By Published: March 22, 2018

Award-winning book explores parallel lives of two soldiers, martyr Nathan Hale and traitor Moses Dunbar

Conventional historical wisdom sees Nathan Hale as an American hero and Moses Dunbar as a traitor, but a University of Colorado Boulder historian argues that the two men who lived during the Revolutionary War had more in common and that their lives were more nuanced than people might believe.

Delving into social and personal narratives around the American Revolution, the war is revisited in The Martyr and the Traitor by Virginia Anderson, professor of history at CU Boulder.


Virginia Anderson

The book, which won the 2017 Journal of the American Revolution Book of the Year, recounts the tale of two men who were both ultimately hanged by the opposing sides and explores the relativity of history and labels during the Revolutionary war.

Anderson became interested in Moses Dunbar while studying at the University of Connecticut as an undergraduate. The Martyr and the Traitor is a “passion project” which she has wanted to explore since then.

“I have been thinking my whole career I want to write a book about him,” Anderson says of Dunbar. “He and Hale were both Connecticut farm boys … The idea is how do people from similar backgrounds end up on opposite sides” of the war.

Dunbar, a man from Connecticut who enrolled in the king’s army, is one of only three men in the state’s history to be executed for treason. Hale, meanwhile, was on the other side of the war and executed while spying on British forces in New York. He is known for his famous last words: “I regret that I have only one life to give for my country.”

Most people revere Hale without really knowing much about him, Anderson says. She grew up in Connecticut, where Hale is “this great hero.” People know his last words, but they know little else, such as the fact that he was just 21 when executed.

During the 1700s, a college education was designed in part to train the elites to behave like gentlemen. Hale, however, was an intellectual, interested in learning for its own sake. Receiving his inheritance in the form of a Yale education, Hale joined the college’s Linonia Society, a literary club whose members studied classics and performed speeches and plays. This experience gave him a sense of belonging to a select group.

Being a spy was seen as dishonorable, and Hale was not immediately hailed as a hero. “It takes the better part of a generation or two for statues to pop up and people to commemorate him.”

After graduating, Hale worked as a schoolteacher, but sorely missed his friends from school.

Joining the army “was a way to reunite their friendship group through the military,” Anderson says, adding that the war “gave opportunities to young men that did not previously exist.”

At the time of the Revolutionary War, being a spy was “dishonorable,” Anderson says, adding that Hale was not immediately hailed as a hero. “It takes the better part of a generation or two for statues to pop up and people to commemorate him.”

Forced to pick sides, Hale and Dunbar landed on separate spheres of history, one revered as a martyr, the other labeled a traitor.

“Moses Dunbar (was) the only loyalist convicted by the state court of Connecticut and executed … He was the poster boy for, ‘We as the state of Connecticut can execute traitors,’” Anderson states.

A converted Anglican from Connecticut, Dunbar was convicted for the crime of joining a loyalist regiment.  When caught by Connecticut officials, he was found with money for passage to Long Island and a list of names of men he recruited for the regiment.  He had returned to Connecticut to gather his family to head to Long Island.

“I argue he joins this regiment not because he wants to fight, but because he has no other choice,” Anderson states. Having children to support and lacking job prospects Dunbar needed the soldier’s salary.  He was forced to the Loyalist side.

The British and loyalist forces seemed to be winning at the time Dunbar enlisted. “Because we only remember the patriots and forget about the Loyalists, we have this notion, ‘of course everybody supported the Revolution; how could they not?” Anderson notes.

“A lot of people wanted to just stay out of it. They wanted to be neutral, but once the war started you could not be neutral because people started saying if you are not with us, then you are against us, and that’s where Dunbar fell through the cracks.”

Decades later, the story of Moses Dunbar began showing up in local histories of towns, which started to view him as a religious hero in a war that exacerbated the religious divide between Anglicans and Congregationalists, Anderson states. After his execution, many members of his congregation were thrown in jail for being Loyalists, although many just wanted to be neutral.

Funding for researching and writing the book came from the College Scholar award, a College of Arts and Sciences Faculty Fellowship, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“This book took me a long time to write, and it wasn’t easy, but it was most rewarding,” Anderson says.