NANCY HARTS by R. Chris Cleaveland
Appeared in Civil War Times Illustrated, June 1994, p. 44-45.
(Reprinted with permission of the author and Cowles Media.)
Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox on April 12, effectively ending the Civil War. But 13,000 troops under Brigadier General James Wilson of the Union Military Division of the Mississippi, better known as Wilson's Raiders, were still striking at targets in Alabama and Georgia. Fresh from a victory over Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest at Selma Alabama, part of Wilson's force entered LaGrange, Georgia, a town they believed to be virtually defenseless. But upon entering the city, the column was stopped dead in its track by a roadblock of some 40 women armed with rifles and muskets. The confrontation was one of the more unusual incidents of the war.
Three years earlier, two LaGrange women had struck up a conversation about the town's situation since most of its men had left in April 1861 with the LaGrange Light Guard, a cavalry unit of the 4th Georgia Infantry.
"Do you realize that we are defenseless?" asked Nancy Morgan.
"I do," said Mary Heard.
"This city full of women and children is absolutely at the mercy of Heaven."
"Suppose army stragglers or escaped prisoners should come along. They could murder us all, and not woman in town can shoot a gun."
"Not one, but what can we do.?"
"We can form a military company of women."
"Did you ever hear of a military company of women?"
"No, I suppose not, but we can issue a call and organize a company. At least we can defend our homes."
Forty women responded to the call, meeting to organize at an old red schoolhouse in "Ben Hill's Grove." Nancy Morgan was elected captain; Andelia Bull, Mary Heard and Aley Smith lieutenants; Augusta Hill and M.E. Colquitt sergeants; Sally Bull, Leila Pullen and Caroline Poythress corporals; and Ella Key treasurer. Although a few other Southern cities armed women briefly in response to local crises, LaGrange's women are considered unique because their group would become a well-organized, disciplined, commissioned military company that would train regularly for almost three years.
To attain a level of competence worthy of Nancy Hart's name, the women of LaGrange realized they would need plenty of practice. They met twice a week, usually at Harris Grove, for drills and target practice. Because the men of the town had taken most of the good firearms when they left to fight the war, the women were left with old guns, including some flintlocks. More than one member reported that the guns were in such poor condition they were unsure whether the muzzle or the breech was more dangerous.
Some of the women had a bad habit of closing their eyes just before shooting and then missing the targets entirely. After several months, their marksmanship improved, but not before one errant shot killed a bull in a nearby pasture. Their marching also improved, the dividend of many hours spent practicing in the town's streets to the beat of a tattered drum.
Halfway through the war LaGrange had become a hospital town. Because a major railroad line connected this ostensibly safe area to the battlefields in Virginia, Tennessee, and Mississippi, every train passing through delivered wounded and dying soldiers. Each of the Nancy Harts did regular hospital duty in addition to attending to her substantial militia and family responsibilities.
The autumn of 1864 brought to Georgia the shocking realization that the South was losing the war. After a valiant defense, Atlanta fell. Sherman then burned and looted his way to Savannah. One of his cavalry units came within 30 miles northeast of LaGrange to the city of Newnan, but it was soundly defeated there by Major General Joseph Wheeler's cavalry. Some Federal stragglers from the battle headed toward LaGrange, but were beaten again before reaching the town. So far the Nancy Harts had been spared an early trial at arms.
In the spring of 1865, the key rail center of West Point, Georgia, drew the attention of Brigadier General Wilson. Realizing its importance to the Confederacy, he sent artillery units and 3,000 cavalrymen to raze it.
The LaGrange telegraph operator received an urgent request from Confederate Brigadier General Robert Tyler in nearby West Point on the morning of April 16. Federal troops were approaching the fort that guarded the railroad bridge, and he needed all able-bodied men to report immediately to help defend West Point. All the walking wounded soldiers and aged men in LaGrange gathered and rode a train to the fort. The exodus left the town with no men capable of fighting.
The defense of the West Point fort was gallant, but the approximately 300 defenders could not hold out long against the Union's 3,000 attackers Nineteen train engines and hundred of railroad cars loaded with war supplies were destroyed. Tyler was killed.
The defeat was troubling news for the Nancy Harts. Many had had family and loved ones at the fort. They were also concerned that the Federals would move on to LaGrange.
Sure enough, retreating Confederate cavalrymen brought news that a Federal column was coming up the road from West Point. The Nancy Harts quickly assembled at the home of Mary Heard. As they were forming their ranks, several Confederate cavalrymen pleaded with them to return home and lock their doors. They refused and started marching to meet the column. At the sight of blue uniforms, the Nancy Harts formed a line and prepared for the worst.
The women were shocked to see many Confederate prisoners from the fort near the front of the column. They could not fire without endangering their loved ones. One woman called out to a prisoner, a Major Parham, to explain the situation. The Federal colonel, coincidentally named Oscar H. LaGrange, interrupted. He told Parham to introduce him to the unit's captain. The captain, Nancy Morgan, informed him the women were determined to defend their families and homes. LaGrange responded by promising that if the group would disarm, no homes or peaceful citizens would be harmed. He was also overheard saying, "The Nancy Harts could probably use their eyes with better effect than their old guns."
That night, townspeople guarded many of the local homes and businesses against looting by Federal troops. Despite this precaution, the Federal troops torched the local tannery, cotton warehouses, the train depot and some buildings around the town square. They also looted local stores. And they destroyed a considerable amount of railroad track between LaGrange and West Point. Many local citizens stayed up all night watching parts of their town go up in flames.
Interestingly, "Bellevue," the home of the prominent Confederate politician and former U.S. Senator Benjamin Harvey Hill, was spared, even though it was routine practice to jail high-ranking Confederate officials and destroy or confiscate their property. Apparently Oscar LaGrange was returning a favor. In the spring of 1864, he had been seriously wounded and captured by Confederate troops. Since Confederate hospitals were overwhelmed in the LaGrange area, he was placed under the care of a local woman. She was none other than a niece of Senator Hill's. LaGrange recovered from his wounds, was exchanged in the autumn and returned to duty to later repay the kind gesture that had been accorded him.
To show their gratitude to LaGrange for sparing their homes, one of the Nancy Harts invited him to dinner at her home. He accepted and generously paroled some local prisoners so they could attend. Many women of the town cooked all night to make enough food for the large party.
The next morning, teary-eyed women bade farewell to their husbands and sons marching away as prisoners of war. But the men never made it to a prison proper. Upon reaching Macon, LaGrange learned of Lee's surrender and immediately freed them.
The Nancy Harts had prevailed in their only confrontation, without firing a shot. LaGrange's homes and citizens had fared far better than many other occupied areas. They were fortunate, indeed, to have confronted a gentleman officer in Oscar LaGrange.