Civil War Wednesday: Nancy Harts

A painting depicting Nancy Morgan confronting Federal Colonel Oscar LaGrange.

A painting depicting Nancy Morgan confronting Federal Colonel Oscar LaGrange.

The town of LaGrange, Georgia, sat alongside the Atlanta & West Point Railroad; this line served as a vital artery in moving matériel throughout the Southland and presented a military target for invading Northern forces. In 1861, after most of the able-bodied men had volunteered for service, the women, children, and the aged left behind grew increasingly concerned over the safety of hearth and home. A group of local ladies, most from the social circles of middle to upper-income families, and many of them alumni of the LaGrange Female Institute, decided to take action. If possessing a strong will, one can usually find a way, and these women discovered theirs in the form of Dr. Augustus C. Ware.[1]

An initial meeting in an old schoolhouse resulted in the assembled ladies electing Nancy Hill Morgan as captain. Drawing inspiration from a Georgia heroine during the American Revolution, the newly formed militia unit decided to call themselves the “Nancy Harts.” During the fight for independence, Nancy Hart had stubbornly refused to allow British soldiers to sup on the family turkey they had killed and forced her to cook. As the redcoats prepared to enjoy their bounty, they suddenly found themselves staring down the barrel of one of their own rifles. Hart took advantage of the soldiers’ focus on the table to pick up a stacked musket and thus bring a swift close to the banquet. This spirited inspiration lived on in the ranks of her nineteenth-century counterparts in LaGrange.

Twice each week, the “Nancy Harts” would hear a horn blowing through the streets of town. These signal calls served notice for them to assemble, and under the tutelage of Dr. Ware, drill, and hone their firearm skills.[2] When the male residents of LaGrange departed for war, weapons of more contemporary design went along, thereby leaving behind a collection of old flintlocks and perhaps a sprinkling of smooth bore muskets for the female volunteers. In between time spent in drill, the women served as nurses in one of four hospitals, which had sprung up in the area.[3] Several of the “Nancy Harts” also had children, so they faced a strain in balancing their time between domestic responsibilities, tending to wounded soldiers, and martial drill. Despite the increasing hardships as the armies and fighting drew closer, the “Nancy Harts” remained resolute in their duties.

Nancy Hill Morgan, captain of the “Nancy Harts.” Image from: Troup County Historical Society.

Nancy Hill Morgan, captain of the “Nancy Harts.” Image from: Troup County Historical Society.

The day of trial finally occurred in April 1865, when a body of Federal cavalry troopers, with several Confederate prisoners in-tow, approached the town. A nearby engagement at West Point resulted in a Northern victory and brought more wounded into LaGrange. While many of the townspeople sought shelter against the approaching blue-clad soldiers, the “Nancy Harts” formed their battle lines. Colonel Oscar LaGrange, (irony never ceases) the leader of the mounted Federals, continued to close the distance between his force and the line of defense Morgan, and the other ladies had established. Once the prisoners started coming into view, the women began to recognize familiar faces, and quickly determined they could not fire upon the Federals without hitting their boys in gray.

Colonel LaGrange’s force took possession of the town, and a looting and burning spree ensued. Many of the town’s buildings lay in smoking heaps, as the colonel sarcastically remarked, “The Nancy Harts could probably use their eyes with better effect than their old guns.”[4] He evidently believed the militia unit stood a greater chance of flirting than fighting. Several other communities North and South witnessed a gathering of women determined to fight for their respective beliefs, yet most of the units proved short-lived. The true mettle of these female soldiers we will never know, but we do know, for a period of four years, while others on many home fronts shirked their duty, the LaGrange Female Institute, along with the town, could proudly proclaim the sacrifices and war-long dedication of the “Nancy Harts!”



[1] Anne J. Bailey, “The Defenders,” in Confederate Women, ed. Mauriel Phillips Joslyn (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 1996), 48.

[2] Thaddeus Horton [Mrs], “The Story of the Nancy Harts,” The Ladies’ Home Journal, November, 1904, 14.

[3] R. Chris Cleaveland, “Georgia’s Nancy Harts,” Civil War Times Illustrated, June, 1994, 45.

[4] Ibid.`

mikeMichael K. Shaffer is the Assistant Director and Lecturer for Kennesaw State University’s Civil War Center , a Civil War historian, newspaper columnist, and author of ‘Washington County, Virginia in the Civil War.’ He is a member of the Society of Civil War Historians, Historians of the Civil War Western Theater, Georgia Association of Historians, and the Civil War Round Table of Atlanta. Michael also serves on the boards of the Civil War Round Table of Cobb County and the River Line Historic Area, and as a Civil War consultant for the Friends of Camp McDonald.

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