The True Story of Nathan (‘The Torch’) Hale: No Wonder They Hanged Him

By Thomas Fleming

(Originally published in New York Magazine, July 14, 1975, pp. 33-36).

"… Between 600 and 1,000 houses, a quarter of New York City, were destroyed in September, 1776, by American incendiaries…"

Not long ago a Yale professor tried to shock the assumptions out of the nation’s high-school history teachers by announcing that Nathan Hale’s dying words were a myth. The professor himself my be shocked to learn that even if he were correct (which he is not), this is among the least shocking things a close look at Nathan Hale reveals. My research leads me to conclude that Hale was not hanged as a martyr spy. He got an unceremonious noose for being part of George Washington’s illegal, clandestine, publicly denied but privately admitted plot to burn down New York City.

New York was the prize for which the rebels and the king’s supporters battled in year one of the American republic. John Adams called it "the key to the continent." Washington staked his reputation on its defense. But he and the men around him were trapped by one of the major American illusions of 1776 – the belief that the key to victory was a large-scale repetition of Bunker Hill. The Americans exhausted their army by decorating New York, Brooklyn, and the upper reaches of Manhattan Island with huge forts, which the British were supposed to attack, exposing the whites of their eyes willy-nilly. Alas, the British had given serious thought to preserving themselves. They outflanked the forts and drove the Americans headlong from Brooklyn. They repeated the performance at Kips Bay (now East 34th Street), sending the defenders of New York sprinting for the safety of Harlem Heights, while Washington sat on his horse near present-day 42nd Street and Third Avenue, roaring curses at them.

Downtown, an hour or so later, the civilians demonstrated whose side they were on. The commander of the British fleet, Admiral Richard Lord Howe, sent a party of royal marines to take possession of the fort on the Battery and to hoist the Union Jack. A crowd of people swarmed around the seagoing soldiers, and as the flag soared aloft there was an explosion of cheers. The American Grand Union flag (the stripes with the Union Jack in the corner instead of stars) was trampled underfoot "with the most contemptuous indignation," reported Lord Howe’s secretary, Ambrose Serle, who was an eyewitness from the deck of Howe’s flagship, H.M.S. Eagle. "Nothing could equal the expressions of joy shown by the inhabitants," Serle wrote. "They even carried some of [the king’s officers] upon their shoulders about the streets. They have felt so much of real tyranny since the New England and other rebels came among them, they are at a loss how to enjoy their release."

In 1776 the Revolutionary War was about as popular in New York City as the war in Vietnam was to New Yorkers of the 1970’s. New York was more a part of the Atlantic world than it was part of America. The city reaped fabulous benefits from belonging to the British Empire, the greatest protected trading system in world history. To a great majority of New Yorkers, the Revolution was a brainless quarrel with the mother country started by New England fanatics. New Yorkers had begun sabotaging the Glorious Cause from the moment the war began. On January 18, 1776,they wrecked some 300 cannon which revolutionists had gathered in Westchester County, just north of the Bronx River. They worked with the British to counterfeit the paper dollars issued by the Continental congress, hoping to destroy the Revolution’s currency. The mayor of the city and a shocking number of leading citizens were involved in a plot to poison George Washington and to blow up King’s Bridge, the one American escape route from Manhattan Island.

Even the New Yorkers who were technically on the American side were so lukewarm they drove Washington and his staff to distraction. As fast as the army arrested loyalists for selling food to the British fleet in the Hudson River, the New York Provincial Congress released them. On the eve of the Declaration of Independence, ordering elections to form a new republican government, the Provincial Congress announced its rebel regime would remain in force only "until a future peace with Great Britain shall render the same unnecessary."

All this was very much on George Washington’s mind as he pondered the next American move in his headquarters at the white-columned Roger Morris (now Jumel) mansion on present-day 161st Street. On his desk was a letter from his most gifted general, Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island, telling him in the bluntest possible terms what he thought this next move should be. "Two-thirds of the property of the city of New York and the suburbs belongs to the Tories. We have no very great reason to run considerable risk for its defense. I would burn the city and the suburbs…"

Greene had written this letter to Washington before the rout at Kips Bay. Washington in turn had written to the Continental Congress, asking it for permission to destroy the city. Its answer revealed the clout exercised by New Yorkers in that political body: "Resolved that General Wash-/ 34 /ington be acquainted that Congress would have special care taken, incase he should find it necessary to quite New York, that no damage be done to the said city by his troops, on their leaving it. The Congress have no doubt of being able to recover the same though the enemy for a time obtain possession of it."

Militarily, this was nonsense, as Greene pointed out in his letter. "If the enemy gets possession of the city, we can never recover [it] without a superior naval force to theirs." There were over 400 British men-of-war and armed transports in New York harbor – the largest armada assembled in American waters up to that date. The American navy at this point consisted of a half-dozen ships. Washington knew that the congressmen were talking through their political hats, a habit they have not abandoned these 200 years.

Rumors about burning the city had in fact been circulating for weeks. On August 22, before the British started turning the Americans into sprinters, the New York Provincial Congress sent a delegation to Washington, urging him not to do it. "I can assure you, gentlemen," he replied, "that this report is not founded upon the best authority from me." Numerous letters from the British side indicate that they expected a conflagration. "All accounts agree that they are preparing to evacuate the town," one officer wrote. "Whether they will burn it or not is uncertain, as the provincials from the jerseys and the neighborhood strenuously oppose that measure."

Washington was on a sticky wicket. In the clearest possible language, his civilian superiors had ordered him not to burn New York City. Everyone, especially New Yorkers, knew the New Englanders wanted to burn it. A few days before the Kips Bay rout, when he tried to replace three regiments of New York troops in the city with three regiments of Connecticut militia, the New Yorkers had almost mutinied and refused to leave. They said the Yankees would burn the city if New Yorkers weren’t there to stop them.

While Washington squirmed, Nathan Hale was trudging toward New York from Huntington, Long Island, where he had landed to do some spying. It was unusual for an army officer to operate as a spy. Hale’s friends were appalled when they learned that he had volunteered for the job. William Hull, a fellow captain in his regiment, tried to talk him out of it. No one could order an officer to do such a dirty job. There was something disgraceful about the very nature of the business. Hull asked Hale, "Who respects the character of a spy?"

Hale’s answer could have come from the most committed CIA agent. Every kind of service necessary to the public good, he told Hull, "becomes honorable by being necessary." Besides, he had been in the army a full year and had yet to render any "material service."

A man as committed as Hale must have been dismayed by what he found on Long Island. Everywhere the Revolution had collapsed. Patriot militia companies were disbanding and rebel politicians were hastily signing apostrophes to George III. Farmers were taking a lot more than the king’s shilling from British commissaries for their beef, pork, and produce. To Hale, with his passionate New England commitment to the Revolution, it was only / 36 / one more proof of New York’s perfidy.

Hale’s mission on Long Island was to find out who the British were planning to attack New York. Kips Bay made this information superfluous. With courage that approached foolhardiness, Hale decided to extend his spying to the city. It was foolhardy because Hale had spent five months on garrison duty in and around New York. Dozens of people were likely to recognize the athletic, good-looking Yale graduate who used to play football on the Bowery.

There were dozens of boats carrying beef and produce from Long Island farms to the city. Hale may have gotten a job on one of these ships. He was probably in the city by September 19. Most of the British army was camped outside it. After a skirmish on September 16 in which the Americans had fought better than anyone (including George Washington) had expected, the British commander, affable, easygoing William Howe, had created a fortified line from present-day Gracie Mansion to Strykers Bay at West 90th Street. Behind this line, Howe ordered the soldiers, "whose valor has freed the people from the worst kind of slavery," to be careful "that no act of theirs prevent the enjoyment of all the blessings that attend British liberty."

No one knows what Hale did in New York. But we do know – although the history books have been notably silent about it – what other Americans were doing. For three previous days small squads of New Englanders, mostly from Connecticut, had infiltrated the city disguised as farmers eager to sell their produce. At the bottom of carts loaded with corn were dozens of logs dipped in rosin. A touch of a match and they would create a stupendous blaze. Supplies of similar "combustibles," as they were called, may have been left at strategic points.

Did Nathan Hale meet or recognize any of these fire-setters? There is a good chance that he did, because of the likelihood that some of them were from his own company -–which had included the few men in the American army who had some previous experience in dealing with "combustibles.’ About a month earlier they had manned two fire ships which had attacked British men-of-war in the Hudson River, and had come very close to destroying them. Washington had been so impressed by their bravery , he had given each of the $40 out of his own pocket. Did Hale, seeing some of these men, join their pot and forget all about diagramming British fortifications? At least one historian, William Henry Shelton, iconoclastic enough to doubt the whole story of Hale the martyr spy, thinks so.

Whatever Hale was doing, this much is certain: shortly after midnight on Saturday, September 21, a cry that every eighteenth-century city-dweller dreaded was heard in New York’s streets: "FIRE!" The wind was blowing briskly from the south, and the flames, which broke out first in a wooden house near Whitehall ferry slip, swept north with a rapidity that stunned the British. Admiral Lord Howe ordered hundreds of sailors from the fleet ashore to fight the blaze, and two regiments of the army’s Fifth Brigade, stationed just north of the city, rushed to help. As they went to work, flames exploded in five or six other places far away from Whitehall. Moreover, the sailors and soldiers found that most fire engines had been sabotaged, hoses cut, and even handles amputated from the fire buckets.

Troops and sailors soon saw New Yorkers running from empty houses, seconds before they burst into flames. At one point in the roaring chaos they heard a cry of pain and saw a woman, who had been carrying buckets of water up to a fire engine, clutching her bloody arm. She pointed to a man with a cutlass and screamed that he had stabbed her. Enraged sailors killed him on the spot and hung him by the heels from the nearest tree limb. Several other Americans caught setting fire to rosin-soaked combustibles met equally brutal deaths. Their bodies were thrown into the flames.

Mervin Nooth, aboard the hospital ship Pigot in the Hudson River, trained a telescope on the roof of Trinity Church and saw a man with a torch in his hand "going backward and forward upon the roof with great rapidity." Moments later, several parts of the roof burst into flames. As an Episcopal church, Trinity was a symbol of British authority, hence a logical target for bishop-hating New Englanders. The whole church was soon ablaze, its 140-foot-high wooden steeple creating "a lofty pyramid of fire." With it went to the rector’s house and charity school. St. Paul’s Church and King’s College (later Columbia) would have gone too, since they were directly in the line of fire, except for the vigorous efforts of the Reverend Charles Inglis, who rushed people to their roofs with buckets of water to douse their cedar shingles.

Within two hours a huge conflagration was raging. "The wind was so strong," one British officer wrote, "that it was almost impossible to face it, for smoke and flakes of fire." General Howe refused to commit his whole army to fighting the blaze, fearing it might be part of a plan to attack his forward positions. At daybreak the fire was still burning out of control, having cut a huge swath from Whitehall up the west side of the city. Captain Frederick MacKenzie of the Royal Welsh fusiliers, who reached the city around this time, wrote in his diary that it was ‘almost impossible to conceive a scene of more horror and distress…. The sick, the aged, women and children half naked were seen going they knew not where, taking refuge in houses which were at a distance from the fire, but from whence they were in several instances driven a second and even a third time." Finally, "in a state of despair they fell cowering on the grass" in City Hall Park, then called the Common.

Only by pulling down dozens of houses and creating firebreaks did the soldiers and sailors finally stop the flames about 11 a.m. Between 600 and 1,000 houses – a quarter of the city – were destroyed. The British began a house-to-house search for more American incendiaries. Sentries were urged to be on the alert and to search and challenge every stranger. This sharply increased vigilance was Captain Nathan Hale’s undoing. He made a desperate effort to get out of the still smoldering city on that same Saturday, but sentries were guarding almost every foot of the British-fortified line north of the city.

No doubt thinking he would have a better chance in the early hours of the morning, Hale took refuge in a tavern, the Cedars, just inside the British lines, not more than a mile from the safety of the American camp. The story that he was turned in by a Tory cousin is probably untrue. Some Loyalist may have pointed him out as suspicious. That night almost everyone looked suspicious to the enraged supporters of the king.

Hale was escorted to General Howe’s headquarters in the Beekman mansion, which stood near the corner of present-day First Avenue and 51st Street. Here – or possibly earlier at the tavern – he was searched. According to tradition, the British found diagrams of forts and information on troop dispositions concealed in his shoes. But only one historian has previously noted that two British accounts of the fire, written / 36 / immediately after it, suggest that they may have found something else on Nathan Hale: "A New England captain was seized with matches in his pocket." The captain was said to have acknowledged that he was part of a plan to burn down the city. This, and not the fact that Hale admitted he was a spy, may explain why Howe did not even give him the formality of a trial. As an officer, Hale had a right to expect one, according to the usages of war. Four years later, the Americans gave John André, Benedict Arnold’s accomplice in the plot to surrender West Point, an elaborate court-martial. Instead, Howe, ordinarily a rather kind-hearted man, ordered that Hale be hanged the next morning. This was the sort of treatment one might expect him to give to a man who had participated in "an atrocious act," as one British witness called the burning of the city.

Hale spent the night in the greenhouse of the Beekman mansion. The next morning he was escorted to the British artillery park near the Dove tavern at present third Avenue and 66th Street, where he was handed over to the provost marshal, William Cunningham. Hale reportedly asked Cunningham for a clergyman. The provost marshal refused his request. Hale asked for a Bible. The answer was a curt no. Although Cunningham later proved himself vindictive towards other American prisoners, thi8s was exceptionally cruel treatment of a man about to die – unless the British considered Hale’s crime to be much worse than spying.

At the artillery park, Cunningham was called away on other business, and Hale was left standing with his guard. Captain John Montrésor, a British engineer who had spent 24 years in America, was sitting under the marquee of his tent only a few feet away. Montrésor invited the condemned man to sit down beside him. Hale remained remarkably composed. He asked Montrésor for pen and paper and wrote two letters, one to his brother Enoch, the other to his commanding officer, Colonel Thomas Knowlton. Montrésor was moved by Hale's dignity, his "consciousness of rectitude and high intentions."

After the two men had talked for a few moments, Cunningham summoned Hale. The official hangman put a noose over his head. Although most of the audience were almost certainly British soldiers, Hale took advantage of the eighteenth-century gallows custom to make "a sensible and spirited speech," which he ended with a paraphrase of a line from the most popular play of the era, Addison’s Cato. According to one version, published five months later in the Essex Journal of Newburyport, Massachusetts, Hale said that if he had ten thousand lives he would lay them all down, if called to it, in defense of his injured, bleeding country. This was improved upon by later versions of his death, until it became the traditional "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

The Yale professor who contends that Hale never said any such thing cited the diary of the British officer Captain MacKenzie, who quoted Hale as saying he thought it "the duty of every good officer, to obey any orders given him by his commander in chief." This account was obviously hearsay, and implausible if Hale was being hanged only because he was a spy. For one thing, Hale was not ordered to spy – he could not be ordered -- he volunteered. But the words do make sense – a lot more sense – if they are attributed to a Connecticut captain who was caught with matches in his pocket as part of the plot to burn down New York. Nor does MacKenzie’s account of what was said necessarily preclude the traditional part of Hale’s speech.

Even more significant than Hale’s unceremonious hanging was what the British did to his corpse. They left it dangling from the limb of a tree in front of the artillery park for three days. Some British soldiers hung a sign on his chest: "Mr. Washington." The traditional versions of Hale’s story say that he was left there as a warning to other spies. But every spy knew that he was risking the noose. Rather, the warning was intended for Americans who might be inclined to another try at burning down the rest of New York. While Hale’s body dangled there, the city continued to smolder. A great pall of smoke hung over Manhattan Island for days. Search parties continued to find combustibles hidden all over the city. Some two weeks later, when a fireplace was lit in one building that had been converted into a hospital, the chimney exploded, blowing burning wood all over the room.

Hale’s story has provided inspiration for thousands of fourth of July orators. But in 1776 his death inspired practically no one. Americans maintained an almost total silence about him except for the previously cited story in an obscure New England newspaper. Officially, Hale almost ceased to exist. A few days later, Captain Montrésor met a party of American officers under a flag of truce to discuss an exchange of prisoners. Among the Americans was Captain William Hull. Montrésor told Hull the story of Hale’s death. Hull, appalled by his friend’s fate, which he still considered disgraceful, told no one about it until 1799, when he arranged for ah short version of it to be published in a book on the history of New England. Not until 50 years later did his daughter tell the whole story in a book based on Hull’s unpublished memoirs. As late as 1827, Elisha Bostwick, Hale’s sergeant, wrote in an aside to his pension application, "Why is it that the delicious Captain Hale should be left and lost in an unknown grave and forgotten?" not until Yale men began writing poems and sponsoring biographies and building statues of Hale in the 1850’s did he become a national name. Badly as America needed heroes in 1776, Nathan Hale was closer to being an unknown soldier. Was the reason George Washington’s reluctance to discuss how and why New York was scorched?

With a cool that William Colby or Richard Helms might envy, Washington never admitted having had anything to do with the plot to burn the city. Two days after the fire, he solemnly gold Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut, "By what means it happened we do not know, but the gentleman who brought the letter from General Howe [Captain Montrésor] last night informed [us] that several of our countrymen had been punished with various deaths on account of it, some by hanging, others by burning, alleging they were apprehended when committing the act." Only once did Washington drop his guard when discussing the subject. "Providence," he said, "or some good honest fellow, has done more for us than we were disposed to do for ourselves."

One of his aides was less discreet. Tench Tilghman, writing to his Loyalist father in Maryland, where most people thought even less of New Englanders than New Yorkers did, described the chaos of the fire and the numerous Americans who were killed by the outraged British soldiers and sailors. He commented that some of these "poor creatures… were perhaps [only] flying from the flames." Then, never thinking that history would track down his private letter, he added, Some were executed next day upon good grounds." | Email Me | HTML'd 3 Feb 99