The Nancy Harts
An Article Contributed by BonnieBlueFlag
- DISCLAIMER: In preparing this (article), the placement of numbered resources within the text was lost. The list of resources appears at the end of this post.
On April 18th 1865, the news of Lee's surrender on the 9th had yet to reach the town of LaGrange in Troupe County on the western border of Georgia. It was on this date a brave band of 40 women stood at the edge of town ready to defend it from a Federal column coming up the road.
Other Southern citiies during the Civil War armed their women briefly in response to local crises. LaGrange's women are considered unique because their group would become well-organized, disciplined and the only commissioned military company of women that would train regularly for almost 3 years. This group preceded the Women's Army Corps (WAC) of World War II by 80 years. They named themselves after a Revolutionary War heroine, Nancy Hart, who single-handedly defended her home against a group of invading British soldiers.*
In April, 1861, the town's able-bodied men went to war with the LaGrange Light Guard, a cavalry unit of the 4th Georgia Infantry. After 2 years of war, the citizens of LaGrange began to fear for the safety of their town. Two women of the upper class section of town and some graduates of the LaGrange Female College decided they should form a militia and protect their community. One of these women was Nancy Coquitt Hill Morgan, married for 6 months and was 21 when her husband left for the war. Another woman and friend of Mrs. Morgan was Mary Cade Alford Heard who was 27 when her husband went off to war, leaving her in charge of their plantation, plus her in-law's plantation and management of 100 slaves.
The women of LaGrange responded nobley to the call for town defense and soon the ranks were filled with young matrons and the buds of society. "...Women being naturally unfamiliar with firearms and army tactics, we were obliged to seek beyond our sex for military instruction", noted Mary Heard in a later interview. The only man in town of military age was Dr. H.C. Ware, a practicing physician, who was unable for field duty due to physical disability. He was familiar with military requirements and gave his full support.
The Nancy Harts began to organize themselves at an old red school house on Ben Hill's Grove.
Listing of officers:
- Captain: Nancy Morgan
- 1st Lieutenant: Mary Heard
- 2nd Lieutenant: Aley (Alie) Smith
- 3rd Lieutenant: Andelia Bull
- 1st Sergeant: Augusta Hill
- 2nd Sergeant: Pack Beall
- 1st Corporal: Leila Pullen
- 2nd Corporal: Sally Bull
- 3rd Corporal: Caroline Poythress (Gay)
- Treasurer: Ella Kay
In some sources, M.E. Colquitt is listed as a Sergeant.
The Nancy Harts met twice a week, usually at Harris Grove for drills and target practice, clothed in their regular daily attire of day dresses, some in hoops. Because the men in town had taken the good firearms to war, the women were left with old guns, including flintlocks. More than one member reported the guns to be in such bad condition, they were unsure whether the muzzle or breach was more dangerous.
Some of the women had a bad habit of closing their eyes just before shooting and missing their targets entirely. Upon one occasion, at the command of fire, one of the Nancies turned her head, shut her eyes and fired the gun. The ball struck a grapevine and literally scared up a hornet's nest. The hornets responded to the attack. The Nancies were routed but soon rallied to finish the drill. After several months their marksmanship improved, but not before an errant shot killed a bull in a nearby pasture. The women became indifferent to the snap of the cap, the flash of powder and the kick of the gun. Some evenings the ladies would drill then "boldly march through the streets with our guns on our shoulders" to keep the townspeople aware of their presence.
Halfway through the war, LaGrange had become a hospital town. Because a major railroad line connected this safe area to the battlefields in Virginia, Tennessee and Mississippi, every train passing through delivered wounded and dying soldiers. Each of the Nancy Harts did a regular hospital duty in addition to attending to her substantial militia and family responsibilities.
In the fall of 1864, the South was losing the war. Atlanta fell. Sherman burned and looted his way to Savannah. One of his cavalry units came within 30 miles northeast of LaGrange, to the city of Newnan, but it was soundly defeated by Major General Joseph Wheeler's cavalry. In the spring of 1865, Federal troops were approaching a fort that guarded the railroad bridge at the town of West Point, 18 miles from LaGrange. Brigadere General Robert Tyler needed all able-bodied men to report immediately to help defend West Point. All the walking wounded soldiers and aged men in LaGrange gathered and rode a train to the fort. The exodus left the town with no men capable of fighting.
Federal Colonel Oscar LaGrange (coincidently the same name as the town), crossed the Chattahoochee River at West Point and captured Ft. Tyler, a strong redoubt commanding the town, and destroyed bridges, the rail facilities, 19 locomotives, 340 rail cars loaded with army supplies and much valuable machinery. The 300 defenders from LaGrange could not hold off the 3000 Union attackers. Brigadere General Robert Tyler was killed in this effort.
The returning Confederates brought news of a Federal column coming up the road from West Point. The Nancy Harts quickly assembled at the home of Mary Heard. As they were forming their ranks, several Confederate cavalrymen pleaded with them to return home and lock their doors. The women refused and started marching to meet the column.
At the sight of blue uniforms, the Nancy Harts formed a line and prepared for the worst. Believeing the town to be defenseless, Wilson's Raiders invaded LaGrange, Georgia. The women were shocked to see many Confederate prisoners from the fort at the head of the column, placed there by the Federals, knowing the locals could not fire without endangering their loved ones and fellow countrymen. One woman called out to a prisoner, Major Parham, to explain the situation. Colonel LaGrange interrupted and told Parham to introduce him to the unit's Captain. Nancy Morgan stepped forward and informed him the women were determined to defend their families and homes. LaGrange responded by promising that if the women's unit would disarm, no homes or peaceful citizens would be harmed. He was overheard saying, "The Nancy Harts could probably use their eyes with better effect than their guns."
To show their gratitude to Col. LaGrange for sparing their homes, one of the Nancy Harts invited him to dinner at her home. He accepted and generously paroled, temporarily, some of the prisoners from that locality so they could attend. Many women of the town cooked all night to make enough food for the large party. That night, the townspeople guarded many of the local homes and businesses against looting by the Federal troops. Despite this precaution, the Federal troops torched the local tannery, cotton warehouses, the train depot and some buildings around the town square. They also looted local stores and destroyed considerable amount of railroad track between the towns of LaGrange and West Point.
Interestingly, "Bellevue", the home of prominent Confederate politician and former U.S Senator Benjamin Harvey Hill was spared. Apparently Oscar LaGrange was returning a favor. In the spring of 1864, he was seriously wounded and captured by Confederate troops. Since the Confederate hospitals were overwhelmed in the LaGrange area, he was placed in the care of a local woman, the niece of Senator Hill. Oscar LaGrange recovered from his wounds and was exchanged in the fall and returned to duty, to later repay the kind gesture that had been accorded to him.
The next morning, the teary-eyed women bade farewell to their husbands and sons marching away as prisoners of war. But the men never made it to the prison. Upon reaching Macon, Col. LaGrange learned of Lee's surrender and immediately freed them.
The Nancy Harts prevailed in their only confrontation, without firing a shot. The citizens of LaGrange had faired far better than many other occupied areas. They were fortunate indeed, to have confronted a gentleman officer in Oscar LaGrange. Although never called to active field service, the Nancy Harts were ready for the fray if emergency demanded.
- Nancy Morgan Hart was born in North Carolina about 1735. Accordinig to most records, her character was one of strength, both physically and emotionally. She stood at 6 foot tall, could handle an axe and gun as well as any man and was not afraid to do so. She married Benjamin Hart and they moved to South Carolina. After having 8 healthy children, the Harts moved to Georgia around 1771.
The incident which made her famous occurred one afternoon while Benjamin was out in the fields. 5 or 6 British soldiers (or Tories- citizens of the colonies who were loyal to the King of England) approached the Hart house. One of them killed the Hart's prized turkey, forced their way into the home and demanded the lady of the house cook it for them. Anticipating trouble, Nancy sent her daughter to summon Benjamin from the fields, under the pretext of getting water from a nearby spring.
Though renowned for her hostility towards the British, Nancy became cordial and offered an alcoholic beverage to the intruders. Their muskets were carelessly stacked in a corner where Nancy was keeping a close eye on them.
The intruder's intoxication and their hostess' false hospitality allowed Nancy, unnoticed, to slide 2 of the muskets through a chink space in the wall. As she attempted to remove a third musket, her act was discovered. One soldier rushed for his gun and recieved a sample of Nancy's marksmanship, falling dead on the floor. Another soldier, still doubting her ability, stood up and Nancy gave him a wounding shot. She held the remaining men at gunpoint until help arrived. The punishment was hotly debated. Nancy believed shooting was too good for the trespassers, so the men were hung from an old oak tree in the Hart's front yard.
- Forttyler.com/Battle of West Point, Georgia
- Troup County Archives / Nancy Harts
- LaGrange's All-Female Civil War Militia
- scv670.com/women/female CSA
- Sas.usace.armylmil/lakes/hartwell/hart Hartwell Dam and Lake - Nancy Hart Revolutionary War Heroine