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Two men from Connecticut, each embarked on a dangerous mission, slipped onto Long Island in September 1776. Only a few weeks earlier, British forces had routed the Continental Army and taken control of New York City. The future of the infant American republic, barely two months old, looked bleak. One of the men, a soldier disguised as a schoolmaster, made his way to the British fortifications on Manhattan and began furtively taking notes and making sketches to bring back to the beleaguered American general, George Washington. The second visitor had quite different plans. He had come to Long Island to accept a captain's commission in a loyalist regiment, an undertaking that obligated him to return to Connecticut and recruit more farmers to join the King's forces. As events turned out, neither man completed his mission. Instead, each met his death 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.
In The Martyr and the Traitor, Virginia Anderson traces the lives of these two men, Nathan Hale and Moses Dunbar, to explore how middle-class men made decisions on a daily basis amidst the uncertainties of war that determined not just their own fates but also the ways in which they have been remembered or forgotten in history. Hale uttered a line that has become famous ("I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country") and, after being captured and executed as a spy by the British, and the Americans winning the war, has been memorialized as a martyr to the Revolutionary cause. His life is neatly contrasted with Dunbar, a Loyalist who was captured and sentenced to death by the Connecticut Assembly. This braided narrative, intertwining the lives of Hale and Dunbar, offers a poignant snapshot of the political loyalties men forge in momentous times, how their families shaped and reacted to those decisions, and how difficult it is to judge individuals' decisionmaking in wartime without the benefit of hindsight, when the outcome is dependent on complex factors.
This book bridges"great man" biographies about the American Revolution and the "bottom up" social histories of common men, and the histories of patriots and loyalists. Its accessible style makes it appropriate for anyone interested in Revolutionary America.
Virginia DeJohn Anderson is Professor of History at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is the author of New England's Generation: The Great Migration and the Formation of Society and Culture in the Seventeenth Century, Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America, and American Journey: A History of the United States.