|This Week in American History
September 19 25, 1776
Nathan Hale and John Andre: Two Cases of Military Justice
After Gen. George Washington evacuated his Continental Army troops from their hopeless position on Brooklyn Heights during the wee hours of Aug. 29, 1776, the Americans still faced an overwhelmingly superior British and Hessian land and sea force, determined to possess New York City and its ample harbor. During the early weeks of September, as the British maneuvered to capture Manhattan Island, Washington moved his forces northward on the island and encamped on the Harlem Plains, just north of, what is today, 125th Street.
On Sept. 15, the British Army, with naval support on both the Hudson and East Rivers, occupied southern Manhattan and halted at what is now 42nd Street. Generals Howe and Clinton ensconced themselves in the Beekman mansion on Murray Hill, and sent an expedition northward the next day to probe for the American positions. This expedition suffered a shocking defeat at American hands in what was called the "Hollow Way," a dip between two northern Manhattan hills.
A few days before Sept. 15, General Washington had asked Lt. Col. Thomas Knowlton to recruit a few men to go behind the enemy lines to scout out British positions and troop movements. Capt. Nathan Hale commanded a company of Knowlton's men, and when he heard of the mission, some tried to dissuade him from volunteering. He replied: "I am fully sensible of the consequences of discovery and capture in such a situation. But for a year, I have been attached to the army, and have not rendered any material service." According to Hale's sergeant, Hale twice visited George Washington to discuss the route he would follow, the precautions he must take, and what his cover story would be.
Despite the American victory at the "Hollow Way," the Continental Army was still in a very dangerous position, for the British Navy was free to enter Long Island Sound and land troops on its northern shore. From there, the British could swing northwestward to the Hudson, trapping the Americans between them and the British forces on Manhattan. Washington was keenly aware of this possibility, which General William Howe would indeed try to implement in October, and ordered the Continental Army to march northward into the more defensible hills of Westchester County. But the inadequate number of wagons to carry armaments and supplies, and the starving condition of the horses, made progress very slow, and the retreating army was stretched out in a long, thin, and very vulnerable line.
As this retreat was beginning, Nathan Hale was travelling to Connecticut in order to cross Long Island Sound. Captain Hale had graduated from Yale in 1773, where his good friend and fellow classmate was Benjamin Tallmadge, who also joined the Continental Army and became one of George Washington's most trusted intelligence officers. Nathan Hale had taught school after his graduation until July of 1775, when he joined the Connecticut Militia and, shortly later, became an officer in the Continental Army. Because of his former occupation, Hale was to go to Long Island in the guise of a schoolmaster looking for work, carrying his college diploma with him.
Caleb Brewster's whaleboaters ferried Hale successfully across Long Island Sound, but unfortunately a British patrol ship caught a glimpse of the whaleboat returning, and surmised that it had dropped off a spy. One of the passengers on the British ship was Robert Rogers, the leader of the near-savage Rogers' Rangers during the French and Indian War. Rogers had been going back and forth between the Americans and British trying to sell his services to the highest bidder, and the British won him after George Washington had serious doubts about Rogers' motives. Rogers set himself the task of discovering the spy who had landed by boat, and he ranged Long Island in pursuit, alerting the Tories to be on the lookout for strangers.
Nathan Hale, meanwhile, headed along the coast road toward Manhattan, taking note of troop deployments. He had finished his work, and was returning to the American base on upper Manhattan, when a group of Tories, one of them a distant relative, recognized him and reported him to the British Army.
Hale's captors, among whom was the triumphant Robert Rogers, brought him to Howe's headquarters on Sept. 21, a day when the British were in a particularly vengeful mood. Near midnight on Sept. 20, a fire had broken out in New York and the flames were fanned by a brisk wind. It is still unclear how the fire startedsome trace it to British soldiers' wives who started a cooking fire with long pieces of wood and then left the aftermath unattended; the British claimed it was set by American partisans.
Whatever the cause, Howe did not allow the bulk of his troops to fight the fire, because he feared a night attack by the Americans. British patrols, however, were in the streets and when they suspected Americans were setting other fires, they summarily threw the suspectsseveral men and one womaninto the flames. By the end of the night, 500 houses had been destroyed, and the British never attempted to rebuild the devastated area during their long years of occupation of the city.
While the remains of the gutted buildings were still smouldering, Nathan Hale was brought to British Army headquarters on Manhattan. General Howe signed Hale's death warrant, without benefit of a trial, and Hale was put under the guard of the provost marshal, William Cunningham. Cunningham, who kept Hale's diploma as a souvenir, would be hanged in London in 1791 for forgery. On the scaffold, he confessed that he had caused the deaths of 2,000 prisoners by starvation and cruelty. He sold the prisoners' rations for profit, and sometimes, when the mood struck him, he hurried them to their graves by poisoning them.
The execution was scheduled for 11:00 the next morning at the artillery park. Hale was denied his request to see a clergyman, but he was able to write a letter to his mother and to a fellow American officer. On the scaffold, Hale was very composed, and made a short address to the crowd, talking of the righteousness of the American cause, the duty of every good soldier to obey the orders of his commander-in-chief, and urging the British soldiers to be ready to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.
After the execution, the British found a cutout of an American soldier and hung it up beside Hale, labeling it "General Washington." The phrase attributed to Hale on the scaffold"I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country"came from the play "Cato" by Joseph Addison, which was a favorite of Hale's. He had cited it to his fellow officers, and perhaps included it in the final letter to his friend, and so, in later years, his friends concluded that he would have used it in his last minutes on Earth.
Almost exactly four years later, on Sept. 25, 1780, Gen. Benedict Arnold fled down the Hudson River in a British ship, his treason against West Point having been discovered. But his fellow plotter, British Maj. John Andre, had been captured while in civilian dress by American militia. Andre was the Adjutant-General of British Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, and was also one of the general's spymasters. It was he who had cultivated Peggy Shippen, Arnold's Tory wife-to-be, during the British occupation of Philadelphia, and it was he who had run Arnold as he prepared to betray the American cause.
In the months before he hoped to deliver West Point to the British, Arnold had pressured many of his officers to give him the names and locations of American undercover spies, with the excuse that he must know who they were in order to protect West Point. Those names were scheduled to be transferred to Major Andre.
One officer who refused to turn over any information was Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, Nathan Hale's classmate at Yale. Tallmadge ran the Culper spy network on Long Island, which was invaluable to the American cause and was never cracked by the British, although they tried mightily to discover its operatives. When Andre was captured and taken to Tappan, New York to await a military trial, he was accompanied by Benjamin Tallmadge.
In the course of the trip, wrote Tallmadge, Andre "became very inquisitive to know my opinion as to the result of his capture. When I could no longer evade his importunity, I remarked to him as follows: 'I had a much-loved classmate in Yale College by the name of Hale, who entered the army in 1775. Immediately after the Battle of Long Island, Washington wanted information respecting the strength of the enemy. Hale tendered his services, went over to Brooklyn, and was taken just as he was passing the outposts of the enemy on his return.' Said I with emphasis, 'Do you remember the sequel of the story?'"
"'Yes,' said Andre, 'He was hanged as a spy. But you surely do not consider his case and mine alike!'"
"I replied, 'Yes, precisely similar; and similar will be your fate.'"
"He endeavoured to answer my remarks, but it was manifest he was more troubled in spirit than I had ever seen him before."
General Clinton tried to save Andre and offered to exchange any American prisoner for him, but when Washington wanted to exchange him for Benedict Arnold, Clinton refused. An American military tribunal found Andre guilty of spying, and he was condemned to death. Andre sent a piteous letter to Washington, begging to die in front of a firing squad, and Washington submitted the letter to a council of general officers, but they decided that since Major Andre had been convicted of spying, they could not grant the request.
The morning of the execution, Andre's breakfast was sent to him from the table of General Washington, as it had been every day. When Andre, who had been hoping that his request for a firing squad would be granted, saw the gallows, he started backward and paused. But, he said, "It will be but a momentary pang." The crowd was not hostile, but lamented the young man's fate.
George Washington wrote a summation of the events triggered by the traitor and the British spy: "In no instance since the commencement of the war has the interposition of Providence appeared more remarkably conspicuous than in the rescue of the post and garrison at West Point. A combination of extraordinary circumstances threw the adjutant-general of the British forces, with full proof of Arnold's intention, into our hands. Andre has met his fate with that fortitude which was to be expected from an accomplished man and a gallant officer. But I [doubt] if Arnold is suffering the torments of a mental hell. He [lacks] feeling. From some traits of his character which have lately come to my knowledge, he seems to have been so hacknied in crime, so lost to all sense of honor and shame, that while his faculties still enable him to continue his sordid pursuits, there will be no time for remorse."