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WV Proud

NANCY HART, THE LADY GUERRILLA

West Virginia separated from Virginia in 1863 over the issue of slavery. Nancy Hart is the story of a woman who participated in the War.

Reprinted from the Roane County Historical Society Boyd B. Stutler’s West Virginia in the Civil War March 2006/ June 2006

A troublesome character was Nancy Hart, the female bushwacker, 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 WV. 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 picked 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 Dusky, and Peter Sauerburn. 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 Official Records of the Rebellion are silent as to the part Nancy Hart played and even her Captain gets no NANCY HART mention. The part of her raiding that is remembered is well-laden with legend, so much so it seems impossible to separate fiction from fact.

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. She is described as a handsome girl in her early twenties, having beady black eyes,…medium height and build. Legend has built her into a ravishing Hollywood beauty, 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 that “no one ever learned me to read and write.”

But of Captain Conley there is more solid information. The census of 1860 discloses that he was then twenty-three and was living in Minnora with his wife Lucinda and two children. He is said to have been 6’3” with powerful muscular development and great endurance. From his youth he had been a leader; he could outrun, outfight, and outlift anyone. While he took to the hills as a guerilla, his brother James enlisted in the Federal army.

In the late fall of 1861, after a raid into Braxton County, a detachment of the Braxton Home Guards under Lt. Henry Bender pursued. The Union men found part of Conley’s band at a home on Stinson Creek in southern Calhoun County. One of the rangers was killed. The next day Bender’s men came upon Conley and Nancy emerging from the woods. Conley turned back into the brush and made his escape.

Nancy was taken prisoner. Her apparent innocence and lack of knowledge of Conley’s action convinced her captors 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 Guard, but with the movement of Federal troops that were sent to scotch the irregular bands.

Conley did not last long. He was surprised by a detachment in Webster County in early summer of 1862. Through 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 his band disintegrated; it was never mustered into the state or confederate service. Federal troops were closing in. The men ran to cover; some joined other companies. Nancy Hart married Joshua Douglas who was one of Conley’s men. He joined another company; his enlistment was predated to protect him from prosecution for acts committed under Conley. Nancy moved into the mountains of Nicholas County where she continued to carry information while passing as an innocent country girl.

Summersville, the county seat of Nicholas County, was occupied by two companies of the Ninth WV Infantry; commanded by Lt. Col. William C. Starr. The Union officers occupied a two story frame house. The attic had beds for stray guests. Its first occupant was Nancy Hart. She was recognized and taken prisoner. Nancy made no objection. She submitted gracefully, turned on the charm, and made herself so agreeable she was permitted liberty to move about in the yard, but always under guard.

An itinerate photographer, Marion H. Kerner, went to Summersville to practice his art on the soldiers. He wanted to photograph Nancy who demurred ‘cause she didn’t have clothes “fittin’ to be pictured in.” He found a dress for her and then took a soldier’s hat and crimped it and added a plume. Then Nancy faced the camera.

On return to the prison Nancy flashed her best smile on the guard who was a homesick young boy. He was not forbidden to talk to her, but knew that a shooting at sunrise awaited he who crossed her door or laid a hand upon her.

She talked and talked. The guard grew more confident and careless. She made him feel sorry for her. Nancy asked bout his gun-some tales say a pistol-others say a musket-and told him of her prowess with a rifle. Finally she asked him to hold the gun so she could compare it with the feel of a rifle. He readily assented.

Then, simulating firing, she raised the weapon in position and backed across the room to gain the proper distance from her game. Nancy was not fooling although she kept the guard at ease by smiling. At the proper distance, she fired killing the guard instantly.

Bounding out of the house she mounted Lt. Col. Starr’s favorite horse and was away at a gallop. Although pursued, she evaded the soldiers and made her way to the Confederate lines on the Greenbriar River. Again she returned with information that boded no good for the Ninth Infantry and for Lt. Col. Starr.

About a week later at 4 am on the morning of July 25, 1862, Nancy returned to Summersville, but she did not come alone. She arrived with 200 gray-clad Confederate cavalry. (Under the command of Maj. R. Augustus Bailey of Patton’s 22nd Virginia infantry.) The rebel troop came up Sutton Road, overran the pickets located a quarter mile from the command headquarters, and entered the sleeping town without opposition.

Only about ten shots were fired. Two soldiers were wounded and left in Summerville under the care of the medics. Lt. Col. Starr, Capt. Samuel Davis, Lt. Benjamin F. Stivers, and Lt. James Ewing were prisoners, taken to Libby Prison at Richmond. A few more men were captured, but most of them got away in the early dawn darkness. More than 50 went to the headquarters at Gauley Bridge. After setting fire to three houses, including the commissary storehouse, destroying two wagons, and taking 8 mules and 12 horses, the raiders retreated.

Nancy fades out of the picture as an active partisan. She knew that a rope awaited her if she were captured again.

Joshua survived the war and returned to his home county after the fall of the Confederacy. He and Nancy settled down on a mountain farm at the head of Spring Creek in Greenbriar County for the rest of their lives. Nancy died in 1902 and was buried on Mannings Knob near her home. Her grave had only a pile of stones as a marker.

Years later, Jim Comstock, Richwood publisher and Civil War buff, concluded she deserved a modest marker at her gravesite. With a granddaughter of Nancy’s, he went to Mannings Knob, only to find a bulldozer had flattened the land. So now Nancy does not even have an unmarked grave.

*** In the summer of 2007 Susan J. Myers met a Civil War Reenactor from Alabama at Gettysburg PA. He said the history books are written by the victors so he wanted to give a voice to those who lost. Nancy’s story was almost buried too.