Nathan Hale, Moses Dunbar, and the American Revolution
Virginia DeJohn Anderson
Oxford University Press
Winner of the 2017 Journal of the American Revolution Book of the Year Award
Histories of the Revolutionary War are replete with heroes, and Nathan Hale is a favorite among them. In The Martyr and the Traitor, Virginia DeJohn Anderson puts Hale’s story and by association, our understanding of the Revolution, in a strikingly new light by considering his life side by side with the life of Moses Dunbar. Dunbar, a contemporary of Hale, was a loyalist who also was executed in the cause of the war, albeit a different cause. Given that when these two men died there was every indication that the British would win the war, history might easily have found Dunbar to be the martyr, and Hale the traitor.
In September 1776, these two men from Connecticut each embarked on a dangerous mission. Hale, a soldier disguised as a schoolmaster, made his way to British-controlled Manhattan and began furtively making notes and sketches to bring back to the beleaguered Continental Army general, George Washington. Dunbar traveled to New York to accept a captain’s commission in a loyalist regiment before returning home to recruit others to join British forces. Neither man completed his mission. Both met their deaths at the end of a hangman’s rope, one executed as a spy for the American cause and the other as a traitor to it.
Virginia Anderson offers an intertwined narrative of two lives, and reveals how their relationships within their families and communities became politicized as the imperial crisis with Britain erupted. She explores how these men forged their loyalties in perilous times and believed the causes for which they died to be honorable. Their experiences remind us of how the Revolution affected ordinary lives and how the stories of patriots and loyalists were remembered – and forgotten – after independence.