September 10, 1776 One Life to Lose

The young Patriot, untrained and unskilled in the ways of deception, placed his trust where it did not belong.

From the earliest days of the American Revolution, the Hale brothers of Coventry Connecticut, fought for the Patriot side. Five of them helped to fight the battles at Lexington and Concord. The youngest and most famous brother was home in New London at the time, finishing the terms of his teaching contract.

Nathan Hale’s unit would participate in the siege of Boston, Hale himself joining George Washington’s army in the spring of 1776, as the army moved to Long Island to block the British move on the strategically important port city of New York.

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General Howe appeared at Staten Island on June 29 with a fleet of 45 ships. By the end of the week, he’d assembled an overwhelming fleet of 130.

There was an attempt at peaceful negotiation on July 13, when General Howe sent a letter to General Washington under flag of truce. The letter was addressed “George Washington, Esq.”, intentionally omitting Washington’s rank of General. Washington declined to receive the letter, saying that there was no one there by that address. Howe tried the letter again on the 16th, this time addressing it to “George Washington, Esq., etc., etc.”. Again, Howe’s letter was refused.

The next day, General Howe sent Captain Nisbet Balfour in person, to ask if Washington would meet with Howe’s adjutant, Colonel James Patterson. A meeting was scheduled for the 20th.

Patterson told Washington that General Howe had come with powers to grant pardons. Washington refused, saying “Those who have committed no fault want no pardon”.

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Patriot forces were comprehensively defeated at the Battle of Brooklyn, fought on August 27, 1776. With the Royal Navy in command on the water, Howe’s army dug in for a siege, confident that his adversary was trapped and waiting to be destroyed at his convenience.

On the night of August 29-30, Washington withdrew his army to the ferry landing and across the East River, to Manhattan.

With horse’s hooves and wagon wheels muffled and oarlocks stuffed with rags, the Patriot army withdrew as a rearguard tended fires, convincing the redcoats in their trenches that the Americans were still in camp.

The surprise was complete for the British side, on waking for the morning of the 30th. The Patriot army, had vanished.

Retreat from LI
Retreat from long island, August 29-30, 1776

The Battle of Long Island would almost certainly have ended in disaster for the cause of Liberty, but for that silent evacuation over the night of August 29-30.

Following evacuation, the Patriot army found itself isolated on Manhattan island, virtually surrounded. Only the thoroughly disagreeable current conditions of the Throg’s Neck-Hell’s Gate segment of the East River, prevented Admiral Sir Richard Howe (William’s brother), from enveloping Washington’s position, altogether.

Expecting a British assault in September, General Washington was desperate for information on the movements of his adversary.  Washington asked for volunteers for a dangerous mission, to go behind enemy lines, as a spy.  One volunteer stepped up, on September 10. His name was Nathan Hale.

Hale set out the same day, disguised as a Dutch schoolmaster. He was successful for about a week but appears to have been something less than “street smart”. The young Patriot, untrained and unskilled in the ways of deception, placed his trust where it did not belong.

Nathan Hale

Major Robert Rogers was an old British hand, a leader of Rangers during the earlier French and Indian War. Rogers must have suspected that this Connecticut schoolteacher was more than he pretended to be, and intimated that he himself, was a spy in the Patriot cause.

Hale took Rogers into his confidence, believing the two to be playing for the same side. Barkhamsted Connecticut shopkeeper Consider Tiffany, a British loyalist and himself a sergeant of the French and Indian War, recorded what happened next, in his journal: “The time being come, Captain Hale repaired to the place agreed on, where he met his pretended friend” (Rogers), “with three or four men of the same stamp, and after being refreshed, began [a]…conversation. But in the height of their conversation, a company of soldiers surrounded the house, and by orders from the commander, seized Captain Hale in an instant. But denying his name, and the business he came upon, he was ordered to New York. But before he was carried far, several persons knew him and called him by name; upon this he was hanged as a spy, some say, without being brought before a court martial.”

MI-Hercules_Mulligan
Hercules Mulligan

The Irish tailor Hercules Mulligan had far greater success reporting on British goings-on, and twice saved General Washington himself, from capture.   This Patriot who converted Alexander Hamilton from Tory to Patriot.  The secret member of the Sons of Liberty who, for seven years worked behind enemy lines.  Yet today, we barely remember the man’s name.. Hercules Mulligan earned the right to be remembered, as a hero of American history.  His will be a story for another day.

Nathan Hale, the schoolteacher-turned-spy who placed his trust where it didn’t belong,  was brought to the gallows on September 22, 1776, and hanged. He was 21. CIA.gov describes him as “The first American executed for spying for his country”.

Nathan_Hale_Statue_-_Flickr_-_The_Central_Intelligence_Agency_(1)There was no official record taken of Nathan Hale’s last words, yet we know from eyewitness statement, that the man died with the same clear-eyed personal courage, with which he had lived.

British Captain John Montresor was present at the hanging, and spoke with American Captain William Hull the following day, under flag of truce.  He gave the following account:

“‘On the morning of his execution, my station was near the fatal spot, and I requested the Provost Marshal to permit the prisoner to sit in my marquee, while he was making the necessary preparations. Captain Hale entered: he was calm, and bore himself with gentle dignity, in the consciousness of rectitude and high intentions. He asked for writing materials, which I furnished him: he wrote two letters, one to his mother and one to a brother officer.’ He was shortly after summoned to the gallows. But a few persons were around him, yet his characteristic dying words were remembered. He said, ‘I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country‘.

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August 30, 1776 A Damn Close-Run Thing

The silent evacuation over the night of August 29-30 had averted disaster, a feat made possible only through the nautical skills of the merchants and rum traders, the sailors and the fishermen of Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead, Massachusetts militia, the “Amphibious Regiment”.

When General George Washington raised his sword under the branches of that ancient elm on Cambridge commons, by that act did he take command of an “army”, equipped with with an average of only nine rounds per man.

116037-040507-01.tif1776 started out well for the cause of American independence, when the twenty-six-year-old bookseller Henry Knox emerged from a six week slog through a New England winter, at the head of a “Noble train of artillery’.

Manhandled all the way from the frozen wilderness of upstate New York, the guns of Fort Ticonderoga were wrestled to the top of Dorchester Heights, overlooking the British fleet anchored in Boston Harbor.

General sir William Howe faced the prospect of another Bunker Hill.   A British victory, yes, but one which came at a cost that  Howe could ill afford to pay again.

The eleven-month siege of Boston came to an end on March 17 when that fleet evacuated Boston Harbor, and removed to Nova Scotia.  Three months later, a force of some 400 South Carolina patriots fought a day-long battle with the nine warships of Admiral Sir Peter Parker, before the heavily damaged fleet was forced to withdraw.  The British eventually captured Fort Moultrie and Charleston Harbor along with it but, for now, 1776 was shaping up to be a very good year.

Declaration of IndependenceThe Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, that July.

King’s Regular and Rebel alike understood the strategic importance of New York, as the center of communications between the New England colonies, and those in the south.  Beginning that April, Washington moved his forces from Boston to New York, placing his troops along the west end of Long Island in anticipation of the British arrival.

The British fleet was not long in coming, the first arrivals dropping anchor by the end of June.  Within the week, 130 ships were anchored off Staten Island, under the command of Admiral sir Richard Howe, the General’s brother.  By August 12 the British force numbered 400 vessels with 73 warships, with a force of some 32,000 camped on Staten island.

American forces were badly defeated at the Battle of Brooklyn, fought on August 27, 1776. The British dug in for a siege, confident that their adversary was cornered and waiting to be destroyed at their convenience, while the main Patriot army retreated to Brooklyn Heights.

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“British troops in the type of flat-bottomed boat used for the invasion of Long Island. Hessians in their blue uniforms are in the two boats that are only partly visible”. H/T Wikipedia

Cornered on land with the British-controlled East River to their backs, it may have been all over for the Patriot cause, but for one of the great feats of military history.   The surprise was complete for the British side on waking for the morning of August 30, to discover that the American army, had vanished. The silent evacuation over the night of August 29-30 had averted disaster, a feat made possible through the nautical skills of the merchants and rum traders, the sailors and the fishermen of Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead, Massachusetts militia, the “Amphibious Regiment”.

Retreat from LI
Retreat from long island, August 29-30, 1776

That October, the defeat of General Benedict Arnold’s home-grown “Navy” on the waters near Valcour Island in Vermont, cost the British fleet dearly enough that it had to turn back, buying another year of life for the Patriot cause.

By December, the Continental army had fled New York, to the south of New Jersey.  Already reduced to a puny force of only 4,707 fit for duty, Washington faced a decimation of his army by the New Year, with the end of enlistment for fully two-thirds of those.  With nowhere to go but on offense, Washington crossed the Delaware river in the teeth of a straight-up gale over the night of December 25, defeating a Hessian garrison at Trenton in a surprise attack on the morning of December 26.

trenton

While minor skirmishes by British standards, the January 2-3 American victories at Assunpink Creek and Princeton demonstrated an American willingness, to stand up to the most powerful military of its time.  Cornwallis had suffered three defeats in the last ten days, and withdrew his forces from the south of New Jersey.  American morale soared, as enlistments came flooding in.

american-troops-charging-the-british-at-the-battle-of-princeton-new-jersey-c-1777
Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777

The American war for independence would not be over, for another six years.  Before it was through, more Americans would die in the fetid holds of British prison ships than in every battle of the Revolution, combined.  Yet, that first year had come and gone, and the former colonies were still in the fight.

A generation later, Lord Arthur Wellesley described the final defeat of a certain “Corsican corporal” at a place called Waterloo.  Wellesley might have been talking about the whole year of 1776 in describing that day in 1815:  “It was a damn close run thing“.

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September 22, 1776 Nathan Hale

‘I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country'”.

The nine Hale brothers of Coventry Connecticut fought on the Patriot side of the Revolution, from its earliest days.  Five of them helped to fight the battles at Lexington and Concord.  The youngest and most famous brother was home in New London at the time, finishing the terms of his teaching contract.

Nathan Hale’s unit would participate in the siege of Boston, Hale himself joining George Washington’s army in the spring of 1776, as the army moved to Long Island to block the British move on the strategically important port city of New York.

General Howe appeared at Staten Island on June 29 with a fleet of 45 ships.  By the end of the week, he’d assembled an overwhelming fleet of 130.

There was an attempt at peaceful negotiation on July 13, when General Howe sent a letter to General Washington under flag of truce. The letter was addressed “George Washington, Esq.”, intentionally omitting Washington’s rank of General. Washington declined to receive the letter, saying that there was no one there by that address. Howe tried the letter again on the 16th, this time addressing it to “George Washington, Esq., etc., etc.”.  Again, Howe’s letter was refused.

British Landing
British Landing on Long island

The next day, General Howe sent Captain Nisbet Balfour in person, to ask if Washington would meet with Howe’s adjutant, Colonel James Patterson.  A meeting was scheduled for the 20th.

Patterson told Washington that General Howe had come with powers to grant pardons.  Washington refused, saying “Those who have committed no fault want no pardon”.

Patriot forces were comprehensively defeated at the Battle of Brooklyn, fought on August 27, 1776. With the Royal Navy in command on the water, Howe’s army dug in for a siege, confident that the adversary was trapped and waiting to be destroyed at their convenience.

Retreat-from-LI
British retreat from Long Island

On the night of August 29-30, Washington withdrew his army to the ferry landing and across the East River, to Manhattan.

With horse’s hooves and wagon wheels muffled, oarlocks stuffed with rags, the Patriot army withdrew, as a rearguard tended fires, convincing the redcoats in their trenches that the Americans were still there.

The surprise was complete for the British side, on waking for the morning of the 30th.  The Patriot army had vanished.

The Battle of Long Island would almost certainly have ended in disaster for the Patriot cause, but for that silent evacuation over the night of August 29-30.

Following evacuation, the Patriot army found itself isolated on Manhattan island, virtually surrounded.  Only the thoroughly disagreeable current conditions of the Throg’s Neck-Hell’s Gate segment of the East River, prevented Admiral Sir Richard Howe (William’s brother), from enveloping Washington’s position, altogether.

Expecting a British assault in September, General Washington became increasingly desperate for information on British movements.

Nathan Hale CaptureWashington asked for volunteers for a dangerous mission, to go behind enemy lines, as a spy.  Up stepped a volunteer.  His name was Nathan Hale.

Hale set out on his mission on September 10, disguised as a Dutch schoolmaster. He was successful for about a week but appears to have been something less than “street smart”.  The young and untrained Patriot-turned spy, placed his trust where it did not belong.

Major Robert Rogers was an old British hand, a leader of Rangers during the earlier French and Indian War.  Rogers must have suspected that this Connecticut schoolteacher was more than he pretended to be, and intimated that he, himself, was a spy in the Patriot cause.

The hanging of Nathan HaleHale took Rogers into his confidence, believing the two to be playing for the same side.  Barkhamsted Connecticut shopkeeper Consider Tiffany, a British loyalist and himself a sergeant of the French and Indian War, recorded what happened next, in his journal: “The time being come, Captain Hale repaired to the place agreed on, where he met his pretended friend” (Rogers), “with three or four men of the same stamp, and after being refreshed, began [a]…conversation. But in the height of their conversation, a company of soldiers surrounded the house, and by orders from the commander, seized Captain Hale in an instant. But denying his name, and the business he came upon, he was ordered to New York. But before he was carried far, several persons knew him and called him by name; upon this he was hanged as a spy, some say, without being brought before a court martial.”

The “stay behind” spy Hercules Mulligan would have far greater success reporting on British goings-on, from the 1776 capture of New York to the ultimate withdrawal seven years later.  But that is a story for another day.

Nathan Hale was brought to the gallows on September 22, 1776, and hanged as a spy.  He was 21.  CIA.gov describes him as “The first American executed for spying for his country”.

Nathan HaleThere is no official account of Nathan Hale’s final words, but we have an eyewitness statement from British Captain John Montresor, who was present at the hanging.

Montresor spoke with American Captain William Hull the following day under flag of truce.  He gave Hull the following account: “‘On the morning of his execution,’ said Montresor, ‘my station was near the fatal spot, and I requested the Provost Marshal to permit the prisoner to sit in my marquee, while he was making the necessary preparations. Captain Hale entered: he was calm, and bore himself with gentle dignity, in the consciousness of rectitude and high intentions. He asked for writing materials, which I furnished him: he wrote two letters, one to his mother and one to a brother officer.’ He was shortly after summoned to the gallows. But a few persons were around him, yet his characteristic dying words were remembered. He said, ‘I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country‘.

George-Washington-Brooklyn-Heights