A new look at the Connecticut preacher’s son who became an icon of patriotic sacrifice.
True-crime specialist Phelps (I’ll Be Watching You, 2008, etc.) delves deeply into the comportment and character of Nathan Hale (1755–76). Covering his studies at Yale and his fulfilling early career as a schoolmaster in the bustling port town of New London, the author shows an amiable, intelligent, athletic and well-educated young gentleman. Hale’s dedication to his Christian faith was soon to be matched by his passion for the cause of his “injured, bleeding country” in the throes of rebellion against its colonial masters. But he also had moments of boredom and self-questioning, relieved by any number of romantic dalliances or an occasional bout of serious boozing with former Yale classmates and other friends. He was swept into military service first in the militia, then became an officer in George Washington’s army, with which he participated in the siege of Boston in 1775. After Washington’s forces withdrew from New York City and the English occupied it, Hale volunteered for a mission behind enemy lines on Long Island to gather information on the British high command’s resources and possible strategies. The rest is history, and Phelps makes no real inroads on the major questions: Why was Hale so easily tricked into revealing his mission to Robert Rogers, a well-known British military man? Where exactly in New York was he hung from a tree after uttering those famous sentiments about having “only one life” to give? (Sentiments that were probably paraphrased for posterity.) Where was his body buried in an unmarked grave? Could Hale have actually started the fire that devastated lower New York? All mysteries still.
Phelps provides useful perspective on 18th-century mores that made spies like Hale initially reviled by both sides, but his narrative could use more depth.