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Behind the Name: Nathan Hale

By Sten Spinella
On April 22, 2014

There are two buildings on the Storrs campus that the University of Connecticut has named after Connecticut native and American hero, Nathan Hale.
Hale was a Connecticut man through and through, born close to the Storrs campus in Coventry in 1755. He attended Yale University and after graduating was a schoolteacher in East Haddam. In East Haddam, the middle school and high school are named after Hale, and the schoolhouse he once taught in is a tourist attraction.
But what makes Hale so noteworthy? Although he was named the state hero of Connecticut in 1985, it was a grave error that secured his spot in American military history.
The date was Sept. 10, 1776. General George Washington was in need of a volunteer spy who could acquire information leading up to the prospective Battle of Harlem Heights. Captain Nathan Hale offered his services. Reportedly, Hale was willing to become a spy because of his feeling of futility, borne out of a lack of action during his time as captain. Although spying was viewed as work to be done by subordinates, and Hale's friends advised against it, Hale took the job because he felt a duty to do so.
Hale, whose espionage persona was "Dutch schoolmaster," found initial success gathering information on British troop movements. After the attack on Manhattan Island, though, British troops were told to be cautious of spies like Hale and American sympathizers.
As is the case with many of the facts of Hale's narrative, there are differing accounts of his capture. One says it was William Howe, a British General, who, after questioning Hale, found documents on him that proved him to be on the American side. Another, more recent account says that Hale gave himself away to a British soldier posing as an American patriot, Robert Rogers.
The story comes from a storeowner named Consider Tiffany, who was alive during the revolution. His account of the war effort was recently found and examined by historians. Many of his claims have been substantiated. Essentially, Hale admitted he was an American spy to Rogers when Rogers approached Hale in his home and toasted to American independence, and the American congress as well. Hale soon opened up to Rogers about his mission, thinking Rogers a comrade and fellow revolutionary. Now, the first rule of being a spy is to never admit you're a spy, but Hale had had little to no training at all, and the concept of a spy was much less defined in the times of the revolution.
Part of Tiffany's account reads "[The British] detected several American officers, that were sent to Long Island as spies, especially Captain Hale, who was improved in disguise, to find whether the Long Island inhabitants were friends to America or not. Colonel Rogers having for some days, observed Captain Hale, and suspected that he was an enemy in disguise; and to convince himself, Rogers thought of trying the same method, he quickly altered his own habit, with which he Made Capt. Hale a visit at his quarters, where the Colonel fell into some discourse concerning the war, intimating the trouble of his mind, in his being detained on an island, where the inhabitants sided with the Britains against the American Colonies, intimating withal, that he himself was upon the business of spying out the inclination of the people and motion of the British troops. This intrigue, not being suspected by the Capt., made him believe that he had found a good friend, and one that could be trusted with the secrecy of the business he was engaged in; and after the Colonel's drinking a health to the Congress: informs Rogers of the business and intent."
Rogers then reported Hale, according to Tiffany, and he was promptly arrested. His last words were supposedly: "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country."
After his death, Hale he became a legendary figure in American folklore and one that is celebrated on UConn's campus with the Nathan Hale Inn and at Hilltop dormitories at Nathan Hale Hall.
 


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