale graduate at a time when less than 1% of the male population attended college, Hale quit his job as the master of an elite school to enlist in July 1775.
Over the ensuing year, Hale proved an effective commanding officer. He held his unit together despite steady military setbacks and inconsistent pay that shattered morale and prompted mass desertions elsewhere in the Continental Army.
In the summer of 1776, as British troops and Hessian mercenaries advanced on New York City, General Washington needed a spy to go behind enemy lines and gather intelligence on the invaders’ numbers and movements.
Washington’s officers regarded the assignment as both dangerous and dishonorable. Only Hale volunteered.
He barely had time to infiltrate New York before the Redcoats seized and burned the town. And arrested Hale.
His executioners reported that the young man “bore himself with gentle dignity,” and “great composure and resolution.” Allowed some last words at the gallows, “he made a sensible and spirited speech.” Hale “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.”
Hale’s last words paraphrased lines from Joseph Addison’s 1712 play Cato: “What pity is it / That we can die but once to serve our country.”
The British left Hale’s corpse to hang for several days before burying him in an unmarked grave, like a common criminal.