The following morning, after reading the letter from his friend Benjamin Tallmadge of how terrible it was in Boston, Nathan Hale accepted a commission in the Colonial Army as a 1st Lieutenant under the command of Colonel Charles Webb of Stamford, Connecticut. Webb’s command, now including Nathan Hale, was camped at Winter Hill where they trained and readied themselves for the forthcoming engagements and battles. Hale, who had been the reserved, young gentleman schoolmaster, was now well on his way to becoming a dedicated professional soldier.
The newly birthed Continental Army, still in its infancy, was plagued by what General George Washington already knew only too well. His fledging Army was abhorrently equipped, inadequately trained and severely lacked a basic intelligence gathering strategy. General Washington and his small cadre of professional staff officers were desperately struggling with the monumental process of turning the entire army of volunteer “Patriot Minutemen” into a disciplined, effective military fighting force.
Other units of Washington’s troops were battling to fend off and defend New York from falling into the hands of the finest, best trained fighting force in the world at that time. The force of well supplied British Red Coats, superior in numbers, commanded by General Sir William Howe and a contingent of ruthless and unprincipled Hessian mercenaries were marching into New York, forcing a fighting retreat by the outnumbered colonial defenders. Washington needed a small miracle and a touch of divine intervention soon, or the hopes and aspirations of successfully defending New York and the entirety of the new nation were in grave peril.
General Washington began a reorganization of his Army and ordered the newly formed 19th Connecticut Regiment, including Nathan Hale who was promoted to the rank of Captain, to reinforce Manhattan Island. Despite the reinforcement and spirited attempts to hold New York, the colonials were on the run. Washington was angered and frustrated by the inability and effectiveness of his disadvantaged army to hold New York. On September 6th he wrote “We have not been able to obtain the least information on the enemy’s plans,” and by that time the Red Coats had control of the state. He knew he needed to develop a new strategy to have a fighting chance against Gage’s army.
Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton, a survivor of Breed’s/Bunker Hill and commander of one of the Connecticut regiments, developed a bold plan. Knowlton was forming an elite Special Forces unit much like today’s Navy Seals or Army Green Berets. Nathan Hale enlisted with the group, known as “Knowlton’s Rangers,” whose mission would involve hazardous forward reconnaissance behind British enemy lines. His friend and fellow officer, Captain William Hull, vigorously attempted to talk Hale out of joining the group; explaining that a “spy” was not considered a decent or honorable duty for any gentleman of that day. Hale responded by saying, “I wish to be useful, and every kind of service necessary to the public good becomes honorable by being necessary. If the exigencies of my country demand a peculiar service, its claim to perform that service are imperious.” Nathan Hale was in!!!
The Patriots of “Knowlton’s Rangers” listed on the rolls of the Continental Army took commands only from General Washington and General Israel Putnam. On the official military duty rosters and documents, the men of the “Rangers” were listed only as “detached for special service” or “detached on command.”
Captain Nathan Hale and fellow “Ranger” Sergeant Steven Hamstead embarked on the “special mission.” Somewhere near what is now known as Norwalk, Connecticut, Nathan Hale shed his uniform and all his personal effects, including his silver shoe buckles and military commission orders. Procuring a rebel longboat, the American “spy” began his clandestine mission as he slipped into the darkness and black of the New York night behind enemy lines, disguised as a school master seeking employment.
On September 21, 1776, Hale was captured by elements of another newly formed Special Forces group, the “Queen’s Rangers” commanded by an American loyalist, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Rogers. It is believed by some, that Hale was recognized and betrayed by his first cousin Samuel Hale, also a Tory loyalist to the crown.
Continued April 7, 2012