On April 26, 1861, the LaGrange Light Guards of the Fourth Georgia Infantry, comprising men mostly from LaGrange, in Troup County, left home to fight for the Confederacy. In that year alone, 1,300 men left LaGrange, making the town particularly vulnerable to Union attack because of its location midway between Atlanta and the Confederacy’s first capital at Montgomery, Alabama. Soon after the men departed, two of their wives, Nancy Hill Morgan and Mary Alford Heard, decided to form a female military company. The two women called a preliminary meeting at a schoolhouse on the grounds of U.S. senator Benjamin Hill’s home. Almost forty women attended, ready to do their part to defend their homes and families.
Inexperienced with firearms and unfamiliar with military matters, the women turned to A. C. Ware, a physician who remained in town due to a physical disability, for assistance in their training. The members initially elected Ware as captain but soon thereafter chose Nancy Morgan as captain and Mary Heard as first lieutenant. The regiment leaders were assisted by elected sergeants, corporals, and a treasurer. The group called themselves the “Nancy Harts,” or “Nancies,” in honor of Nancy Hart, a Patriot spy who outwitted and killed a group of Tories at her northeast Georgia cabin during the Revolutionary War (1775-83).
The women began their military training using William J. Hardee’s Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics (1861) and met twice a week for drilling and target practice. The leaders offered prizes to the best markswomen, and after several mishaps, including shooting a hornet’s nest and a cow, the women became expert shots.
Although the Nancy Harts organized as a military unit, they served primarily as nurses. During the latter half of the war, LaGrange became a medical and refugee center because of its proximity to key battlegrounds and its intact rail line. LaGrange’s four hospitals were often full, and a number of residents, including nearly all the Nancy Harts, took patients into their homes for individualized care.
Although it was not the only female military unit organized during the Civil War, the Nancy Harts militia was unique in several respects. First, the women drilled and continued target practice until the end of the war. (Most other such groups existed only fleetingly.) Second, unlike other female militias, the women faced Union troops as a regiment. In mid-April 1865 Major General James H. Wilson led a Union raid on west Georgia. As the Union troops approached LaGrange from West Point, the local Confederate cavalrymen fled, and the Nancy Harts stepped in to protect the town.
On April 17 the Nancy Harts marched to the campus of LaGrange Female College (later LaGrange College) on the edge of town to meet the enemy forces. When the Union cavalry arrived in LaGrange, the women peacefully surrendered the the town to Union colonel Oscar H. LaGrange (coincidentally named) and organized an effort to feed both the Union and Confederate soldiers. In return, the Union troops destroyed facilities in LaGrange that were helpful to the Confederate war effort, including factories, stores, and railroad tracks, but spared most private homes and property.
After the war the Nancy Harts members returned to their prewar duties, though many were forced to make difficult adjustments since more than a quarter of LaGrange’s enlisted men did not return home. Many women joined the LaGrange chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), formed by a former Nancy Harts member. In December 1896 Leila Pullen Morris, who had been eighteen years old at the time of the town’s surrender in 1865, gave the only recorded firsthand account of the Nancy Harts at an Atlanta UDC meeting.
The Nancy Harts have been a point of pride for residents of LaGrange over the decades. In 1904 the Ladies Home Journal published an article on the Nancy Harts, giving the militia national attention. In 1957 the Georgia Historical Commission placed a historical marker commemorating the women’s service in front of the LaGrange courthouse, and four years later a group of LaGrange women staged a reenactment of the Nancy Harts’ activity for the Civil War centennial, complete with officer elections. In 2009 the LaGrange chapter of the UDC and the Pine Needle Garden Club planted a tree in the city’s Stonewall Confederate Cemetery in honor of the Nancy Harts.