Published: Aug. 16, 2017

Nathan Hale, Moses Dunbar, and the American Revolution



About the book: In September 1776, two men from Connecticut each embarked on a dangerous mission. One of the men, 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. The other man 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.

Neither Nathan Hale nor Moses Dunbar deliberately set out to be a revolutionary or a loyalist, yet both suffered the same fate. They died when there was every indication that Britain would win the American Revolution. Had that been the outcome, Dunbar, convicted of treason and since forgotten, might well be celebrated as a martyr. And Hale, caught spying on the British, would likely be remembered as a traitor, rather than a Revolutionary hero. 

In The Martyr and the Traitor, Virginia DeJohn Anderson offers an intertwined narrative of men from very similar backgrounds 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. Through their experiences, The Martyr and the Traitor illuminates the impact of the Revolution on ordinary lives and how the stories of patriots and loyalists were remembered and forgotten after independence.

About the author: 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 CenturyCreatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America, and American Journey: A History of the United States.


"By examining the short lives and dramatic executions of two passionate young men on opposing sides, Virginia DeJohn Anderson illuminates the painful political decisions demanded by a complex revolution and the swirling fortunes of war. With careful research and in deft prose, Anderson brilliantly recovers the human drama and life-and-death stakes of the civil war that we call the American Revolution."

—Alan Taylor, author of American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 

"The Martyr and The Traitor exemplifies Virginia Anderson's scholarly finesse and literary skill. The opening is simply stunning. It is not just the rich narration that gives the book power, but the elegance of its argument. Anderson reminds us that while it is easy to kill a man, it is impossible to control the lessons people might draw from such an act."

—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of A Midwife's Tale

"A compelling story of revolutionary America unfolds in these pages, one that captures the lives of young men and women who came of age during these years of crisis by charting the fates of a famous rebel spy and a committed loyalist."

—Christine Leigh Heyrman, author of American Apostles: When Evangelicals Entered the World of Islam

"In this engrossing dual biography of two young Connecticut men executed for treason by opposing sides in the revolutionary war, one the famous Nathan Hale and the other the obscure Moses Dunbar, Virginia Anderson brilliantly introduces modern readers to issues of loyalty and honor in the late eighteenth century. Which of her subjects, one might ask, was the martyr and which the traitor? Her narrative casts important new light on unfamiliar political uncertainties in revolutionary New England."

—Mary Beth Norton, author of In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692

"No less than others, the American Revolution was not just a matter of declarations and high-mindedness, but a bitter internal conflict that tore apart individuals, families and their communities. Anderson's fine work exposes to view these often hidden realities."

Publishers Weekly

"The author asks readers to question their education concerning the Revolutionary War and its black-and-white rendering of patriots as good and loyalists as evil. In the process, Anderson successfully documents not only the injustices done to colonists by the British, but also the mistreatment of loyalists by the Whigs, a subject that is often overlooked... This book will be of great importance to readers interested in the legacy and memory of American conflicts."

Library Journal

"This is a tale of two men, two causes and two tragedies: two Connecticut farm boys who yearned for something better, two young men caught up in the fearsome tumult of revolution, two steadfast soldiers who refused to repent before they hanged. One is well-known: Nathan Hale, the American spy who regretted that he had but one life to lose for his country. The other is Moses Dunbar, a lowly Anglican Loyalist whom most of his countrymen wanted to forget... a moving coming-of-age (and end-of-life) story as well as a military history and a spy thriller."

The Wall Street Journal

Published: June 2017, Oxford University Press