September 22, 2006

Gratuitous Historickal Posting - Revolutionary War Division


On September 22, 1776, Nathan Hale was hanged as a spy by the British in New York City.

Hale is rightly remembered and revered for the nobility of his death. If he did not actually say, "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my Country," as some suggest, by all accounts he said something very much along those lines.

But I think that another aspect of Hale's heroism tends to get overlooked. Hale, a young army officer, was an utterly rank amateur in matters of espionage. (Indeed, as it turned out, he made a rotten spy, allowing himself to get caught by spouting pro-revolutionary sentiments in a tavern in the British-occupied city and being fool enough to carry damning papers about his person.) Nonetheless, he willingly took on the insanely dangerous and complicated task of trying to gain information about the British fortifications around New York by creeping behind the lines and recording his observations. He certainly would have been aware of how risky the prospect was, and yet he did it anyway. Perhaps I just didn't read the right school texts, but it strikes me that this aspect of the story doesn't get as much mention as Hale's actual execution. Yet surely the fact of his volunteering for the mission to begin with was as heroic as his resultant death.

Amateurism, improvisation and stop-gapping in the face of overwhelming risk and danger hallmarked not just Hale himself, but virtually the entire army under Washington at this point of the American Revolution. If you want an excellent treatment of this and you haven't already done so, I heartily recommend that you pick up a copy of David McCullough's 1776. Hale ultimately got caught and destroyed. What is chilling is how close Washington and the rest of the army came to suffering the same fate.

(Speaking of things one learned in school, there is one aspect of this story that has always irked me and that is the attempt to paint Lord Howe, the British commander, as some kind of comic book villain for having Hale hanged. Hale was a spy. And under even the most ancient rules of war, spies are never granted any kind of protection or mercy if caught. Everybody, including both Hale and Howe, would have understood that.)

Posted by Robert at September 22, 2006 09:54 AM | TrackBack

Yup, and the same goes for John Andre' though for some reason the British took a dim view of his hanging.

Posted by: rbj at September 22, 2006 10:18 AM

No tribunal? Interogation rules?

Posted by: Steve the LLamabutcher at September 22, 2006 10:30 AM