Will the real Nancy Hart Please stand up?
The American Revolution and the American Civil War produced two extraordinary female spies. Both served their country with fierce loyalty almost a century apart. Both possessed the requisite skills for living on the frontier.
And more importantly, both were women who answered to the name of Nancy Hart. Through the years, the escapades and character of these two women made them legends.
However, here’s the thing about legends; there is always the problem of stretching the truth to a point where it gets squishy and no longer resembles the original facts. So much so that as the proverbial wine ages, it is not only reputed to taste better, but we start to believe that it does.
But we’re all in on the joke; we collectively overlook the hyperbole associated with our national heroes. We really don’t believe that Davy Crockett killed a bear at the tender age of three.
We not only don’t think that, when Paul Bunyan sneezed, he blew all of the birds from Maine to California; we don’t even believe he existed. And, if you do, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.
Now that I’ve set the stage for this story of two women spies, remember that I cannot cross my heart and swear on a bible that the following contains the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. When it comes to our legends and heroes, embellishment is the rule. The more icing on the cake, the better.
We’ll meet these two women chronologically, leading with the Revolutionary War spy Nancy Hart.
We’ll save the Civil War spy, Nancy Hart, for the next episode of Women Spies. This Nancy did her most memorable spy crafting near Pocahontas County.
“Rawboned with crazy red hair and possibly cross-eyed.”
That is how many of the sources describe Nancy Morgan Hart. She is further described as tall, gangly and pock-marked by smallpox.
One account said she had “no share of beauty – a fact she would have readily acknowledged, had she ever enjoyed the opportunity of looking into a mirror.” By all accounts, Nancy Hart was a no-nonsense woman, one not to be reckoned with, as we shall shortly see.
According to some sources, Nancy was from North Carolina. (Other researchers say New York or Pennsylvania) Most historians agree that she was born in 1735, give or take a year.
In her late 30s, Nancy married Benjamin Hart, and they eventually settled in the Piedmont area of northern Georgia. This location is important to Nancy’s story because the war theater gradually moved into the southern states as the Revolutionary War progressed.
The American war to evict the British steadily came right to the Harts’ front door.
Nancy was not a woman of leisure; she ran the Hart household, lock, stock and barrel. The Harts took to the biblical admonishment to “go forth and be fruitful” by having eight children; six sons and two daughters.
Nancy found life on the frontier to her liking. She gained a reputation as an excellent hunter and herbalist. Her success in treating medical problems with herbal remedies was widely known and appreciated.
So when the war came to Nancy and Benjamin, they had the incentive and mindset to play hell with the Tories at every opportunity. Though Nancy was not technically a soldier, both were ardent patriots and did whatever they could to aid the American effort.
Although disputed by some historians, Nancy was said to have fought alongside her husband in the Battle of Kettle Creek in Georgia in 1779. However, most of Nancy’s wartime activities were more covert in nature.
She would often dress as a man and wander into a Tory military camp, acting as though she was crazy or lost. The soldiers were more than happy to help her. While walking about the encampment, Nancy gathered vital information about the number of soldiers, weapons, and other intel needed by the patriots.
(The British proclivity for maintaining hospitality in the most uncomfortable of situations is only exceeded by our neighbors to the north – Canada. You just can’t beat a Canuck for pure geniality.)
In one highly touted exploit, American General Elijah Clarke asked for volunteers to infiltrate a British Camp on the other side of a wide river in South Carolina. All of the patriot men shamefully declined the dangerous mission, but not Nancy Hart; she eagerly stepped forward.
Of course, Nancy was the quintessential patriot, but she may have enjoyed the challenges and thrill of these types of adventures; a risk-taker if you will. Such ventures allowed Nancy to demonstrate her considerable survival skills.
Crossing the river was not a problem for Nancy; she gathered up some logs, cut ropes of grapevine, and lashed together a serviceable raft. Once on the other side of the river, she dressed as a man and did her crazy act while wandering through the British encampment.
And, as she hoped, she carried away much-needed intelligence on the camp’s strengths, weaknesses and intentions.
The peeking Tory
One day while Nancy was making soap, one of her children quietly informed her mother that someone was peeking in through a hole in the chinking between logs.
Nancy’s unruffled composure dictated that she act as if nothing was wrong and continued working. Then she suddenly filled a ladle with boiling animal fat and lye and threw it right through the hole and into the eyes of the British Spy.
Much thrashing about and agonized screaming ensued outside the cabin. Nancy’s children, no shrinking violets themselves, set about tying up the injured soldier. They turned the loyalist over to a patriot militia, and we may safely assume that his future was severely and mortally shortened by the noose or musket ball.
Nothing ticks off a woman like killing her prize hen. (Some sources claim it was a turkey. Either way, it is not germane to the story.)
One day a young patriot came to the Hart home asking to be hidden from his pursuers, the hated Tories. Nancy saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone; save the young man and confront the enemy.
She suggested to the young man that he not hide but act as bait to bring the loyalists to the Hart home. The ruse worked, and it wasn’t long before six Tories showed up at Nancy’s door demanding to search the house for the patriot.
One of the soldiers shot her best hen and ordered Nancy to cook it for the soldiers. The always levelheaded Nancy took the chicken from the soldier and dutifully set about preparing a meal.
I can imagine Nancy’s children witnessing the scene and thinking, “Mom’s got something up her sleeve; these guys are in a for a big can of whoop-ass.”
Indeed, once the soldiers were seated, the steaming chicken and a bottle of liquor was brought forth and offered to the men. When the redcoats were liberally oiled with spirits, Nancy began sliding their rifles out through a hole in the wall except for two, which she held on the drunken men.
(Was this the same hole in the wall the British spy was peeking through when he got an eyeful of boiling soap, you ask? How would I know; I wasn’t there. Just how old do you think I am?)
Once it dawned on the inebriated soldiers that the table had turned, two of the soldiers lunged for their guns. Nancy shot and killed them both. Still, revenge for killing such a fine hen was not yet satiated.
There were no further attempts at retrieving their guns, and the shocked Royalists sat there until Nancy’s husband returned home with several other patriots. Benjamin originally intended to shoot the soldiers, but Nancy insisted they hang.
(Remember, it was her prize hen, not a run-of-the-mill chicken.)
Legend has it that she wanted them all to hang, even the two she had already killed. Some historians once considered this particular portion of the story as hyperbole.
However, in 1912, railroad workers grading a rail bed near the site of Hart’s cabin uncovered six skeletons, some of which had their necks broken, suggesting that they had been hanged. Not proof positive, of course, but it strongly supports the veracity of this story.
Some versions of this story have Nancy singing Yankee Doodle while the loyalists were being strung up.
After the war, Nancy Hart became what was then called a Shouting Christian, something akin to a born-again charismatic Methodist. A Georgia Governor who knew Nancy Hart wrote that she “Fought the devil as manfully as she fought the Tories.”
Nancy’s fidelity to the American cause and her exploits made her an icon of patriotism.
During the American Civil War, Nancy’s memory was kept alive by the formation of a group called The Nancy Harts. These daring volunteers were an all-female militia of Confederate sympathizers capable of providing much-needed intelligence and, occasionally, firepower.
Nancy Hart enjoyed a long life of 95 years surrounded by generations of her family. She never ran out of stories to tell her grandchildren and their children. Such as it is with legends.
Next week we’ll meet another legendary Nancy Hart that struck terror in the hearts of Union soldiers right here in present-day West Virginia during the American Civil War.