Thinking about the Fourth of July, Independence Day, always takes me back to my school days when I studied the Revolutionary war and learned about the kind of men and women that it took to win our nation’s freedom. There were brilliant people like Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and resilient people like Martha Washington and Abigail Adams. And there were brave people like Nathan Hale.
I learned the story of Nathan Hale as a child reading my history book, but his story took on additional meaning for me well after my time as a student. In the early 90s, while visiting our son on parents’ weekend at Yale, my husband and I happened upon Bela Lyon Pratt’s bronze statue of Nathan Hale. It is situated on the Old Campus, where all freshmen are housed, next to Connecticut Hall. This is where Hale lived when he was a student at Yale. Hale, with his hands and feet bound, stands straight and tall. He looks very young (he was only 21 at the time of his execution) but also solemn and proud. At the base of the statue are engraved his famous words: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Little did we realize, as we gazed upon that statue and talked about Nathan Hale’s contributions to the Revolutionary war, that a little over a dozen years later we would be looking at another rendering of this bronze in a much less public place. Nor did we understand that Nathan Hale’s sacrifice would come to have a much more personal meaning for us.
This rendering stands in a quiet spot on CIA’s campus, between the Original Headquarters Building (OHB) and the Bubble (CIA’s auditorium) and close to the agency’s Memorial Garden. It is a place were CIA officers can pause to reflect on the sacrifices of those who came before them.
On this 240th anniversary of American independence, it is good to recall that almost immediately after the Declaration, American espionage was called upon to help defend the young Republic and its still very doubtful independence.
Nathan Hale answered that call and was the first American spy to die in the Revolution. He had graduated from Yale College at age 18 in 1773 and taken a position as a school teacher. He accepted a commission in the 7th Connecticut regiment in the summer of 1775, and when George Washington reorganized the army in January 1776, Hale received a captain’s commission in the new 19th Connecticut regiment.
In early September 1776, the British were in command of western Long Island, and Washington was struggling to defend Manhattan. Having been battered in his previous encounters with the British commander, General William Howe, and now threatened with imminent attack, Washington needed to know where the British would strike. He needed someone behind the enemy’s lines to report on British troop movements and their commander’s intentions. Hale stepped forward and volunteered.
In what would today be described as non-official cover, Hale, disguised as a schoolmaster looking for work, made his way behind British lines on Long Island. Before he could return with any information, though, the British invaded Manhattan and pushed Washington and his army out of the city and north to Harlem Heights.
Hale was no more successful than Washington. He was captured on September 21 and immediately brought before General Howe for questioning. Because uncoded intelligence information had been found on him, the British knew he was a spy.
He identified himself, his rank, and the purpose of his mission, but he was a soldier out of uniform and therefore regarded as an illegal combatant. Consistent with the customs of the time, he was sentenced without trial to hang. On Sunday morning September 22, he was marched about a mile from his place of confinement to the Park of Artillery (at modern-day 66th Street and Third Avenue) and hanged.
Hale was not a professional. He had no training. He made multiple errors of tradecraft. He failed to provide the information that Washington desperately needed. His shortcomings cost him his life. The British army held New York for the rest of the war.
Those are sobering lessons for any intelligence officer. The cost of failure is high.
But an equally valuable lesson is offered by Hale’s undying patriotism, bravery, and passion for the cause of Liberty.
Two hundred forty years later, we still celebrate him and his effort. He reminds us that we come from stock willing to risk all in the defense of liberty.