Nathan Hale may not have been a particularly skilled spy. He did, after all, get himself captured and hanged by the British during the American Revolution, famously saying (or so the legend goes), “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” But he was one of the nation’s very first spies, and indisputably patriotic, which was enough to get him designated an official Connecticut hero.
Hale gathered information about the British army while under the guise of being a schoolteacher, which happens to be what his actual profession was before he became a soldier and a spy. In 1773, right after graduating from Yale, Hale taught 33 boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 18 in a little red one-room schoolhouse in East Haddam, Connecticut, called the First Society School.
Reportedly, he found life in East Haddam dull, though he enjoyed his teaching position. His students reportedly enjoyed him as well, which is impressive considering a school day in that time and place lasted from 7 in the morning until 9 at night, the only break an hour for lunch.
Hale left his teaching position and enlisted with a Connecticut regiment at the start of the American Revolution. He never saw much fighting, but after the Battle of Brooklyn Heights in August of 1776, when the British took control of Long Island, Hale volunteered to be one of General George Washington’s much-needed spies.
Adopting the guise of a schoolmaster, he crossed the Long Island Sound to Huntington, New York, and started asking questions. He asked so many that the British became suspicious, and he was ended up outing himself to a British agent pretending to be an American sympathizer. He was hanged for espionage on September 22, 1776, at what is now 3rd Avenue and 66th Street in Manhattan.
His heroic last words went down in history—unfortunately, he may never actually have uttered them. It has been pointed out that they are quite similar to a line in the play Cato by Joseph Addison.
Today, the historic Nathan Hale Schoolhouse in Connecticut commemorates the teacher/spy. It was built at the corner of Main Street and Norwich Road in East Haddam in 1750, five years before its namesake was born. It functioned as a schoolhouse until 1799, when Captain Elijah Attwood bought it and moved it further north on Main Street where he and his family lived in it for generations.
In 1899, the family gave the schoolhouse to the New York Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, who then gave it to the Connecticut Society of the same in 1900. The Nathan Hale Memorial Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution have filled the house with the sorts of desks and tools that would have been found in an 18th century schoolhouse. Hale was designated Connecticut’s state hero by the state legislature in 1985.
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