West Virginia In The Civil War

Nancy Hart


A troublesome character was Nancy Hart, the female bushwhacker, who gave a number of Federal officers a very bad time during the first couple of years of the Civil War. She was a mountain spitfire, deadly as a copperhead and filled with partisan spirit, who rode with Perry Conley and his Moccasin Rangers through the central counties of West Virginia. In her spare time she picked up bits of information here and there that were helpful to the marauding Moccasins and to the other loosely associated groups operating as Virginia Partisan Rangers.

Captain Perry Conley (the title was self-conferred for the reason that he headed the Rangers) had picked up his men largely from the area around the upper waters of the West Fork of the Little Kanawha, in Calhoun County, and operated under his own auspices. He made his own rules of warfare with the aid of Nancy Hart. Joining at times with Captain Sprigg in Braxton and Webster counties, and with other segments of the Moccasin Rangers captained by George Downs, Dan Duskey, and Peter Saurburn, the guerrilla legion became a terror to the central counties--and none was more feared than the band led by Perry Conley, whose killings, it is claimed, ran up into a very respectable number.

The ponderous printed tomes of the Official Records of the Rebellion are silent as to the part Nancy Hart played in the war, and even her captain, to whom she was apparently devoted, gets no mention. Though she has been dead only a little more than half a century, she is almost forgotten, and the part of her raiding that is remembered is well-laden with legend, so much so that it seems impossible to separate fiction from fact. She was not of the Belle Boyd type in capitalizing in the postwar years on her guerrilla days, but she was every bit as courageous and resourceful, and more forthright in her operations.

Nancy Hart first appears in the Civil War story in the early summer of 1861 when she was reported as the companion of Perry Conley in guerrilla forays in Calhoun County. Her background, if ever known, has not been made a part of the legend, but she is described as a handsome girl in her early twenties, having beady black eyes, and of medium height and build. Legend, of course, has built her into a ravishing beauty of Hollywood proportions, which legend has a way of doing, but, truth to tell, she seems to have been of ordinary good looks, a pert, vivacious mountain girl who could ride and shoot with the best of them. She confessed to her captors at one time that "nobody ever learned me to read and write."

But of Captain Conley there is more solid, factual material. The census of 1860 discloses that he was then twenty-three years of age and was living in the Minnora neighborhood in Calhoun County, with his wife, Lucinda, and two children. He is said to have been six feet three inches in height, and with powerful muscular development and great endurance. From his youth he had been the leader of his group; he could outrun, outfight and outlift anybody in his section. It was not at all difficult for him to enlist his band of partisans, but when he took to the hills as a guerrilla his brother, James, made his way to the nearest recruiting post to enlist in the Federal army.

In the late fall of 1861, after a raid into Braxton County, a detachment of Braxton Home Guards under Lieutenant Henry Bender was sent in pursuit. The Union men found a part of Conley's band at a home on Stinson Creek, in southern Calhoun County. In trying to make their escape, one of the rangers was killed. The next day, while searching out possible hiding places along the West Fork, Bender's men turned a bend in the road to come upon Conley and Nancy emerging from the woods. Conley ungallantly turned back into the brush and made his escape, untouched by a volley from the miscellaneous lot of firearms with which the Home Guards were equipped. Being thus abandoned, Nancy was taken back to camp as a prisoner, but her apparent innocence and lack of knowledge of Conley's actions convinced her captors that she was not at all dangerous to the Federal cause, and she was released. That was Captain Rollyson's big mistake, for Nancy Hart went back to Captain Conley with a head full of information about not only the Home Guards, but with the movement of regular Federal troops that were being sent into the area to scotch the irregular bands.

Conley did not last long. He was surprised by a detachment of the Thirtieth Ohio Infantry in Webster County in the early summer of 1862. Though he was mortally wounded at the first fire, he fought off his assailants until he ran out of ammunition, and was then clubbed into submission. After his death, the band disintegrated; it had never been mustered into the state or regular Confederate service. Federal troops were closing in and most of the men ran to cover. Some joined Captain George Downs's Company A, Nineteenth Virginia Cavalry, others enlisted in Captain Absolom Knotts's Company E, Fourteenth Virginia Cavalry--both companies drawn originally from the Moccasin Rangers--while others carried on their private war from the hills. Nancy Hart married Joshua Douglas, one of the Conley partisans, and Joshua took service with Captain Downs's company; his enlistment antedated to July 15, 1861, to protect him from prosecution for acts committed while ranging with Conley's band. Nancy moved on into the mountains of Nicholas County, near the Confederate lines, where she continued to carry information to the regular forces while passing as an innocent country girl.

Summersville, the county seat of Nicholas, was occupied by two companies, A and F, Ninth West Virginia Infantry, under command of Lieutenant Colonel William C. Starr. The officers had commandeered a two-story frame house, from which the occupants had taken quick departure on arrival of the Union troops, where they had comfortable living quarters. The attic was fitted for beds for any stray guests, and its first occupant was Nancy Hart, who had been recognized and taken into custody by a patrol sent out into the surrounding mountain country. Nancy made no objection; she submitted gracefully to the imprisonment, thankful, of course, that she had not been committed to the discomforts of the primitive county jail. She turned on the charm and made herself so agreeable to her captors that she was permitted liberty to move about in the yard, but always under guard of one or more soldiers.

An itinerant ambrotypist (a photographer using an early form of the more familiar tintype) came to Summersville to practice his art on the soldiers stationed there. By that time Nancy had made some real conquests and one, a telegrapher named Marion H. Kerner, yearned for a picture of the young lady; he wanted to save the shadow ere the substance faded away. Nancy demurred. She didn't have clothes "fittin' to be pictured in."

Kerner had his mind made up; he would not be put off with such a flimsy feminine excuse. Scouting around among the Union women of his acquaintance he found a dress for Nancy, and with a resourcefulness born of necessity he took a soldier's hat, crimped it out of shape, and with a borrowed plume made a pert little headdress. Nancy then faced the camera without flinching; the result was pleasing and it is likely that more than the one exposure for Kerner was made.

On return to her prison Nancy flashed her best smile on the guard, who happened to be a homesick boy. He was not forbidden to talk to her, but all the guards were impressed with the admonition that a shooting at sunrise awaited him who crossed her door or in any way laid hands upon her.

She talked and talked. The guard grew more confident and careless, and she made him sorry for her in her prison when she was such an outdoors person. Nancy asked about his gun--some tales say a pistol, others say a musket--and she told him of her prowess with a rifle. Finally she asked if she could hold the gun to compare it with the feel of a rifle, to which he readily assented. Then, simulating firing, she raised the weapon in position and backed across the room to gain a proper distance from her game. Nancy was not fooling, though she kept the guard at ease with a smile on her face. When at the right distance, she fired; the ball passed through the young guard's heart, killing him instantly.

Bounding out of the house, she mounted Lieutenant Colonel Starr's favorite horse and was away at a gallop, though closely pursued, she managed to evade the soldiers and made her way safely to the Confederate lines on Greenbrier River. She had saved her neck. Again she packed away information that boded no good for the Ninth Infantry, and for Lieutenant Colonel Starr in particular. He was to know again that Nancy was as dangerous as a copperhead.

About a week later at four o'clock in the morning of July 25, 1862, Nancy returned to Summersville, but she did not come alone. She brought with her some two hundred gray-clad Confederate cavalry, or mounted infantry, under the command of Major R. Augustus Bailey, of Patton's Twenty-second Virginia Infantry. The Rebel troops came storming up the Sutton road, overran the pickets located about a quarter of a mile from the headquarters, and entered the streets of the town without opposition. The officers and soldiers were wrapped in heavy sleep and fell an easy prey. In all, only about ten shots were fired; two soldiers were wounded and were left in Summersville under the care of the assistant surgeon. Lieutenant Colonel Starr, Captain Samuel Davis, and Lieutenants Benjamin F. Stivers and James Ewing, of Company A, were rounded up in their quarters. Lieutenant John W. Miller, the only officer of Company F present, was in another building and was aroused in time to make his escape. A few men were captured, but most of them got away in the early morning darkness; more than fifty made their way to the general headquarters at Gauley Bridge that day.

After setting fire to three houses, including the commissary storehouse, destroying two wagons, and taking eight mules and twelve horses, the raiders retreated by way of the Sutton road, taking their prisoners with them. Nancy had her revenge; Lieutenant Colonel Starr and his officers were on their way to Libby Prison at Richmond.

Nancy fades out of the picture as an active partisan after this incident but it is more than likely that she lent a helping hand, whenever possible, until the end of the war. She knew that a rope awaited her if captured again.

Joshua survived the war and returned to his home country after the collapse of the Confederacy. Joining with Nancy they settled down on a mountain farm at the head of Spring Creek, in Greenbrier County, and there they passed the rest of their lives. Nancy passed away in 1902 and was buried on a wild crag of Mannings Knob, near her home, and there she rested with only a pile of stones to mark the place of burial.

Years later Jim Comstock, Richwood publisher and Civil War buff, who knew the story of Nancy Hart, came to the conclusion that she had at least earned a modest marker at her grave. Together with a granddaughter of Nancy's, they went out to Mannings Knob, only to find that the place had been bulldozed flat in order to make a place for a beacon tower. And now Nancy does not have even an unmarked grave.

Source: Reprinted from Boyd B. Stutler's West Virginia in the Civil War, Education Foundation, Inc., Charleston, West Virginia 25324.

NOTE: The last part about the grave site of Nancy being destroyed is not correct. It never was dozed off. They cleared the trees and brush but did not do anything with it. You can still see several other graves there as well. Ivan Hunter was burried beside Nancy. On the Nicholas County Gen. site there are pictures of Nancy's grave. http://www.nkclifton.com/nancyh.grave.html

Paul R. Greathouse


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