W ASHINGTON'S army had been defeated in the battle of Long Island, and, only by a narrow chance did the troops manage to escape to Manhattan Island. The British were threatening New York, and Washington was almost in despair. The one thing he needed most was information concerning the plans of the enemy.
"If I could have someone to go into the enemy's lines, and find out their strength and purpose, I might save my army," he said to one of his officers. "Get me the man if you can."
The officer called his associates together, and put the problem before them, but, one by one, they refused the dangerous task. They knew the perils of the life of a spy. They knew he had to wear the enemy's uniform, or no uniform at all; had to pretend friendship with the foe, to keep an eye on everything, to find out what he could, to draw plans of forts, to secure important papers and keep them hidden, until he could slip back within his own lines. He needed quickness of mind and wit, a heart of courage, and nerve of iron, for he would be surrounded by danger every minute, and if he were caught, his fate would be certain death.
At last one officer heard what Washington wanted, and at once said, "I will take any risk for Washington and my country. I am ready to go." His name was Captain Nathan Hale. Hale had been a school teacher before the war. He was young, athletic, brave, and much admired by all who knew him. He was a famous runner, and, when a student at Yale College, held the record for the longest standing jump. When he came to Washington and asked for instructions, the great Chief said,
"My boy, I have little to say. Go into the enemy's lines, find out how many troops they have, where they are placed, and what they intend to do. That is all. Bring me word if you can. If you never get back, remember you are serving your country. God bless you!"
Hale saluted and departed. He took off his uniform, and put on a brown suit and a broad-brimmed hat, the dress of a Quaker school teacher. He went on board a sloop late at night, and was landed near the British outposts. He spent the next day with a farmer nearby, and then, in the afternoon, walked boldly into the enemy's lines.
What he did for the next two weeks no one will ever know. He acted his part very well, however, for he was not suspected of being a spy. He told the British he was a Quaker, who did not believe in war, and that he wanted to teach school. But he was learning all he could. His eyes were alert and watchful, without seeming to be so. He listened to conversations and, occasionally, when close, he would make drawings of the forts and camp. All his notes were written in Latin, so that they could not be easily read.
At last Hale learned all he thought was necessary. Gathering his material together, he ripped open the soles of his shoes and carefully hid the precious notes therein. Then he was ready to start for home. Washington was looking for him, and, by previous arrangement, was to send a boat for him to take him into the American lines. There was a little tavern at Huntingdon, near the place where the boat was to come. Hale walked into the tavern one day, and sat down, waiting until the time arrived for him to meet his friends.
As he sat there, a man came in and looked him over closely. Hale paid no attention, and the man went out. But Hale had been recognized by someone who knew him, and the man was on his way to the British to report that the school teacher was also an American officer, known as Captain Nathan Hale. After an hour or two, Hale left the tavern, and walked down toward the shore to meet his boat. But instead of his own boat at the landing, there was a British boat. The officer called out, "Surrender, you spy, or I fire."
Hale knew he was caught, and held up his hands in token of surrender. He was carried to the British Commander, and made no effort to conceal his name or his purpose. They tore open his shoes and found the papers. Then they condemned him to be hanged at sunrise the next day.
It was a beautiful Sunday morning, and Hale was led out before the gallows, which was nothing but the limb of a tree. "Have you anything to say?" asked the British officer. The brave young patriot looked up into the sky, and then at the rope, which already was around his neck, and slowly replied, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."
A few moments later Nathan Hale was dead. His body was probably buried there, under the tree, but nobody to this day knows.