Nancy Hart had spirit and spunk— and good aim.
Newspapers called her a vamp, a spitfire, a bushwhacker and a voluptuous tomboy. Yankees knew her as a troublesome character who would become one of the most daring and dangerous female spies of the Civil War. Her name was Nancy Hart.
When the war started, Nancy was just 15 years old. She was an attractive and vivacious western Virginia mountain girl, tall with dark hair and black eyes. She couldn’t read or write, but she could ride and shoot as well as anyone. Like other mountain girls, she frequently walked barefooted and rode bareback. She hunted squirrels, raccoons and other animals on and around her family’s Roane County farm in what is now central West Virginia. It was a land of narrow valleys, rugged mountains and the tough, independent descendants of Scots-Irish pioneers.
In this sparsely settled region, most folks were poor, plantations were unheard of and few mountaineers had ever seen a slave. Yet the region’s loyalties were almost equally divided between the Union and the Confederacy. The war became a struggle of brother against brother, father against son, sister against brother and neighbor against neighbor. The Hart family was no exception.
Nancy was one of 13 children born to Stephen and Mary Hart. Two of her brothers joined the Union Army. Nancy initially had no interest in politics or in the war. She liked doing “boy” things, like shooting a musket, tracking game and fishing. Her parents, however, wanted her to cook, clean and look after her six younger siblings. But Nancy didn’t want to be like other young women who married and lived on farms. To her, marriage meant losing her identity and her individuality. Her parents regarded this attitude as un-Christian, and they realized they had on their hands a rebellious teenager about to become a hardened Rebel.
The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad ran through this area, and Federal troops moved in early in the war to keep it in Union hands. To oppose them and anyone loyal to the Union, Confederate mountain men banded together as “raiding rangers.” These Rebel partisans rode at night, usually in groups of 10 to 15, and attacked Federal soldiers and Union loyalists. “Strike and run” was their tactic. “We’re gonna keep ’em looking over their shoulders every minute,” said one raider. The rangers would charge up to a house occupied by a Unionist family, spray it with bullets, and shoot anyone who came to the door or looked through a window. Then they would burn the house, steal the livestock and move on to pull up railroad ties, burn trestles and attack Yankee outposts.
Some writers have speculated that many of these acts were more personal than political, and thus they generally were not a credit to the Confederate cause. Some rangers apparently joined a group in order to settle old scores with Unionist neighbors. But it didn’t end there. As the movement grew, and more and more bands developed, civil government broke down, stores were looted, post offices disrupted and businesses suspended. Each Union loyalist had to depend on himself or herself for survival.
Considerable military force was necessary to keep the rangers in check and to protect pro-Union persons and property. This was difficult because the rangers scattered after each raid and did not reunite until the next raid. During the war’s first two years, many Union troops recruited in the area remained there to combat the guerrillas, but to the rangers’ advantage, there were never enough troops, and most of them lacked military savvy and skills. As one ranger later acknowledged,“They’ll be so busy fightin’ and lookin’ for us, they won’t be botherin’ Stonewall Jackson and our boys in the Shenandoah Valley.”
The most prominent band of Confederate partisans was led by 23-year-old Perry Conley, a 6-foot-3 muscular menace who could outrun, outfight and outlift anybody in the area. He titled himself “captain”and called his force the Moccasin Rangers, referring to the moccasin snakes that attacked suddenly and without warning.
In the spring of 1861, rebellious Nancy Hart ran away from home and joined Conley’s rangers. Probably the only female guerrilla in Conley’s outfit, she became his frequent companion and an indispensable asset. She served as both a spy and a guide. She knew the territory. She had ridden over every hill, mountain and trail, explored every cave, and seen every stream in the region. She supplied Conley with intelligence and occasionally fought in skirmishes with him. Conley liked her partisan spirit and regarded her as “deadly as a copperhead.”
As the Moccasin Rangers became ever more lethal, so did Nancy Hart. Union sympathizers huddled in their homes in fear for their safety.Word spread about murders committed, property destroyed, women raped and other atrocities. Nancy took a brief break from the rangers in October 1861 to visit her sister Mary Hart Price, who was expecting her first child. Mary’s husband, William, was a loyal Southerner. He often provided food and other supplies to Confederate troops in the area.
About dusk on October 19, a party of Union soldiers rode into the yard. They told William to come with them to the town of Spencer. While Price prepared to leave, the soldiers poked around the house. They found Mary in the bedroom with several pillows and a large bolster behind her. They apologized for invading her privacy. Had they looked more closely they would have found Nancy Hart hidden behind the bolster.
Price never got to Spencer. Neighbors found him a couple of days later, his body riddled with bullets. Nancy’s sadness turned to intense hatred of the Union. Now that the war had touched her personally, she’d do anything to help the Confederacy, even if it meant fighting against her own brothers.
Later that fall, Conley’s Moccasin Rangers raided neighboring Braxton County and were pursued by a detachment of Braxton home guards (Unionist) under Lieutenant Henry Bender. Bender found some of Conley’s band at a home on Stinson Creek and killed one, but the others escaped. The next day Bender searched out their possible hiding places along the West Fork River. As the home guard turned a bend in the road, they came upon Conley and Nancy emerging from the woods on their horses. A member of the home guard fired into the air and yelled, “Halt.”
Nancy’s mare panicked and reared up. As she sought to control the horse, she looked toward Conley for help. All she saw was Conley cowardly galloping into the brush as bullets whizzed by him. Almost immediately, the home guard surrounded Nancy and jerked the reins from her hands.
“Why are you botherin’ me?” she asked loudly.“I’m jist a farm girl tryin’ to visit relatives. I got lost, and that gentleman showed me the way to the road.”Unsure what to do with her, they took her back to camp for more questions. At age 15 she appeared harmless and innocent. She was so convincing that the captain in charge said,“O shucks, she’s just a farm girl who had some bad luck and got lost. Let her go.”
Conley’s exploits ended abruptly in Webster County in the early summer of 1862 when a detachment of the 30th Ohio Infantry surprised and shot him. Conley was mortally wounded, but continued to return fire until he ran out of ammunition. The soldiers then clubbed him into submission. After his death, the Moccasin Rangers disbanded, and many of them joined Virginia cavalries.
Nancy Hart’s emotions reeled from rage to bewilderment to panic. Then she found comfort and love in ranger Joshua Douglas, a handsome, muscular mountaineer. They married shortly after Conley’s demise, but their marital bliss was disrupted by Douglas’ decision to sign up with Company A of the 19th Virginia Cavalry.
Nancy moved to a cabin in the mountains of Nicholas County, near Confederate lines. Unwilling to rein in her desire to serve the Confederacy, she posed as an innocent country girl while carrying information to Rebel forces.
Summersville, the Nicholas County seat, was occupied by 60 Union men of the 9th West Virginia Infantry under the command of Lt. Col. William C. Starr. Starr’s headquarters was a two-story frame dwelling abandoned by its owners after the approach of Federal troops. Starr and three other officers occupied the house. Gardens in the neighborhood had been stripped of all vegetation, so the men foraged for fresh vegetables.
On July 10, 1862, a foraging party made up of Starr, two orderlies, Captain Samuel Davis and a telegrapher named Marion H. Kerner searched for table luxuries in the region. After riding about three hours, they noticed smoke ascending from a log cabin in the valley below. In front of the cabin they saw two girls grinding corn between two large rocks. When the girls heard horses approaching, they ran into the cabin and barred its heavy wooden door. As the Federals dismounted, an elderly woman peered through a small, hinged window on one side of the door and yelled to the girls, “The Yankees are upon us!”
Starr gently knocked at the door. Receiving no response he knocked more vigorously. After several vain attempts, he went to the window and assured the old woman that their mission was friendly. He asked her if they would be willing to trade some of their vegetables for a liberal supply of salt. Salt was scarce and expensive. The lady agreed to the trade, and the men filled their sacks with food from the garden.
As they were about to remount their horses and return to Summersville, Colonel Starr paused, as if in thought, and drew from his pocket the description of Nancy Hart, known to be a Rebel guide and spy. The government was offering a substantial reward for her capture. Starr consulted with his cohorts. They agreed that one of the girls they had seen matched the description. Starr and Davis returned to the cabin and approached the girls, who had resumed their work. According to an account by Marion Kerner, Starr laid his hand gently upon Nancy’s shoulder and said, “Well, Nancy, at last we’ve got you!”
The other girl, about Nancy’s age, shouted without thinking: “That’s not Nancy Hart! Leave her alone!”
And Nancy exclaimed, “What are you going to do with me?”
Starr knew this girl was, indeed, Nancy Hart. Nancy’s friend was arrested as well for harboring an enemy in time of war. She was the granddaughter of the elderly woman, and Nancy was staying with them.
At Summersville the girls were incarcerated in a dilapidated building formerly used as a jail. Guards patrolled it on all sides. Kerner thought it ungentlemanly to house two teenage girls in “a miserable old building.” He appealed to Colonel Starr to transfer them to more comfortable quarters. He suggested the vacant attic in Starr’s headquarters. Starr was reluctant but finally consented.
After the transfer, Kerner supplied them with sewing material and illustrated papers. Neither girl could read or write, but they studied the pictures. Kerner also furnished them with dainties purchased from a sutler—a civilian who sold supplies at army posts.
The door of the attic prison remained open during daylight hours so the guard in the hallway could keep an eye on the girls. The guards could talk with them, but they were not allowed to enter the room. Anyone who violated that order or laid hands upon them was to be shot at sunrise. The girls were allowed to close the door at night.
One night, however, Nancy intentionally left the door open. Around 3 a.m., she told the guard she couldn’t sleep and struck up a conversation with him. In the process, she charmed him and convinced him that she was a sweet country girl who wouldn’t harm anyone. She expressed an interest in his musket and asked him if she could hold it. She told him that she had used a rifle to furnish her home with all sorts of game.
The young guard, not much older than she was, could not resist her smile and her soft-spoken voice. Besides, she was a pleasure to look at, and he was lonely and homesick. He handed her the musket. She grasped it, stepped back, pointed it toward a wall, then turned toward him and fired. She shot him through the heart, and he fell dead.
Nancy jumped over the body and ran downstairs and out to the barn. She mounted Colonel Starr’s horse bareback and galloped away before the sleeping officials realized what was happening. She left behind her female companion. Starr ordered a pursuit, but it took his men a while to get dressed and saddle their horses, giving Nancy a good head start. The Federals checked the cabin where they caught her, and scoured the mountains in all directions, but they did not find her. She had made her way safely to Confederate lines and delivered critical information about Federal forces in and around Summersville.
A week later, on July 25, Nancy returned to Summersville, but she was not alone. She came with 200 Confederate cavalrymen under the command of Major Augustus Bailey. They had ridden two days and nights along narrow, winding mountain roads until they reached a small expanse of open country a mile or so from the village. As they approached, the drowsy Union pickets panicked and ran. The two companies of Federal troops, quartered in several houses, slept soundly.
The Rebels stormed into Summersville at 4 a.m. The lieutenant in charge of one company heard a single shot from the lone picket at the guardhouse. He jumped out of bed, looked out the window and saw Confederate cavalry seemingly everywhere. He crawled through a back window and escaped to the woods. Others of his command followed him in their nightclothes.
The Confederates, meanwhile, surrounded Colonel Starr’s headquarters. They captured Starr, Davis, two lieutenants and others, with little resistance, and rescued Nancy’s female companion.
Before leaving the village, the Rebels added to their collection 12 horses, eight mules and the entire stock of Enfield rifles and ammunition. They burned three houses, including the commissary storehouse.
Among their prisoners was Marion Kerner, who had extended various courtesies to Nancy during her incarceration. To return the favor, she approached Major Bailey and assured him that Kerner was not a Yankee and that he, too, was a Rebel prisoner and should be released. Bailey, who had no reason to doubt Nancy, released Kerner and allowed him to enter the house and get his effects. In 1882, Kerner wrote the following account for Leslie’s Weekly:
My first thought upon entering the office was to secure the telegraph instrument. It was still in place. This I did, and placing it under an army blanket which I threw over my arm, I made my way down the turnpike in the direction of Gauley Bridge. I had proceeded about a mile when I came to the place where the wire had been cut by the enemy to prevent communication with the main body of the regiment. Placing the instrument in the circuit and grounding the Summersville side, I found the wire “O.K.” to Gauley Bridge. While in the act of reporting the capture [of Union soldiers] I was surprised by half a dozen mounted men. They approached with carbines leveled at me. They ordered me to desist. I promptly obeyed. They [escorted] me back to Summersville.
When the case was reported to Major Bailey, he flew into a rage and with an oath threatened to “shoot the little Yankee traitor.” But Nancy again came to my rescue. What she told the major I never knew, but he put me under guard, and [I was on the way to Libby Prison at Richmond].
The Rebels left Summersville with their prisoners and their various acquisitions. Nancy rode at the head of the column. She continued to help Confederate units until the end of the war. By day she spied on isolated Federal posts from the forested hills above them. She studied approaches to their sites and estimated their strengths. She also ventured into Yankee strongholds, peddling eggs and vegetables and discovering military secrets from talkative soldiers who couldn’t imagine the teenage girl might be a spy.
Many times at night she led Confederate cavalry or infantry through the rugged terrain to attack Federal outposts. And during daylight hours she guided the cavalry to wagon trains carrying Union supplies. Cautious while spying, but daring while guiding troops, she knew that if she were caught, she would be hanged.
Joshua Douglas survived the war. He and Nancy settled on a mountain farm at the head of Spring Creek in Greenbrier County, W.Va. Nancy died there in 1902 at the age of 56.
Adapted from Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War, by H. Donald Winkler (Cumberland House, 2010).
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.