Thursday, November 19, 2015

Nancy Morgan Hart

Somewhere in South Carolina in 1735, a girl was born to the Morgan family, frontiersmen and future patriots in the American Revolution. The girl's cousin would grow up to be the talented American general Daniel Morgan. The girl herself would grow up to fight the British and Tories (British loyalists) with unremitting fury. Her name was Nancy Morgan Hart, and there's no doubt she was a Badass Chick of History.

Even as a child, folks noticed her short fuse. She had a temper, made worse by a simmering spirit of revenge against anyone who wronged her or her family. Alas, she was no great beauty, said to be close to six feet in height, with long limbs, wiry, unruly red hair, and a face scarred by smallpox. She was also cross-eyed. Perhaps because of this, she did not marry until she was 36 years old, when she wed Benjamin Hart (whose descendants would include Thomas Hart Benton and Henry Clay). Together, the two eventually settled on fertile farmland in the Broad River valley in Georgia, building a modest cabin that would later become famous.

Nancy may not have been a glamorous woman, but she was capable! Despite being cross-eyed, she was known as an excellent shot with a rifle. She often did the hunting for the family, and even the local Native Americans, with whom she was friendly, praised her tracking and survival skills. Later, they even came up with a nickname for her: "War Woman." She certainly earned it.

Turns out, it was Nancy, not Benjamin, who "wore the pants" at home. Said to be domineering, she took complete charge of the management of the family farm and finances. Benjamin, a quiet, unassuming man, was content to let his wife manage their large family (which eventually grew to eight children!). Nancy was ably assisted by her oldest daughter Sukey. This was especially true when Benjamin was called up to join the Georgia Militia to fight the British and American Tories. By now, the Revolutionary War was in full swing and the British had moved up from St. Augustine, Florida, to capture Savannah, Georgia.

Nancy's first entanglement in the war came when, in the absence of Benjamin, she was on the family horse, taking a heavy bag of grain to the local mill. A group of Tories accosted her, knocked her from her horse, and stole it. Witnesses say she said nothing, but picked up the heavy bag and carried it all the way to the mill herself. Grimly, she filed this insult away for future retribution.

As British and Tory scouts advanced into the Georgia interior, they searched for places where a large force could ford the Broad River. They returned to base, complaining of "incessant sniper fire." According to Nancy's children, it was Nancy who pulled the trigger. She stationed herself in a tree on "her side" of the river and took pot-shots at the scouts every time they tried to cross.

Her temper was well-known, and a Tory agent went to spy on her and find proof. Sneaking up to the cabin, he peaked in through one of the many cracks in the walls. He didn't see anything too suspicious - just Nancy boiling lye to make soap. But young Sukey looked up and saw the eyes staring through the cracks. Rather than screaming or fainting, Sukey quietly pointed them out to Nancy. Without missing a beat, Nancy took a ladle-full of boiling lye and dashed it at the cracks in the wall. The spy was completely blinded. Nancy captured him and brought him to the Georgia Militia.

Probably in collaboration with militia Colonel Elijah Clarke, who learned guerrilla tactics fighting the Creek and Cherokee tribes, she went on several espionage missions herself. Thanks to her height and non-traditional looks, Nancy was able to disguise herself as a man. To avoid uncomfortable conversations, she took on the role of a mentally retarded laborer. In this guise, she was able to penetrate Tory-friendly taverns and eavesdrop, dutifully reporting to her husband or Clarke any worthwhile plans she overheard.

According to her grand-niece, Nancy was actually with the militia visiting her husband when the force was mobilized to defend the mouth of the Broad River against a British advance. Legend has it the militia had eight swivel-guns and only seven swivel-gunners. Nancy volunteered to man one herself during what became known as the Battle of Kettle Creek. Stunning British losses here helped convince the loyalists that while they could capture towns and coastal centers, it would be a tall order to penetrate the dense interiors of North America.

The most famous story about Nancy is her single-handed capture of six Tory soldiers. They were chasing a prominent rebel leader when they came across the Hart cabin. The group's officer questioned Nancy: had she seen the rebel captain? Had he taken refuge there? Truth is, he had, but Nancy wasn't telling. She said she didn't know what they were talking about. The officer clearly believed she was lying, and decided to extort a fine meal from her. She had a prize turkey that the family only used for breeding. The officer ordered the animal shot, and forced Nancy to prepare it. Inside the house, the Tories leaned their loaded rifles in a corner and set to the feast. While they were guzzling copious amounts of wine, Nancy sent Sukey out to get water from a local spring - supposedly. Sukey's real instructions were to blow a conch shell hidden in a stump, which the locals used to warn one another of outsiders. Nancy hoped her husband and neighbors would hear the call.

Meanwhile, as the Tories' attention was on the turkey and wine, Nancy secretly moved to where the rifles were stacked and, one by one, slid them out of a crack in the cabin wall. When the soldiers finally realized what she was doing, there were three rifles left. Nancy brandished one and told the intruders not to move. The officer ignored her and she shot him dead. Another soldier made a move for the rifles, but she snatched up another one and fired, killing him, too. She took the remaining rifle and held the rest at gunpoint until Benjamin and a posse of neighbors arrived. Benjamin wanted to shoot the Tories, but Nancy said hanging would serve them better. She tied all the nooses herself and watched with satisfaction as they swung from the tree just outside the cabin.

The cabin was actually swept away by floods during her lifetime, though it has since been reconstructed by the Daughters of the American Revolution. In 1912, railroad workers were clearing space to lay a track through the territory and found six skeletons buried in a line, four of which clearly had broken necks - a rare confirmation of what many considered a folk tale.

After the war, Nancy became deeply religious. Ironically, it was her temper that led her to the church. When she heard a new Methodist congregation had started nearby, she went to check them out. She found them deep in a prayer meeting, and, as was the custom in those days, the church doors were tied with a leather thong to discourage latecomers from disrupting worship. Irritated, she produced a hunting knife and hacked through the thong. She kicked the doors open and stalked into the church. Somehow during this meeting, she was saved, and spent the rest of her life "fighting the devil as hard as she ever fought the British," according to her grand-niece.

Nancy's supportive spouse Benjamin died in the early 1780s, and she went to live with her son. They moved around quite a bit, but eventually settled in Henderson County, Kentucky. That's where Nancy spent the rest of her days in peace and relative prosperity as the proud, commanding matriarch of a frontier family. She lived to the ripe old age of 95.

Now if that's not a Badass Chick of History, I don't know what is.

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