Hale was born in Coventry, Connecticut and attended Yale College, graduating in 1773. He taught school thereafter until the war began. In July 1775 he was given a lieutenant's commission in the Connecticut militia, but soon afterward joined the regular Continental Army.
After having participated in the Siege of Boston, Hale was promoted to captain and in March 1776 commanded a small unit of Rangers in the defense of New York City, which rescued a ship full of provisions from the guard of a British man-of-war.
In September of that year Hale volunteered for an intelligence-gathering mission in Long Island, which was at that time behind enemy lines. He disguised himself as a Dutch schoolteacher, and after having successfully gathered the information required by the mission he was apprehended while returning to his regiment on Manhattan Island on September 21.
British Gen. Sir William Howe ordered that he be hanged for espionage the following day. He was allowed to give a speech from the gallows, part of which, according to tradition, included the words "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."
No official records of any sort having been kept of Hale's speech, it is impossible to verify that he actually delivered this memorable line; however rumor of it subsequently spread throughout the colonies, making a martyr of Hale and boosting morale for the revolutionaries.
A statue of Nathan Hale by Frederick William MacMonnies was erected in 1890 at the site in City Hall Park (Broadway at Murray Street) in New York City upon which Hale was executed. (Copies exist in several museums).
A statue of Nathan Hale, sculpted around 1898 by Bela Lyon Pratt, was cast in 1912 and stands in front of Connecticut Hall at Hale's alma mater, Yale. Copies of this sculpture stand at Phillips Academy, the Nathan Hale Homestead, the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C, and at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency.