Since the American rebellion began and was the fiercest in the New England state of Massachusetts, that's why the British had first attacked Boston. But when that effort failed, a new strategy was devised. William Howe decided it would be easier to take New York where many British sympathizers lived and then, from there, he would cut off the supply routes to the New England states. In this way he could isolate the rebels and then methodically and systematically destroy them as their supplies dwindled.
Knowing of the threat to New York City and realizing the effect it would have if it fell into British hands, the Continental Congress, located a few miles south in Philadelphia, ordered General George Washington to hold the city at all costs. They were sure that with a regular army instead of a rag-tag group of farmers who had been able to route the British from Boston, Washington's army could be just as successful at defeating the British in New York.
However, this was an almost impossible task because Washington's army was understaffed with untrained, undisciplined, volunteer soldiers, who were underequipped and underfunded. Furthermore, they were going up against a much larger and seasoned army. Even so, General Washington intended to obey his orders to the best of his ability with what he had to work with.
On June 29, of 1776 the British ships of war sailed into New York harbor and on July 3, they took possession of Staten Island without any opposition. It was the very next day when the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence. General Washington's army was across the bay on Long Island where they waited and prepared for the British to attack. By August Hessian troops, who had been hired by England to fight with their army against the Americans, had been added to the British forces and now General Howe was ready to make his move.
Washington had 18,000 men while Howe had close to 25,000, not to mention the large number of man-of-war ships in the harbor whose massive cannons could rain down death and destruction on the American soldiers. What was even worst for Washington was that he wasn't sure when or where Howe would attack or with how many men. Because of this lack of intelligence, Washington was forced to split his army into several smaller units and place them at different locations. Some he stationed in New York City, some he placed in Manhattan, some he placed in New Jersey and the remainder he kept with him on Long Island.
On August 22nd General Howe landed his full army on Long Island and began his attack against Washington's meager forces. Although Washington had already built fortifications to defend the island, by August 27th, Washington's army had been severely beaten and almost annihilated. Washington's headquarters were situated on the banks of the sound separating Long Island from New York. With British war ships anchored in the sound behind him and General Howe's army in front of him, Washington was boxed in. There was no place for him to go. His only options were to either surrender or die fighting.
General Howe was well aware of Washington's inescapable position but, since night was starting to descend, he decided to wait until daylight to resume his attack and finish the job he had been sent to accomplish. However, while the British soldiers slept, both those on the ground and those on the ships, General Washington managed to secretly ferry his remaining troops across the sound and into New York. When daylight came the next morning, General Washington and his troops were safely out of reach of Howe's army.
On September 15th, General Howe landed 12,000 men in New York City and easily took possession of it. Although the city had fallen, Washington still had an army and was determined to carry out his orders but his army was in dire trouble. If he was to devise a plan to retake New York he had to have information about such things as troop strength of the enemy, where they were located, where they kept their ammunition and what kind of fortifications they had. The only way for him to get that information was to send someone into the city as a spy.
General Washington convened a council of war with his top generals and it was decided that the best people to choose from were found in a regiment well known for their bravery and courage in carrying out dangerous missions. Major Thomas Knowlton was the commander of this unit and upon orders from Washington, he called his men together and asked for volunteers to go behind enemy lines. He waited for someone to step forward but no one did because they all knew how dangerous the task was. If they were caught they would be quickly hung without a trial. One man remarked that he would rather be shot to death than hanged.
Knowlton was about to leave and report back to Washington on his failure when one man, a young captain named Nathan Hale, who was still feeling sick from a recent illness, spoke up and said, "I will undertake it."
Nathan Hale was born on June 6, 1755 in Coventry, Connecticut. At age 13 he entered Yale College and graduated at age sixteen. His brother, Enoch, had become a minister and Nathan wanted to do the same but, because of he was too young, he couldn't go into the ministry right then. Instead, he became a school teacher at age eighteen.
By 1774 the area where Nathan lived was alive with talk about rebelling against England. When the battle of Lexington and Concord happened on April 18, 1775, five of Nathan's brothers were there to fight against the British troops. When the news of their victory reached Nathan's ears, even though he was not old enough to go fight, he nonetheless joined the Connecticut militia. He said, "Let us march immediately and never lay down our arms until we obtain our independence."
He was made a first lieutenant of the Connecticut militia and on July 6, 1775 he joined the Continental Army's 7th Connecticut Regiment. By March 1776 he was promoted to the rank of captain and given command of a small unit under the command of Lt. Col. Thomas Knowlton's rangers who had been assigned to defend New York City.
To get supplies, Nathan Hale planned a mission to attack the British frigate, Phoenix, with the goal of stealing their provisions and then setting the ship on fire. Although the British sailors were able to save their ship from being burned, Nathan was able to take several cannons and other armament that were then used by the Americans to defend themselves. General Washington gave his praise and rewarded the men who had participated in that mission. Now Hale was volunteering to go on a mission that was even more dangerous.
William Hull, who was a college roommate of Hale and who served with him in the Continental Army, tried to talk the young captain out of going, pointing out that his chance of success was slim and the chance of a humiliating and disgraceful death was great. Hull told his former classmate that it was not in his line of duty to volunteer for this assignment and that he didn't have the skills or the temperament to be a spy. Hale answered his friend saying, "I wish to be useful and every kind of service necessary to the public good."
Hale took off his uniform and left behind other articles that would identify him as a soldier and dressed himself as a civilian. He took his college diploma with him with the intention of passing himself off as a school teacher from Connecticut. On September 14th he had someone row him across to Oyster Bay, New York and once ashore directed the boatman to return on September 20th at a prearranged time to pick him up.
For the next seven days Hale walked along the streets of New York City going past British soldiers while making observations and inquires, and afterwards writing down and making sketches of what he had seen and learned. On September 20th , the appointed day, he placed his notes, which had been written in Latin, inside his shoe and went to the water's edge where he waited for the expected boat to come pick him up. Soon he saw a boat and waved at it but it was manned by British sailors. He tried to casually walk away as quickly as he dared but he was stopped and interrogated. Upon a search of his body, they found his notes and he was immediately taken into custody.
Knowing there was no way he could lie his way out of his situation and being an honest man who was not inclined to lying, he admitted who he was. He was taken to the headquarters of General Howe where he was again interrogated. When he refused to give any information on the American troops General Howe offered Hale his life if he would agree to be a British spy. Hale refused the offer whereupon Howe ordered that the next morning he be hung by the neck until dead.
That night Hale was kept under guard in a greenhouse next to Beekham Mansion which Howe used as his headquarters. The building sat on a large estate that had gardens and an orchard. Early the next morning Hale was taken out to be hanged. According to the account made by a local shopkeeper, Hale was calm and bore himself with great dignity.
While he waited for the hanging arrangements to be readied, Hale was permitted to write two letters, one to his mother and one to his brother. However, the British destroyed them before they could be mailed. Hale asked for a Bible and was refused. He also asked for a clergyman and that request was likewise refused.
At last, he was taken out into the orchard where a rope was thrown over the branch of a large apple tree and the noose was put around Hale's neck. He was then asked if he wished to make his dying speech or to make a confession to which Nathan Hale replied, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."
Nathan Hale was hung until dead and his body was left hanging in full view for all to see as a message to others of what would happen to those who cooperated with the American rebels.