Following the Patriots' evacuation of New York City, and the Battle of Harlem Heights, the two armies settled into a period of over a month of waiting for the other to initiate a significant offensive. A significant offensive, though, was not to take place in the immediate environs of New York City. Apart from the few incidents, to be noted in the following, the situation on Manhattan Island was relatively quiet.
In the early morning hours of 21 September, nearly a week after Harlem Heights, numerous fires broke out in the city of New York. The fires spread rapidly. No alarm could be sounded because the Patriots had carried the city痴 bells with them when they evacuated the city. The first fire appeared in the section of the city known as Whitehall. Other fires soon broke out through-out other parts of the city, making it apparent that they had been set. According to General Sir William Howe, in a report he submitted to the British Parliament:
"Between the 20th and 21フ inフant, at midnight, a moフ horrid attempt was made by a number of wretches to burn the town of New York, in which they ブcceeded too well, having テt it on fire in テveral places with matches and combuフibles that had been prepared with great art and ingenuity. Many were detected in the fact, and バme killed upon the パot by the enraged toops in garriバn; and had it not been for the exertions of Maj-Gen. Robertバn, the Officers under his command in the town, and the brigade of guards detached from the camp, the whole muフ infallibly have been conブmed, as the night was extremely windy.
"The deフruction is computed to be about one quarter of the town; and we have reaバn to ブパect there are villains フill lurking there, ready to finiド the work they have begun; one perバn, eツaping the purブit of a centinel the following night, having declared, that he would again テt fire to the town the firフ opportunity. The フricteフ テarch is making after theテ incendiaries, and the moフ effectual meaブres taken to guard againフ the perpetration of their villainous and wicked deナgns."
In regard to the fire, General George Washington noted, in a letter to Governor Jonathan Trumbull, dated 23 September:
"On Friday night, about Eleven or twelve Oclock, a fire broke out in the City of New York, which, burning rapidly till after Sun riテ next morning, deフroyed a great Number of Houテs. By what means it happened we do not know; but the Gentleman who brought the Letter from Genl. Howe laフ night, and who was one of his Aide De Camps, informed Col. Reed, that テveral of our Countrymen had been puniドed with various deaths on Account of it; バme by hanging, others by burning, &c., alledging that they were apprehended when Committing the fact."
According to reports published in the New York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury, the fires destroyed all the buildings between Broad Street and North River and almost as north as the City Hall and south to King痴 College.
A British Lieutenant, Frederick Mackenzie, noted that:
"No aピiフance could be テnt from the army 奏il after daybreak, as the general was apprehenナve the rebels had バme deナgn of attacking the army."
The venerable old Trinity Church was lost to the fire. Of its burning, Lieutenant Mackenzie noted:
"The appearance of the Trinity Church, when completely in flames, was a very grand ナght, for the パire being entirely framed in wood and covered with ドingles, a lofty pyramid of fire appeared, and as バon as the ドingles were burnt away, the frame appeared with every テparate piece of timber burning until the principal timbers were burnt through when the whole fell with a great noiテ."
On the second day of the fire, another incident vied with the fire for the attention of the British. A Patriot, Nathan Hale was arrested during the morning hours on the charge of espionage.
General Washington, after the defeat on Long Island, had discussed the need for intelligence of the British army with his officers. Acting on that, Colonel Knowlton had issued a call for volunteers to spy on the British to discover their plans. One of the men who answered that call was Nathan Hale, a twenty-four year old Yale-educated school teacher serving as a captain in the Connecticut army.
Colonel Knowlton was killed in the action near Harlem, and apparently, General Washington had not been made aware of Hale痴 volunteering for the dangerous mission. It would not be until the evening of the 22nd that General Washington would be informed that an incident had unfolded.
Nathan Hale dressed as a Dutch school teacher and passed behind the British lines on Long Island and began to collect information. His short jaunt into the realm of espionage came to an abrupt end on 21 September when a relative of his, a Tory from New Hampshire, Samuel Hale, recognized him at a tavern. Nathan was promptly arrested.
Hale was carrying documents on his person, which the British found as they searched him. Caught redhanded, he could do nothing but confess. Without benefit of a trial, early the following morning, Hale was informed that he had been found guilty of espionage. The young man was also informed that he had already been sentenced to be hanged. His captors allowed him to write a letter to a brother and one to a fellow officer in the Patriot army. The British would not allow a clergyman to visit Hale.
At 11:00 am on the 22nd, Nathan Hale was led to the gallows. A noose was placed around his neck and he was asked if he had anything to say. A spectator later stated that Hale was calm, as he told the crowd that had come to watch, that a good soldier痴 duty was to obey any order given by his commanding officer. A British officer, noting the young man痴 dignity in the face of eminent death, was the person to later quote Hale痴 last words as: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."