Nancy Morgan Hart
Some women are born into greatness. Some women take it by force.
Some of the greatest heroes in American history are more fantasy than reality. Paul Bunyan, Jesse James, Davy Crockett - as well as his arch nemesis Mike Fink - are all historical figures that are now remembered more for their apocryphal antics than for their verifiable actions. The story of Nancy Hart shows not only that a woman can get in on the folk hero game too, but she can also inspire future generations of women to wreak havoc in her name.
A Myth is Born
Ann “Nancy” Morgan Hart was almost certainly a real person. This is one of the only certainties about her life.
Most accounts put Hart’s birth in either Pennsylvania or North Carolina around the year 1735. There is no existing information about her parentage, but it is believed by most scholars that she did, indeed, have parents. While no records exist that recount much of her life before age 36, we have to assume that few of her neighbors failed to take notice of her presence. Reports say that Nancy was red-headed, badly scarred by smallpox, about six feet tall, and often was beguilingly described as “muscular” with no additional commentary. She was also cross-eyed.
Tensions had been mounting between the British and American Colonists for about a decade before the revolution erupted in 1775. At that time, radical patriots, or Whigs, drove many loyalists out of the province of Georgia. Later, Georgia also played a key role as the staging ground for several raids into British-controlled Florida. All in all, the region was so tumultuous it was dubbed a "hornet's nest."
As a devoted Whig, Benjamin Hart quickly joined the fight as a lieutenant in the Georgia Militia under Elijah Clarke, leaving Nancy to tend the farm, a task that she was more than capable of doing. Some reports contend that Benjamin’s absence, in fact, made little difference to Nancy who had always been a “domineering” wife that had always run their household. Drawing from the same reports, some surmised that it was more Benjamin’s desire for freedom rather than his patriotism that drew him into service. Regardless of the reasoning, Nancy maintained the family farm in her husband’s absence, and did it so well that she eventually felt the need to branch out into other fields.
Too Good to Not Repeat
Stories of Nancy Hart’s antics abound, placing her at several monumental events during the war such as the Battle of Kettle creek and in situations that always ended with her cleverly injuring and capturing one or more Tory soldiers. While few of these stories boast any amount of proof, some are repeated more frequently than others. One such reoccurring story recalls Nancy’s abilities as a spy.
The story goes that she would dress as a man and, pretending to be feeble-minded, would enter British camps to gain information that she would then pass along to the Patriots. After one such expedition into enemy territory, Nancy, in the absence of any other volunteer, was forced to relay information between Georgia and Carolina by strapping logs together and paddling across the roiling Savannah River.
However, by far the most well-known of her stories takes place on her own farm. Six British soldiers arrived at the Hart homestead demanding food. Some versions say that the demand, coupled with Nancy’s fiery patriotism, was enough to rouse her legendary fury. Other accounts state that the murder of one of Nancy’s prize turkeys was the inciting incident. Nancy complied with the order and laid out food while secretly planing to get the soldiers drunk on corn liquor and steal their guns. However, she was caught red-handed passing one of the guns out of the house. Instead of giving up after being caught, though, Nancy turned the gun on the soldiers and threatened to shoot. Some accounts say that Nancy fired off a warning shot into one of the soldiers that attempted to rush her. Other accounts say that her crossed eyes confused the soldiers into compliance and she didn’t need to shoot anyone to get her point across. All accounts agree that Nancy successfully held the soldiers captive until Benjamin and her neighbors could arrive and hang them all in the backyard.
After the War
For a person like Nancy, life could never be peaceful and free of strife. She wouldn’t like it that way. However, when the war ended leaving her with no more British to fight, Nancy had to find a new enemy. It was around that time that she encountered a new phenomena that had been spreading through the area - Methodism. A former governor of Georgia, George R. Gilmer, had a connection to Nancy Hart through his mother who knew the spirited frontierswoman personally. This account remembers that Nancy, “went to the house of worship in search of relief. She … became a shouting Christian, [and] fought the Devil as manfully as she had [once] fought the Tories.”
Nancy moved a few times after the war. First, Benjamin took the family to Brunswick, Georgia. He died shortly thereafter, and Nancy returned to Broad River only to find that her home had been washed away in a river flood. After that, she settled with one of her sons in Clark County, Georgia, and then in Henderson County, Kentucky where Nancy Hart died in 1830 around the age of ninety-three.
One might be forgiven for thinking that the story of Nancy Hart ended after her death. The truth is that some personalities are too big to ever really die.
The legend of Nancy Hart was told and retold in and around Georgia for years to come. To the residents there, Hart was the pinnacle of Southern frontier grit. This is probably the reason why a few weeks after the beginning of the Civil War, on April 26, 1861, a group of women LaGrange, Georgia came together in a schoolhouse to form their own militia and proudly called themselves the “Nancy Harts.”
The LaGrange Light Guards of the Fourth Georgia Infantry was comprised primarily of men from the town of LaGrange. In 1861, 1,300 men left LaGrange to fight, leaving the town of mostly women particularly susceptible to attack. Rather than sit back and hope for the best, the women of LaGrange drew inspiration from their tall, tough Georgia ancestor. Two women of the town, Nancy Hill Morgan and Mary Alford Heard, led the way by declaring the formation of the "Nancies."
The Nancies obtained whatever weapons they could and drilled twice a week. At the beginning of their endeavor, the women trained with the assistance of William J. Hardee’s Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics and little else. Later, they enlisted the help of Dr. A.C. Ware, a town physician that had been exempted from military service. The women were as sloppy as would be expected, but with training they gradually improved. The leaders of the militia then began offering prizes for marksmanship, and suddenly they became expert shots.
Although the Nancies organized as a militia, their work throughout the war primarily consisted of acting as nurses in a Confederate hospital. Since LaGrange was close to an intact rail line, their four hospitals were often full and women routinely took the wounded into their private homes for medical care. Yet, even in the midst of grueling hospital work, the Nancies never let down their guard and never stopped training to face the enemy in battle.
The Nancies were not the only female military group operating during the Civil War; however, they were the only ones to ever face Union troops. In April of 1865, Major General James H. Wilson was leading a raid on west Georgia when his troops began to approach LaGrange. As the Union soldiers approached, the Confederate cavalrymen fled in panic, leaving only the Nancy Harts to defend the town. Surely, the Nancies were glad at that moment that they, unlike other female militias, had continued to drill for four years straight.
On April 17, the Nancy Harts marched to LaGrange Female College to meet their adversary, the Union colonel who was, quite ironically, named Oscar H. LaGrange. Surprised by the sight, LaGrange complimented the women on their bravery and offered to spare the town in exchange for their surrender. In the end, the Nancies chose to use their diplomacy rather than their military training to protect their town. The Union soldiers damaged implements that could be helpful to the Confederate cause, but spared private homes and property. To demonstrate their gratitude for his honesty, the women hosted a dinner for the Colonel. Only shortly after the troops left LaGrange to continue on their way to Macon, word came that the war was officially over.
The Legend Lives On
The first time the Nancies were given national recognition for their bravery and determination was in 1904 when an article about their efforts was published, appropriately, in the Ladies’ Home Journal. Perhaps that article, like the recitations of Nancy Hart’s exploits that came before, carried Nancy Hart’s legacy on to a new generation of women determined to fight for hearth and home.
NWHS strives for accuracy. Please contact us if you spot any mistakes in our work.
Brackett, Katharine. “Nancy Harts Militia.” New Georgia Encyclopedia, Georgia Humanities Council, 17 Sept. 2010, www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/nancy-harts-militia.
Chandler, Ray, "The Legend of Nancy Hart," North Georgia Journal (summer 1999), 22-26.
Cleaveland, R. Chris. “Nancy Harts: Female Company Defends Against Raiders.” Troup County Archives, www.trouparchives.org/index.php/history/nancy_harts_female_company_defends_against_raiders.
Cox, Dale. “The Nancy Harts - Female Confederate Soldiers of LaGrange, Georgia.” Explore Southern History, 17 Apr. 2015, www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nancyharts.html.
Coulter, E. Merton, "Nancy Hart, Georgia Heroine of the Revolution: The Story of the Growth of a Tradition," Georgia Historical Quarterly 39 (June 1955): 118-51.
Hall, Sharon. “Military History Monday: The Nancy Harts.” Digging History, 14 July 2014.
John Thomas Scott, "Nancy Hart: 'Too Good Not to Tell Again,'" in Georgia Women: Their Lives and Times, vol. 1., ed. Ann Short Chirhart and Betty Wood (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009).
Michals, Debra. “Nancy Morgan Hart.” NWHM, www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biographies/nancy-morgan-hart.
“Nancy Hart-Revolutionary War Heroine.” US Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District, web.archive.org/web/20051216073536/http://www.sas.usace.army.mil/lakes/hartwell/hart.htm.
Ouzts, Clay. “Nancy Hart (Ca. 1735-1830).” New Georgia Encyclopedia, Georgia Humanities Council, 12 Aug. 2015, www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/nancy-hart-ca-1735-1830.
“Teacher's Resources: The Nancy Hart Story.” Georgia Public Broadcasting, 16 Mar. 2016, www.gpb.org/georgiastories/teacherresources/nancy_hart_story.