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Nathan Hale was an Original American Patriot

Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for those who gave their life for our country while serving in the armed forces. Many towns will hold parades, invite dignitaries to make speeches and lay a ceremonial wreath at a war memorial. New flags are placed on the graves of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, a humbling reminder to honor and remember the fallen.

In my travels around The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor, I have learned much about the important role our region played in the Revolutionary War. Our towns were home to Gov. Jonathan Trumbull from Lebanon and Continental Congress President Samuel Huntington from Scotland and Norwich. From our region came Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam of Brooklyn, as well as the notorious Benedict Arnold. Notably, and the subject of today’s column, is a young man from Coventry — Nathan Hale.

There are conflicting accounts of the details of Hale’s service during the revolution. However, a handful of good sources about his life and untimely death exist and agree on the overarching story of this original patriot. The Connecticut Sons of the Revolution website, where I found an excellent article written by Mary J. Ortner about Hale’s life and role during the war is a good place to start if you want to learn more about Hale.

Born in Coventry on June 6, 1755, Nathan Hale was the sixth of 12 children of prosperous farmer Richard Hale and his wife Elizabeth Strong Hale. He attended Yale College, graduated with honors and became a teacher in East Haddam and later in New London.

At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, young Hale joined the Connecticut militia as a first lieutenant. His unit participated in the Siege of Boston, but Hale stayed behind, eventually joining the Continental Army’s 7thConnecticut Regiment.

In the spring of 1776, Washington moved his army to Manhattan to prevent the British from taking New York, and Hale spent the next six months building fortifications at Bayard’s Mount in anticipation of the British invasion.

By September the British were in control of much of Long Island, leaving Washington cornered, trying to defend the island of Manhattan. Washington formed the New England Rangers under the command of Lt. Col. Thomas Knowlton from Ashford, and Hale was invited to command a company assigned to forward reconnaissance.

In his desperation to obtain information about British movements, Washington needed a spy to work behind enemy lines. Knowlton asked for a volunteer for this spy duty, and the 21-year-old Hale accepted the challenge.

Disguised as a schoolmaster looking for work, he made his way to Long Island. Before he could bring information to Washington, the British invaded Manhattan and by Sept. 15, 1776 had taken most of the island with Washington and his troops hiding in the woods of what is now Harlem, searching for a way to avoid capture. On the evening of Sept. 21, 1776, Hale was stopped by the Queen’s Rangers, a new company of Loyalists led by Lt. Robert Rogers, near Flushing Bay.

Hale was brought before British Gen. William Howe and intelligence information was found in Hale’s possession. Hale identified himself, his rank and the purpose of his mission, however being behind enemy lines out of uniform he was identified as a spy. Howe sentenced Hale to hang the next day.

It was a British engineer, John Montresor, who reported on Hale’s fate to the Americans. Montresor witnessed the execution and was touched by Hale’s composure and last words. It just so happens that Montresor was ordered to deliver a message from Howe to Washington under a white flag of truce.

While in American headquarters he reported that Hale had impressed everyone with his dignity. He quoted Hale’s last words on the gallows as, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

These last words from a young Hale made history, even though the validity of the quote remains in question for some historians. It is without question, however, that Hale’s gentle demeanor and composure while facing the gallows showed all witnessing his last moments on earth the true meaning of American patriotism.

His role in the Revolutionary War and inspiration to those who fought after his death led him to be designated the official state hero of Connecticut in 1985. The Last Green Valley is also home to the state heroine – Prudence Crandell of Canterbury, designated the official state heroine in 1995.

If you’re looking to learn and experience more about the life of Nathan Hale, I suggest you consider a visit to the Nathan Hale Homestead in Coventry. Connecticut Landmarks manages the site, and you’ll want to look at their website for hours of operations, special programs and more.

For a full day out in beautiful Coventry, you may want to visit the homestead on a Sunday during the summer months when the Coventry Farmers’ Market is held on the museum grounds. The surrounding Hale Forest also provides excellent hiking.

I hope you find inspiration in the stories of the people who shaped our region, state, country and world. This Memorial Day, as we honor all the men and women who gave their lives fighting for our country, don’t forget Nathan Hale, one of our region’s courageous American patriots.

Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.