Civil War Spies


       A troublesome character of the Civil War 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.

       Nancy Hart first appears in the Civil War Story in the early summer of 1861 when she was reported as the companion of Parry 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 bull. Legen, of course, has built her into a ravishing beauty of Hollywood proportions, which legen 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."

       The census of 1860 discloses that Captain Conley was then 23 years of age and was living in the Minnora neighborhood in Calhoun County (West) Virginia 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 out- run, out-fight and out-lift 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, Conley's Guerrillas made a raid into Braxton County, (West) Virginia where a detachment of Braxton Home Guards under Lieut. 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 30th Ohio Inf. 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' Company A, 19th Virginia Cavalry, others enlisted in Captain Absolom Knotts' Company E, 14th Virginia Cavalry, 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' 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, (West) Virginia was occupied by two companies, A and F, 9th West Virginia Inf. under command of Lieut. Col. 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, tankful, of the primitive country jail. She turned on the charm 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 on, 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, 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, she fired; the ball passed through the young guard's heart, killing him instantly. Bounding out of the house, she mounted Lieut. Col. 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 9th Inf., and for Lieut. Col. Starr in particular, He was to know again that Nancy was 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 200 gray-clad Confederate cavalry, or mounted infantry, under the command of Maj. R. Augustus Bailey, of Patton's 22nd Virginia Inf. The rebel troops came storming up the Sutton road, overran the pickets located about a quarter of a mile from the head quarters, 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. Lieut. Co. Starr, Capt. Samuel Davis, and Lieut. Benjamin F. Stivers, and James Ewing, of Company A, were rounded up in their quarters. Lieut. 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; Lieut. Col. 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, 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. Upon visiting the area he and Nancy's granddaughter found that the top of Mannings Knob, had been bulldozed flat in order to make a place for a beacon tower. No grave was every located.

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West Virginia in the Civil War, by B.B. Boyd