The distinction between folklore and fact is not always as lucid as it could be when researching the background of a state heroine, and the humble beginnings of Hart are no different in this respect. She was born in Raleigh, North Carolina either in 1846 or 1843 depending on which source is sought, although most popular accounts tend to credit her birth as taking place in 1846 (Bakeless 1970, 69). By most accounts she was as wild as the Virginian territory she moved to when she arrived in Tazewell county as an infant, and she would never learn to read or write. Descended from Scottish and Irish lineage, Hart was said to have moved in with her sister Mary and her husband William when she was still a child, where she roamed her Roane County environs, perfecting her skill with firearms and horseback riding.
Hart's deadly defiance of Union loyalists was fueled by more than just their arrival in 1861. Due to her brother-in-law's affiliation with the Confederate army, he was eventually taken away from the family and found murdered days later. Additionally, tradition holds that not long afterwards, Hart attended a going away party for a pair of neighbors who were enlisting in the Confederate army. When Union troops were spotted during the festivities, Hart is said to have taken the opportunity to chide them by voicing her support for Confederacy president Jefferson Davis. When the troops responded to her vocalizations with gun shots, Hart barely escaped with her life. A mere three days later, Hart is alleged to have left Mary's residence and taken up with a group known as the Moccasin Rangers in efforts to avenge her brother in law and actively combat the Unionist occupation of her beloved West Virginia.
Hart's activities with the Moccasin Rangers and with the Confederacy liberation movement of West Virginia were manifold. The Rangers were a guerrilla tactic organization with partisan tendencies towards the Confederacy, although they operated distinctly from any official governmental affiliation with the fledgling nation-state. Hart would quickly gain wide acclaim, as well as a fair degree of notoriety, for her active involvement with the Rangers that manifested itself in a variety of ways. As a carrier, the young woman, who was less than 20 years old at the time, transported a variety of messages between different regiments of the Confederacy armies, often undertaking measures of sleeping during the day and traveling alone at night, frequently by herself. Considered taboo for a woman engage in such activity in contemporary times, Hart's behavior was certainly an anomaly for the mid 19th century. Additionally, the young woman is said to have intervened on behalf of numerous Confederate soldiers who were injured in battle by locating residences of Confederate sympathizers and safeguarding the wounded troops in such places until their health improved (Bakeless 1970, 73).
Hart supplemented these activities by acting as a guide for Southern troops who had become detached from their respective regiments due to injuries or other unforeseen circumstances, often leading them back to their units. Yet it is her employment in the trade of espionage for which she is most well-known for, both in contemporary times as well as during the 1860s. She was able to deceive Union forces on a number of occasions as a vendor by offering commerce in the form of much valued food -- only to ascertain their location and report as much of their numbers, strength, and current plans as she could to Confederate forces. Hart is said to have worked directly with Jackson in this capacity, also spying on Union forces in isolated federal outposts in wild, forlorn territory, and reporting her finding back to the general and his men. There are even a number of sources which claim Hart was permitted to ride with -- and even possibly lead -- some of Jackson's cavalry during Civil War engagements.
Yet Hart's beneficence towards the rebellious Confederate cause and its many branches of militia in the Civil War was widely perceived as aggression and malevolence on the part of the Union, which occupied the same territory which the young woman was running rampant in. Her infamous behavior led to a bounty being placed upon her as well as her eventual arrest in the summer of 1862, which was widely attributed to work of Lieutenant Colonel Starr, who is said to have taken Hart unawares at a domicile while she was cooking (Bakeless 1970, 81). Interestingly enough, the seditious Moccasin Rangers operative was incarcerated within a house that was heavily patrolled by Union forces. There are surviving accounts of Hart's imprisonment which were made available largely due to the vigilance of journalist and telegrapher Marion H. Kerner, who was able to interact with Hart and another young woman who was captured along with her.
Yet perhaps the single most compelling incident regarding Hart, and which suggests the extent of her devotion to both West Virginia and to the Confederacy, can be found in her daring escape from prison. Varying accounts have noted that the young woman was a difficult prisoner to manage due to the charms of her aesthetic appeal to war-torn soldiers who were guarding her. The following account is excerpted from a newspaper article in the Charleston Daily Mail, and illustrates how Hart was able to deceive one of her guards and effect escape. "Nancy Hart beguiled the sentry guard, sweet-talked him and late at night by the light of two candles on the table, she played her trumps. She asked for a cup of coffee and invited the young soldier to sit with her. Over the cup of coffee, she leaned across the small table and pressed herself against the youth. He laid his pistol on the table and started to take her into his arms. Nancy grabbed the gun and with the swiftness of a panther, jumped back, fired a bullet between his eyes. Then she dived out the window and stole the Colonel's prize horse (Gwin, 1963)."
Ironically, Hart stole the horse from the same lieutenant who captured her, and escaped riding bareback. She would continue to aid the Moccasin Rangers in their efforts for the duration of the Civil War, reappearing most dramatically approximately a week after her escape from imprisonment at approximately four o'clock in the morning on July 25, 1862, in the same Summersville town which she was imprisoned in. This time, however, she was accompanied by roughly 200 cavalry members, which were said to have either been led by Colonel George Patton's 22nd Virginia Infantry or by Major Augustus, who spearheaded Jackson's cavalry. For her part, Hart was still in possession of and riding Lieutenant Colonel Starr's horse (REFERENCE). The devastation which this company of Confederates was able to exact certainly added to the legend of the young woman, as she and the military unit pillaged Summersville fairly thoroughly, particularly in the non-residential areas which had been taken over by the Unionists. The squadron managed to burn the commissary store house and at least three others, confiscated approximately 12 horses and at least mules, decimated a pair of wagons and managed to secure a number of prisoners, not the least of which was Lieutenant Colonel Starr himself.
The entire incident was a sweeping gesture which not only solidified Hart's resistance to the Union loyalists and her dedication to the Confederate state of the western area of Virginia, but also indicated the full extent of her dedication to a cause which had nearly killed her (some sources claim that she was awaiting her execution while imprisoned). The selfless devotion required to return to the same contingent, in the same town, with the exact same purpose of that which had almost ended her life is an excellent example of the fiery, passionate resistance which flared within residents in the western portion of Virginia during its occupation by Union troops in the Civil War, and also implies how severe the ties had been severed which separated this country during its most tumultuous, and potentially most devastating, time period in its history.
As if to solidify her unquestioned allegiance to the Confederate States of America, Hart's personal life largely reflected her martial activities as a spy, a guide, a scout, and cavalry member. She would eventually marry a former member of the Moccasin Rangers who enlisted in the Confederate army, Joshua Douglas, and go on to sire two sons named George and Kennos, respectively. Several facets of Hart's relationship with Douglas mirrored that of her military involvement in the Civil War, particularly the early stages in their relationship. Douglas was one of the many soldiers whom Hart rescued while working with the Rangers; she subsequently took him under her care and succeeded in nursing him back to health. Douglas…