Alexander's Column

But One Life to Lose for My Country

Two events, almost a century apart, are irrevocably linked by "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty."

Mark Alexander · Mar. 21, 2018

“I am not influenced by the expectation of promotion or pecuniary reward. I wish to be useful, and every kind of service necessary for the public good, become honorable by being necessary.” —Nathan Hale (1776)

Patriots, I draw your attention this week to a couple of notable March dates in our shared history of American Liberty.

The first is March 23rd. On that day in 1775, Patrick Henry, a notable Patriot delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses who would become the first post-colonial governor of Virginia in 1776, addressed the Second Virginia Convention. That gathering was held in Richmond’s St. John’s Church instead of the statehouse due to British hostilities.

Rallying fellow Patriots in the fight for Liberty, Henry declared:

“I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery. … I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry … to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves. … Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. … Let us not deceive ourselves, sir.”

He continued with a refrain that would become both seminal and, in succeeding generations, familiar to all Patriots:

“There is a just God who presides over the destines of nations … who will raise up friends to fight our battle for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. … Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me Liberty or give me death.”

Few words from the American Revolutionary era are as well known and revered as “give me Liberty or give me death.”

The second date deserving our attention this month is March 25. On that day in 1863, our nation’s first Medals of Honor were awarded to members of Andrews’ Raiders. But the actions of those Raiders (more on that in a minute) are irrevocably linked to the actions of a courageous young Revolutionary War captain, Nathan Hale, in 1776.

In August 1776, the British had prevailed at the Battle of Long Island and gained control of New York City.

On September 8, 1776, a 21-year-old Hale volunteered for an intelligence-gathering mission at the request of George Washington. His mission, as a spy, was to go behind enemy lines and collect information on British troop movements. If caught, as with all spies, he would be executed.

Captain William Hull attempted to dissuade Hale from undertaking the dangerous mission, but Hale insisted, responding, “I am not influenced by the expectation of promotion or pecuniary reward. I wish to be useful, and every kind of service necessary for the public good, become honorable by being necessary.”

On September 12, Hale was ferried across to Manhattan, but he was captured soon thereafter.

According to a loyalist eye witness, Major Robert Rogers, then with the Queen’s Rangers, recognized Hale in a tavern and later in the night captured him near Flushing Bay in Queens.

Hale was taken directly to British General William Howe’s headquarters at Beekman House in Manhattan. According to reports, Hale was interrogated by Howe and then imprisoned on the property near the headquarters. Knowing he was bound for the gallows in the coming days, Hale requested a Bible, which was denied. He requested to speak with a pastor but that was also denied.

Just after sunrise on September 22, Hale was taken along the Boston Post Road to a park near Dove Tavern, where preparations had been made to hang him until dead. By loyalist accounts, Hale conducted himself with honor.

British officer John Montresor, who witnessed the execution, later told Hale’s friend, William Hull, that his last words were, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Like the words of Patrick Henry, Hale’s last words were also both seminal and familiar to all Patriots in the generations to follow.

Prior to Hale’s mission, George Washington stated, “Every post is honorable in which a man can serve his country.”

Indeed, but some military service to our country rises to the level of “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” And therein is the connection between Nathan Hale and Andrews Raiders, some of whom received Medals of Honor for their actions.

March 25th marks, as noted previously, the anniversary of the First Medals awarded in 1863. Those Medals went to six of civilian James Andrews’ Raiders for their valorous acts a year earlier on April 12, 1862 – actions which were immortalized in print and film as “The Great Locomotive Chase.” That chase started in Big Shanty, Georgia, and ended just south of Chattanooga, Tennessee — now recognized as the birthplace of the Medal of Honor.

As was the case with Nathan Hale, Andrews and seven of his Raiders were captured and hung as spies. They were William Campbell, Samuel Robertson, Marion Ross, John Scott, Charles Shadrack, Samuel Slavens and George Wilson.

Notably, Chattanooga’s Medal of Honor heritage runs deeper than the First Medals.

Chattanooga and neighboring Chickamauga (the nation’s first National Military Park) were also the fields of service for the only woman who holds a Medal of Honor, Dr. Marry Walker. And Chattanooga was the home of the unlikeliest of heroes, Desmond Doss, the subject of the movie “Hacksaw Ridge,” whose MoH citation is, arguably, the most extraordinary of all Medal of Honor citations — though in typical humility, Doss would have objected to that assessment.

In 1775, Alexander Hamilton, who would play a pivotal role in the Battle of Yorktown in October of 1781 (along with some of my own Patriot ancestors), declared, “There is a certain enthusiasm in Liberty, that makes human nature rise above itself, in acts of bravery and heroism.”

I would add that legacy of enthusiasm is shared by all those who have honored their sacred oath to “support and defend” our Constitution — and the Patriots at their side in battle. It is shared by all who uphold what is true, noble, just and pure.

Today, I am humbled to serve with Chattanooga’s Medal of Honor Heritage Center as a member of its National Advisory Board. The Heritage Center honors the recipients of the First Medals, and all those who have received it since. Central to the Heritage Center’s mission is promoting a well-received education curriculum based on the six character pillars demonstrated by those who have received the Medal.

Those pillars are the traits Patriots past and present embrace: Courage, Sacrifice, Patriotism, Citizenship, Integrity, Commitment.

You can support the new Heritage Center with a designated gift online or make a check payable to Patriot Foundation Trust (noting MoHHC on the memo line) and mail to Patriot Foundation Trust, PO Box 507, Chattanooga, TN 37401-0507. For more information, please contact the Patriot Foundation Trust Administrator.

Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776

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