Well-known photo of Nancy Hart taken by Civil War photographer Marion Kerner (L) and recent photo discovered by Chris Delaney of Craigsville (R)
IS NEWLY FOUND PHOTO OF CONFEDERATE SPY NANCY HART, OR IS SHE STILL ELUDING US?
By Susan Matthis Johnson, Richwood WV 2006
Susan Johnson is the author of two plays about Nancy Hart. Bury Me by Nancy Hart was produced in 1992 by the Mill Whistle Players of Richwood, WV, with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the West Virginia Department of Culture and History.
The Old Main Players in Summersville, WV produced it the following year as an outdoor drama. She also wrote "Nancy Hart Live!" and script for a one-woman show produced several times by the West Virginia Culture Alive! program. Johnson is a writer and journalism teacher who lives in Richwood, WV, with her husband and five children.
We are grateful to Johnson for permission to publish her most recent account about Hart on the Herald.
The latest photo.
It’s one of the most provocative photographs of the Civil War. A comely young girl is arranged in a pose almost identical to that of the Mona Lisa. Her eyes are focused and intense, but her mouth seems to be in mid-swallow.
On her head is a man’s hat, garnished with a fluffy plume. Her dark hair is chopped off just below her chin. She wears an off-the-shoulder dress that could be taffeta—quite inappropriate attire for guerrilla warfare. Her left hand bears a simple ring and is placed protectively across her abdomen.
The subject of the famous photo is Nancy Hart, one of the most notorious and colorful spies of the Civil War. According to eyewitness accounts, the photo was taken by an itinerant ambrotypist at the headquarters of Yankee Colonel William C. Starr in Summersville, VA (now West Virginia) at the request of Marion Kerner, a civilian telegrapher.
The headquarters consisted of a "pretty, two-story and attic frame dwelling" which had been commandeered by troops from the Ninth West Virginia Regiment, the main body of which was stationed in Gauley Bridge, approximately 25 miles away.
Housed in the headquarters that sultry July of 1862 were Colonel Starr, a Captain Davis, two orderlies and Kerner. Very soon, however, the barracks were to become co-ed. While foraging for "whatever fresh vegetables [their] appetites might crave," the men came upon two girls crushing corn outside a small cabin. The two turned out to be Nancy Hart and a companion, whom, while unnamed by Kerner, some have identified as a Becky Carpenter, probably the daughter or granddaughter of the old woman who inhabited the cabin.
Who was Nancy Hart?
Who was this Nancy Hart? According to Jim Mylott’s three-part series in the Roane County Times Record, Nancy was born near Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1847. She was one five children of John and Eliza Bowling Hart. The family moved to Tazewell County, Virginia, where Nancy’s sister Mary met and married William Price in 1853. (1850 census records of Washington County list a John Hart, farmer, and wife Rebecca Bowling, born in Asheville, NC, in 1805, as having seven children, one of whom was Nancy, born in 1843 in VA.
Mary, who figures later in this story, is listed as being born in 1835 in Smyth County, VA.) Mylott’s account has Nancy and her family following the Prices to Roane County, and the young Nancy, called Peggy by her family, growing up in the wilds of the Flat Fork area now part of West Virginia.
Nancy was described as a "natural tomboy." She learned to shoot and ride as well as cook and sew, and at age 12 she had developed a reputation as an excellent markswoman. She was also developing some partisan feelings, although she told her granddaughters that her father, while a Democrat, was opposed to slavery.
Apparently she and her father once witnessed a black slave being whipped by his master, which John Hart remarked was "the most shameful thing he’d ever seen." There were, however, early indications of her allegiance to the Confederacy. According to one story, Nancy was in attendance of an enlistment party for her sister’s brother-in-law when a detachment of Union soldiers marched by.
Nancy, who was quite a little spitfire, raised her hands and yelled at the group, "Hurrah for Jeff Davis!" The Yankees responded with a minnie ball that struck the wall of the cabin just inches above Nancy’s head.
Shortly thereafter Nancy began to show up at the campfires of soldiers who were in the area. She would provide them with information, do a little scouting and spying and even a little entertaining.
She would even provide information to Union soldiers from time to time. Eventually the rebellious little Rebel ran off and joined a group called the Moccasin Rangers, probably because she had become infatuated with a member of the group, either its charismatic leader, Perry Conley, or one of his followers and later to become her husband, Joshua Douglas.
At this point it was clear that she was mainly interested in the camaraderie rather than the politics. But that was soon to change.
Nancy gets political
In mid October of 1861, Nancy, possibly a little homesick, ventured back to her sister Mary’s home in Roane County. Unaware that the house was being closely watched by Union troops, Nancy was astonished when soldiers came to the door.
Apparently the Moccasins had wreaked some pretty heavy havoc around the state, ambushing mail trains and vandalizing telegraph lines. Mary, who was nine months pregnant, hid Nancy by tying her up in bolster on the bed.
She then lay on the bolster and pretended to be in labor. When soldiers searched the room, one even bent down and ran his sword under the bed--so close that Nancy would tell her granddaughter years later she could smell his breath.
Nancy escaped this capture, but her poor family did not fare so well. Mary’s husband William was taken by Union soldiers into the woods and shot. Hearing of this, Nancy vowed revenge. In fact, Nancy later told her sister that she came upon one of the guards who had arrested William and that he "just dropped off a log dead."
Mary was convinced that Nancy had "stalked the man like one would a deer until the right moment came along." The Harts were ostracized by the Prices for bringing such misery to their family, and Nancy’s parents were forced to move back to Virginia. Mary moved to Kentucky with her children.
Without a family or a home, Nancy then rejoined the band of irregulars led by Conley, and the group soon gained the reputation of being one of the most ruthless guerrilla bands in the Virginia region.
According to Mylott’s account, Nancy was captured once when the group was engaged in a raid in Braxton County. She was taken in and interrogated by a Captain Rollyson, whom she was able to convince through her feminine wiles that she was just an innocent country girl on her way to visit family.
Rollyson released her, Mylott writes, "much to his embarrassment when he later found out who she was." Nancy returned to Conley with much valuable information, which the Moccasins soon used against Rollyson.
Luck was eventually to run out on Conley, however. In early summer of 1862, the band was surprised by a detachment of the 30th Ohio Infantry when they were hiding out in Webster County. Conley was mortally wounded and the Rangers scattered, some to join other guerrilla bands and others to enlist in the regular Confederate army. Nancy had nowhere to go but the mountains, possibly to the mountain cabin where she was surprised by Starr that day while grinding corn.
Nancy and her companion were captured and eventually incarcerated in the attic of Starr’s headquarters. The telegrapher Kerner writes, "To while away the dreary hours of their imprisonment, I supplied them with sewing material and illustrated papers, which they could not read, but they eagerly studied the pictures." The enchanted telegrapher also provided them with "such dainties as the sutler’s wagon afforded" and did what he could to "allay their fears."
It was during this hot, muggy month that the itinerant photographer happened by and was engaged by Kerner to make an ambrotype print of the famous Confederate scout and spy. Nancy, who had never seen a camera before, was extremely intimidated by the instrument and would only agree to sit before it after Kerner’s photograph was made. It was Kerner’s hat, decorated with a military feather, which was placed on Nancy’s head. When the photographer showed Nancy the image, she was "greatly elated."
It was only days later that Nancy, perhaps emboldened by the prospects of the newly taken photograph being etched on a wanted poster, was able to cajole a young guard out of his rifle. Kerner writes, "No sooner had she grasped the musket in her hands, however, then she stepped back in the room, and, lifting it to her shoulder, fired."
The guard fell dead and Nancy stepped over his body and escaped, riding bareback on Colonel Starr’s very own horse. She left behind her companion, who related the story to Kerner and the other, "just as she had witnessed it with her own astonished eyes."
Nancy returns with the cavalry
An intensive search produced no runaway female spy, but a week later, Nancy returned. She was not alone. With her were five hundred of Stonewall Jackson’s cavalry under the command of a Major Bailey, who surrounded the headquarters and captured the entire force. Nancy didn’t forget the kindnesses of the telegrapher, however.
She told Major Bailey that Kerner was not a Yankee and was, indeed, a prisoner like herself and he was allowed to go free. The rest were marched off to Libby Prison.
Amazingly, that was the last anyone heard from Nancy Hart during the Civil War.
She soon thereafter married her sweetheart and fellow Moccasin Ranger, Joshua Douglas, and settled with him in Spring Creek in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, where they raised two sons. Douglas had been injured in the skirmish with the 30th Ohio Infantry in Webster County prior to Nancy’s capture.
It is possible that Nancy was nursing him in the limestone caves near Summersville when she was captured. It seems likely that Nancy would have taken the injured Douglas in the direction of his home place near Lewisburg. This route would have placed her near where Starr captured her in the summer of 1862.
In defense of this theory, Nancy’s two granddaughters, Moppie Douglas McCollam of Camp Hill, PA and Myrtle Hollandsworth of Richwood, West Virginia, both in their nineties, related to this reporter in 1992 that Nancy had told them she had given birth to a stillborn baby in a cave, possibly during the summer of her capture.
Only a slight stretch of the imagination can place Nancy in the cave with her wounded lover, Joshua. The wedding ring and the careful placement of her hand across her stomach in the Kerner photo suggest that she might have been pregnant and all the more determined, therefore, to escape from her captors.
The excitement and trauma of the ensuing events may have precipitated the early labor and delivery of the stillborn. Both women remember their grandmother saying she buried the baby in the cave. (One of the two granddaughters said that Nancy told them she delivered twins.)
Of course, the allure of the photo is all the more powerful because no one has ever claimed to have another photo of Nancy Hart.
That is until now. Chris Delaney of Craigsville, WV, twelve miles east of Summersville, came across a photo in the trunk of his great grandmother when the family was moving her to a nursing home. According to the family’s oral history, it is a photo of Nancy Hart taken from a print on a tin plate, which, they say, was originally on a wanted poster.
No writings or markings appear on the print. While the cropped hair, the sloping shoulder and the pouting mouth are similar in the two photos, it is not immediately apparent that they are of the same woman. Interestingly, Myrtle Hollandsworth remembered that there was another photo of her notorious grandmother, but she said the only copy she knew of was burned in a house fire.
Elusive even in death
Nancy Hart’s grave on Manning Knob near Richwood bears a tombstone that reads Nancy Hart 1847-1902. Of course, the name is wrong, as is the date of her death. She was Nancy Hart Douglas and she died much later than 1902—probably in 1912, as both of her granddaughters recall attending her funeral when they were 11 or 12 years old. In addition, Greenbrier County records indicate she was still alive in 1907 when her husband passed away, and local oral history places her in downtown Richwood during the 1910 appearance of Halley’s Comet. Allegedly Nancy Hart is remembered as saying the comet meant there would soon be another war.
The historical marker on the courthouse lawn in Summersville also contains several errors. She was not captured during a raid on Summersville as the marker reads, and it was a rifle, not a pistol, that she used in her escape.
It will be up to experts to determine if the new photograph is of the same woman as the first. One thing, though, is certain: in death, as in life, the Nancy Hart is elusive to those who wish--either in body or in facts or in images--to capture her.
Comstock, Jim. "Nancy Hart." West Virginia Women: The West Virginia Heritage
Encyclopedia. Vol. 25. Richwood, West Virginia: 1974.
Hollandsworth, Myrtle, granddaughter of Nancy Hart. [Personal interview] February
Holston Pastfinder, Holston Territory Genealogical Society, Vol. 21, No. 2. Bristol VA-
TN. HPF.81: IGI IC 11509.
McCollam, Moppie Douglas, granddaughter of Nancy Hart. [Personal interview] August
Mylott, Jim. "County History: The Story of Nancy Hart." The Times Record. Spencer,
West Virginia, 10 May 1979.
Thanks to my father, Gene Matthis, for his diligent work in finding records from census data.