What did Nathan Hale Really Say?

"Last Words of Nathan Hale"

“Last Words of Nathan Hale”
Attribution: Engraving by Alexander Hay Ritchie (1858)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nathan Hale, the famous American spy from the Revolutionary War, is famous for saying, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” There’s just one problem. He never said it. So, what did he really say? The answer is below, courtesy of an interview with Becky Akers conducted by American Revolution and Founding Era:

“What lessons can Americans today take from someone like Nathan Hale?”

That liberty is among God’s greatest gifts to us, more precious even than life.

Many folks mistake Nathan’s sacrifice for nationalism – the “my-country,-right-or-wrong” mentality. And while that’s tragic, it’s understandable, given the warped version of his speech on the gallows bequeathed to us. That famous line – “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country” – actually originated with Capt. (later Gen.) William Hull, one of Nathan’s buddies from college. He heard an account of the execution from an eyewitness, which he included in his memoirs as an old man. And then he paraphrased – inaccurately – the quote from a report on Nathan’s death the Boston Chronicle published just six years after the hanging: “I am so satisfied with the cause in which I have engaged, that my only regret is that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service.” Obviously, Hull’s condensation packs a greater punch, but it also changes “cause [of liberty]” to “country” – an unfortunate and nationalistic rewrite.

(See the rest at American Revolution and Founding Era)

Did Paul Revere Save the United States?

According to American Mythology, Paul Revere jumped onto a horse on April 18, 1775 and rode into the night, shouting “The British are coming!” But did Paul Revere’s Ride actually happen?

Did Paul Revere's Ride Save the United States?

Did Paul Revere’s Ride Save the United States?
Description: The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere
Attribution: Office of War Information
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Story of Paul Revere’s Ride

According to American mythology, Paul Revere’s ride was a solo one. He and other colonists knew the British were preparing to attack. So, he waited in Charleston for a signal from signal lanterns. One lantern in the Old North Church’s steeple would indicate a land invasion, two would mean a sea-based attack. He saw two lanterns and then rode through Medford, Lexington, and Concord to warn everyone, “The British are Coming!”

It’s a good story. One that has become a significant part of American history. It’s also severely flawed and in some respects, completely incorrect.

Paul Revere’s Ride: American History or American Mythology?

Interestingly enough, Paul Revere was little known for almost a century after his now-famous ride. Then in 1860, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned a famous poem entitled Paul Revere’s Ride. Longfellow was an abolitionist and wanted to convince his fellow northerners to take military action to keep the Union intact. As such, he deliberately romanticized his work in order to create a legend out of Revere.

“Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.” ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Paul Revere’s Ride

The truth as you might expect, is a bit more messy. The British Army was in Massachusetts that evening. They planned to disarm the colonists by seizing a weapons cache in Concord. They also planned to arrest the leaders of the budding American rebellion, including John Hancock and Samuel Adams.

Joseph Warren, president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, learned of the plan. He sent two riders, Paul Revere and William Dawes, to Lexington to warn Adams and Hancock. They were to alert colonial militias along the way.

Revere and Dawes rode to Lexington, delivering warnings to every house they passed. Other riders, perhaps as many as 40 of them, raced into the night to spread the message. No one shouted, “The British are coming!” Indeed, most of the colonists considered themselves British. The entire rebellion was about the colonists standing up for what they considered to be true British values.

According to Revere, the exact message was, “The Regulars are coming out,” with the Regulars referring to the Regular Army. And since the operation was a secret, it’s unlikely anyone actually shouted out the message.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Eventually, Revere and Dawes reached Lexington. They delivered the warning and picked up a third rider named Samuel Prescott. They proceeded to ride onto Concord. However, British troops spotted them in Lincoln. Revere was captured and questioned. Prescott jumped his horse over a wall and escaped. Dawes also escaped but later fell off his horse. Fortunately, Prescott reached Concord in time to warn the colonists. The next day, the British Army attacked. The Battles of Lexington and Concord raged. And out of that dust emerged the beginnings of a new country, the United States of America.

“‘Tis all very well for the children to hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere;
But why should my name be quite forgot,
Who rode as boldly and well, God wot?
Why should I ask? The reason is clear—
My name was Dawes and his Revere.” ~ Helen F. Moore, The Midnight Ride of William Dawes

Bioweapons…during the Revolutionary War?

In 1777, George Washington signed an order to vaccinate his troops for smallpox. While some historians consider this a response to a normal outbreak, others point to a more sinister cause…a biowarfare campaign waged by the British during the Revolutionary War.

Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth during the Revolutionary War

Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth during the Revolutionary War
Painted by Emanuel Leutze (1854)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Biological Warfare during the Revolutionary War?

According to Wikipedia, Biological warfare is defined as “the deliberate use of disease-causing biological agents such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, or biological toxins, to kill or incapacitate humans, animals or plants as an act of war.” Biowarfare has a long sordid past. Hittite texts from as far back as 1500-1200 BC report the use of plague victims to spread disease into enemy territory.

According to a recent article entitled, British used Bioweapon in US War of Independence, smallpox was a particularly brutal disease back in the 1700s. In 1776, “more than half of all people caught smallpox at some point, and a third of those died.” Since a proper vaccination was still twenty-two years away, smallpox itself was used to immunize people. By deliberately infecting people with a less deadly strain, doctors managed to reduce casualty rates to just 1-2%.

However, people who had recently received the vaccination were capable of spreading the more deadly strain to others, making them, in effect, human bioweapons. British troops used this method to spread smallpox among North American Indians back in the 1760s and among Boston rebels in 1775. A year later, they supposedly infected prostitutes with smallpox and sent them behind American lines, causing 5,000 casualties.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Clearly, General Washington had reason to fear smallpox outbreaks during the Revolutionary War. It stands to reason that his order to send troops to Philadelphia to receive the primitive vaccination was due, at least in part, to concerns over human bioweapons. Later, he even “set up special clinics to inoculate all new recruits.”

These days, many people glorify the past as a simpler and more noble time. However, Britain’s biowarfare campaign serves as a stark reminder that this just isn’t the case. The weapons were less effective during the Revolutionary War. But the desire to cause mass enemy casualties, both military and civilian, was just as strong as it is today.