By Joan Brown Wettingfeld
Much has been written about the last words uttered by young Nathan Hale as he stepped to the gallows and yet they might have been interred with his bones were it not for a British officer, Captain John Montressor, an engineer, in whose tent Nathan Hale spent the closing hours of his life. This was the final chapter in the life of a patriot who gave his life for his country at the age of 21. The words that became immortalized would never have come to light. He would have remained just another unknown soldier. Instead his last words, “I regret that I have but one life to give to my country,” have resounded through the ages, and made him a legendary figure.
Who was Montressor? In 1772, Montressor was a captain in the British army who had purchased, that year, the island we know today as Randall's Island. In those days it was known as Little Barn Island, probably a corruption of the name of its original Dutch owner, Barendt. Montressor settled there with his family.
He came to know the island and the area because he had secretly surveyed the New York area and the harbor islands before the Revolution and had advised General Howe, commander of the British forces, of possible invasion sites. Earlier when New York was still controlled by the colonists, General Washington had, in 1776, established a small pox quarantine station on Montressor Island, but after the defeat of the Americans in the Battle of Long Island, the island became a British base and a hospital for officers was established there where Montressor's wife, Frances, served as matron. In 1784, the island was purchased by a farmer named Jonathan Randel.
One of eight children of a prosperous farmer, Nathan Hale was born in Coventry, Connecticut, in 1755, graduated from Yale in 1773, and spent the next two years as a schoolteacher. In July of 1775, he accepted a commission in the Continental army as a lieutenant. He was present at the Siege of Boston and at the Battle of Long Island, though he did not engage in combat there. He had always wanted, however, to make a more significant contribution as he and his brothers had always been supporters of the revolutionary cause. He had the makings of the kind of professional officer that Washington was seeking. While many were to desert the cause early on, young Nathan Hale stayed on. He kept a diary ( though sporadic) of his army life, which showed he was well-fitted for his role. At one time when a re-enlistment crisis arose, he offered his salary to his men to stay on. Paine's pamphlet, “Common Sense,” had affected his thinking as it had many of the younger generation.
In 1776, Hale was in the brigade commanded by Major General William Heath, who was charged with gaining information about British troops in New York City. The city had fallen to the British and Hale, who was to become attached to Washington's spy ring based on Long Island (of which the Townsends of Oyster Bay and Joseph Lawrence of Bayside were a part) volunteered to record the details of British operations on Long Island and Manhattan.
The Battle of Long Island had been lost and Washington forced back to Harlem Heights. He needed to know what the enemy, who was entrenched in Western Long Island from the Narrows to Astoria, planned to do, and had requested the commander of Hale's regiment to seek an officer who would volunteer to act as a spy. Nathan Hale volunteered. Though a close friend, Captain William Hull, tried to persuade him otherwise; he failed to do so. Hale's response was: “For a year I have been attached to the army and have not rendered any material service while receiving a compensation for which I make no return … I am freely sensible of the consequences of discovery.”
Nathan Hale left on his mission by way of Norwalk, Connecticut, far enough away to avoid British cognizance as he crossed the Sound. An armed sloop took him to Huntington, where he assumed the character of a schoolmaster. Donning a dark suit of clothes and carrying no papers save his college diploma, he was outfitted for the role he was portraying. Though he reached the western end of the Island, he continued to cross over to Manhattan and took notes of locations of troops and sketches of fortifications that he is said to have hidden in his shoes. The time was mid-September. Washington was not to learn of Hale's fate until Sept. 22.
Historians' scenarios about the end of Nathan Hale's dangerous journey vary. One probable cause for Hale's capture that is rarely mentioned and which is highly plausible, was a disastrous fire in Manhattan that started near the Whitehall ferry slip when a brisk wind swept flames north with devastating effect. General Howe, fearful of a plot to attack his positions, refused to commit his whole army to fight the flames, and as a consequence, one quarter of the city was destroyed. More importantly, the British began a house-to-house search and sentries challenged every stranger. Such increased vigilance could have contributed to Hales' downfall. Trapped, he took refuge in a tavern called “The Cedars,” but before he could formulate a plan, he was picked up when the British searched the place for incendiaries.
Forthright to a fault, Hale admitted that he was an American officer and a spy and Howe ordered him hanged without a trial. That evening, Nathan Hale spent his last hours in the greenhouse of Howe's Beekman Mansion, located at what would be First Avenue and 51st Street today, and his request for a clergyman and a Bible was refused. Nearby in his tent sat Captain John Montressor, who invited Hale to join him. Montressor was impressed with the young man and when he was asked, gave Hale pen and paper. Hale then wrote two letters, one to his brother, Enoch, the other to his former commander, whom he did not know had been killed in the battle of Harlem Heights. Thus it was that Montressor witnessed the end.
Hale was summoned by the hangman, a mulatto, named Richmond, who asked if he had any final words, and Hale responded with those now-famous last words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
The story does not end here, for were it not for Captain Montressor, we may never have known of Hale's last words. The British provost refused to deliver Hale's letter saying, “Rebels should never know they had a man who could die with so much firmness.” Montressor, however, met a few days later with American officers under a flag of truce to discuss an exchange of prisoners and related the details of Hale's death. Among the officers present was Captain William Hull, one of Nathan Hale's closest friends. Hull's Memoirs, completed in 1848, confirm the story related by Montressor and the quote still stands.
Nathan Hale was buried in an unmarked grave in Manhattan while his words live on. An 18th-century author, Joseph Addison, wrote the following:
“How beautiful is death when earned
Who would not be that youth? What pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our Country!”
Act I, Cato
One can imagine that an educated young man such as Nathan Hale might well have been acquainted with that passage. Whatever the story, it does not dim his courage, valor, and patriotism, for he earned his page in history at the tender age of 21.