Nathan Hale–1887 by Charles Dudley Warner

Story type: Essay

In a Memorial Day address at New Haven in 1881, the Hon. Richard D. Hubbard suggested the erection of a statue to Nathan Hale in the State Capitol. With the exception of the monument in Coventry no memorial of the young hero existed. The suggestion was acted on by the Hon. E. S. Cleveland, who introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives in the session of 1883, appropriating money for the purpose. The propriety of this was urged before a committee of the Legislature by Governor Hubbard, in a speech of characteristic grace and eloquence, seconded by the Hon. Henry C. Robinson and the Hon. Stephen W. Kellogg. The Legislature appropriated the sum of five thousand dollars for a statue in bronze, and a committee was appointed to procure it. They opened a public competition, and, after considerable delay, during which the commission was changed by death and by absence,–indeed four successive governors, Hubbard, Waller, Harrison, and Lounsbury have served on it,–the work was awarded to Karl Gerhardt, a young sculptor who began his career in this city. It was finished in clay, and accepted in October, 1886, put in plaster, and immediately sent to the foundry of Melzar Masman in Chicopee, Massachusetts.

Today in all its artistic perfection and beauty it stands here to be revealed to the public gaze. It is proper that the citizens of Connecticut should know how much of this result they owe to the intelligent zeal of Mr. Cleveland, the mover of the resolution in the Legislature, who in the commission, and before he became a member of it, has spared neither time nor effort to procure a memorial worthy of the hero and of the State. And I am sure that I speak the unanimous sentiment of the commission in the regret that the originator of this statue could not have seen the consummation of his idea, and could not have crowned it with the one thing lacking on this occasion, the silver words of eloquence we always heard from his lips, that compact, nervous speech, the perfect union of strength and grace; for who so fitly as the lamented Hubbard could have portrayed the moral heroism of the Martyr-Spy?

This is not a portrait statue. There is no likeness of Nathan Hale extant. The only known miniature of his face, in the possession of the lady to whom he was betrothed at the time of his death, disappeared many years ago. The artist was obliged, therefore, to create an ideal figure, aided by a few fragmentary descriptions of Hale’s personal appearance. His object has been to represent an American youth of the period, an American patriot and scholar, whose manly beauty and grace tradition loves to recall, to represent in face and in bearing the moral elevation of character that made him conspicuous among his fellows, and to show forth, if possible, the deed that made him immortal. For it is the deed and the memorable last words we think of when we think of Hale. I know that by one of the canons of art it is held that sculpture should rarely fix a momentary action; but if this can be pardoned in the Laocoon, where suffering could not otherwise be depicted to excite the sympathy of the spectator, surely it can be justified in this case, where, as one may say, the immortality of the subject rests upon a single act, upon a phrase, upon the attitude of the moment. For all the man’s life, all his character, flowered and blossomed into immortal beauty in this one supreme moment of self-sacrifice, triumph, defiance. The ladder of the gallows-tree on which the deserted boy stood, amidst the enemies of his country, when he uttered those last words which all human annals do not parallel in simple patriotism,–the ladder I am sure ran up to heaven, and if angels were not seen ascending and descending it in that gray morning, there stood the embodiment of American courage, unconquerable, American faith, invincible, American love of country, unquenchable, a new democratic manhood in the world, visible there for all men to take note of, crowned already with the halo of victory in the Revolutionary dawn. Oh, my Lord Howe! it seemed a trifling incident to you and to your bloodhound, Provost Marshal Cunningham, but those winged last words were worth ten thousand men to the drooping patriot army. Oh, your Majesty, King George the Third! here was a spirit, could you but have known it, that would cost you an empire, here was an ignominious death that would grow in the estimation of mankind, increasing in nobility above the fading pageantry of kings.

On the 21st of April, 1775, a messenger, riding express from Boston to New York with the tidings of Lexington and Concord, reached New London. The news created intense excitement. A public meeting was called in the court-house at twilight, and among the speakers who exhorted the people to take up arms at once, was one, a youth not yet twenty years of age, who said, “Let us march immediately, and never lay down our arms until we have obtained our independence,”–one of the first, perhaps the first, of the public declarations of the purpose of independence. It was Nathan Hale, already a person of some note in the colony, of a family then not unknown and destined in various ways to distinction in the Republic. A kinsman of the same name lost his life in the Louisburg fight. He had been for a year the preceptor of the Union Grammar School at New London. The morning after the meeting he was enrolled as a volunteer, and soon marched away with his company to Cambridge.

Nathan Hale, descended from Robert Hale who settled in Charlestown in 1632, a scion of the Hales of Kent, England, was born in Coventry, Connecticut, on the 6th of June, 1755, the sixth child of Richard Hale and his wife Elizabeth Strong, persons of strong intellect and the highest moral character, and Puritans of the strictest observances. Brought up in this atmosphere, in which duty and moral rectitude were the unquestioned obligations in life, he came to manhood with a character that enabled him to face death or obloquy without flinching, when duty called, so that his behavior at the last was not an excitement of the moment, but the result of ancestry, training, and principle. Feeble physically in infancy, he developed into a robust boy, strong in mind and body, a lively, sweet-tempered, beautiful youth, and into a young manhood endowed with every admirable quality. In feats of strength and agility he recalls the traditions of Washington; he early showed a remarkable avidity for knowledge, which was so sought that he became before he was of age one of the best educated young men of his time in the colonies. He was not only a classical scholar, with the limitations of those days; but, what was then rare, he made scientific attainments which greatly impressed those capable of judging, and he had a taste for art and a remarkable talent as an artist. His father intended him for the ministry. He received his preparatory education from Dr. Joseph Huntington, a classical scholar and the pastor of the church in Coventry, entered Yale College at the age of sixteen, and graduated with high honors in a class of sixty, in September, 1773. At the time of his graduation his personal appearance was notable. Dr. Enos Monro of New Haven, who knew him well in the last year at Yale, said of him,

“He was almost six feet in height, perfectly proportioned, and in figure and deportment he was the most manly man I have ever met. His chest was broad; his muscles were firm; his face wore a most benign expression; his complexion was roseate; his eyes were light blue and beamed with intelligence; his hair was soft and light brown in color, and his speech was rather low, sweet, and musical. His personal beauty and grace of manner were most charming. Why, all the girls in New Haven fell in love with him,” said Dr. Munro, “and wept tears of real sorrow when they heard of his sad fate. In dress he was always neat; he was quick to lend a hand to a being in distress, brute or human; was overflowing with good humor, and was the idol of all his acquaintances.”

Dr. Jared Sparks, who knew several of Hale’s intimate friends, writes of him:

“Possessing genius, taste, and order, he became distinguished as a scholar; and endowed in an eminent degree with those graces and gifts of Nature which add a charm to youthful excellence, he gained universal esteem and confidence. To high moral worth and irreproachable habits were joined gentleness of manner, an ingenuous disposition, and vigor of understanding. No young man of his years put forth a fairer promise of future usefulness and celebrity; the fortunes of none were fostered more sincerely by the generous good wishes of his superiors.”

It was remembered at Yale that he was a brilliant debater as well as scholar. At his graduation he engaged in a debate on the question, “Whether the education of daughters be not, without any just reason, more neglected than that of the sons.” “In this debate,” wrote James Hillhouse, one of his classmates, “he was the champion of the daughters, and most ably advocated their cause. You may be sure that he received the plaudits of the ladies present.”

Hale seems to have had an irresistible charm for everybody. He was a favorite in society; he had the manners and the qualities that made him a leader among men and gained him the admiration of women. He was always intelligently busy, and had the Yankee ingenuity,–he “could do anything but spin,” he used to say to the girls of Coventry, laughing over the spinning wheel. There is a universal testimony to his alert intelligence, vivacity, manliness, sincerity, and winningness.

It is probable that while still an under-graduate at Yale, he was engaged to Alice Adams, who was born in Canterbury, a young lady distinguished then as she was afterwards for great beauty and intelligence. After Hale’s death she married Mr. Eleazer Ripley, and was left a widow at the age of eighteen, with one child, who survived its father only one year. She married, the second time, William Lawrence, Esq., of Hartford, and died in this city, greatly respected and admired, in 1845, aged eighty-eight. It is a touching note of the hold the memory of her young hero had upon her admiration that her last words, murmured as life was ebbing, were, “Write to Nathan.”

Hale’s short career in the American army need not detain us. After his flying visit as a volunteer to Cambridge, he returned to New London, joined a company with the rank of lieutenant, participated in the siege of Boston, was commissioned a captain in the Nineteenth Connecticut Regiment in January, 1776, performed the duties of a soldier with vigilance, bravery, and patience, and was noted for the discipline of his company. In the last dispiriting days of 1775, when the terms of his men had expired, he offered to give them his month’s pay if they would remain a month longer. He accompanied the army to New York, and shared its fortunes in that discouraging spring and summer. Shortly after his arrival Captain Hale distinguished himself by the brilliant exploit of cutting out a British sloop, laden with provisions, from under the guns of the man-of-war “Asia,” sixty-four, lying in the East River, and bringing her triumphantly into slip. During the summer he suffered a severe illness.

The condition of the American army and cause on the 1st of September, 1776, after the retreat from Long Island, was critical. The army was demoralized, clamoring in vain for pay, and deserting by companies and regiments; one-third of the men were without tents, one-fourth of them were on the sick list. On the 7th, Washington called a council of war, and anxiously inquired what should be done. On the 12th it was determined to abandon the city and take possession of Harlem Heights. The British army, twenty-five thousand strong, admirably equipped, and supported by a powerful naval force, threatened to envelop our poor force, and finish the war in a stroke. Washington was unable to penetrate the designs of the British commander, or to obtain any trusty information of the intentions or the movements of the British army. Information was imperatively necessary to save us from destruction, and it could only be obtained by one skilled in military and scientific knowledge and a good draughtsman, a man of quick eye, cool head, tact, sagacity, and courage, and one whose judgment and fidelity could be trusted. Washington applied to Lieutenant-Colonel Knowlton, who summoned a conference of officers in the name of the commander-in-chief, and laid the matter before them. No one was willing to undertake the dangerous and ignominious mission. Knowlton was in despair, and late in the conference was repeating the necessity, when a young officer, pale from recent illness, entered the room and said, “I will undertake it.” It was Captain Nathan Hale. Everybody was astonished. His friends besought him not to attempt it. In vain. Hale was under no illusion. He silenced all remonstrances by saying that he thought he owed his country the accomplishment of an object so important and so much desired by the commander-in-chief, and he knew no way to obtain the information except by going into the enemy’s camp in disguise. “I wish to be useful,” he said; “and every kind of service necessary for the public good becomes honorable by being necessary. If the exigencies of my country demand a peculiar service, its claims to the performance of that service are imperious.”

The tale is well known. Hale crossed over from Norwalk to Huntington Cove on Long Island. In the disguise of a schoolmaster, he penetrated the British lines and the city, made accurate drawings of the fortifications, and memoranda in Latin of all that he observed, which he concealed between the soles of his shoes, and returned to the point on the shore where he had first landed. He expected to be met by a boat and to cross the Sound to Norwalk the next morning. The next morning he was captured, no doubt by Tory treachery, and taken to Howe’s headquarters, the mansion of James Beekman, situated at (the present) Fiftieth Street and First Avenue. That was on the 21st of September. Without trial and upon the evidence found on his person, Howe condemned him to be hanged as a spy early next morning. Indeed Hale made no attempt at defense. He frankly owned his mission, and expressed regret that he could not serve his country better. His open, manly bearing and high spirit commanded the respect of his captors. Mercy he did not expect, and pity was not shown him. The British were irritated by a conflagration which had that morning laid almost a third of the city in ashes, and which they attributed to incendiary efforts to deprive them of agreeable winter quarters. Hale was at first locked up in the Beekman greenhouse. Whether he remained there all night is not known, and the place of his execution has been disputed; but the best evidence seems to be that it took place on the farm of Colonel Rutger, on the west side, in the orchard in the vicinity of the present East Broadway and Market Street, and that he was hanged to the limb of an apple-tree.

It was a lovely Sunday morning, before the break of day, that he was marched to the place of execution, September 22d. While awaiting the necessary preparations, a courteous young officer permitted him to sit in his tent. He asked for the presence of a chaplain; the request was refused. He asked for a Bible; it was denied. But at the solicitation of the young officer he was furnished with writing materials, and wrote briefly to his mother, his sister, and his betrothed. When the infamous Cunningham, to whom Howe had delivered him, read what was written, he was furious at the noble and dauntless spirit shown, and with foul oaths tore the letters into shreds, saying afterwards “that the rebels should never know that they had a man who could die with such firmness.” As Hale stood upon the fatal ladder, Cunningham taunted him, and tauntingly demanded his “last dying speech and confession.” The hero did not heed the words of the brute, but, looking calmly upon the spectators, said in a clear voice, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” And the ladder was snatched from under him.

My friends, we are not honoring today a lad who appears for a moment in a heroic light, but one of the most worthy of the citizens of Connecticut, who has by his lofty character long honored her, wherever patriotism is not a mere name, and where Christian manhood is respected. We have had many heroes, many youths of promise, and men of note, whose names are our only great and enduring riches; but no one of them all better illustrated, short as was his career, the virtues we desire for all our sons. We have long delayed this tribute to his character and his deeds, but in spite of our neglect his fame has grown year by year, as war and politics have taught us what is really admirable in a human being; and we are now sure that we are not erecting a monument to an ephemeral reputation. It is fit that it should stand here, one of the chief distinctions of our splendid Capitol, here in the political centre of the State, here in the city where first in all the world was proclaimed and put into a political charter the fundamental idea of democracy, that “government rests upon the consent of the people,” here in the city where by the action of these self existing towns was formed the model, the town and the commonwealth, the bi-cameral legislature, of our constitutional federal union. If the soul of Nathan Hale, immortal in youth in the air of heaven, can behold today this scene, as doubtless it can, in the midst of a State whose prosperity the young colonist could not have imagined in his wildest dreams for his country, he must feel anew the truth that there is nothing too sacred for a man to give for his native land.

Governor Lounsbury, the labor of the commission is finished. On their behalf I present this work of art to the State of Connecticut.

Let the statue speak for itself.