Like countless other women of the Civil War, the wives, sisters and sweethearts of LaGrange, Georgia watched the majority of men in their town march away to military service in 1861. But while other Confederate women on the home front prepared to nurse the wounded and wait out the war, the women of LaGrange prepared to do battle.
Between 1861 and 1865, a group of 40 LaGrange women organized an all-woman militia, the Nancy Harts. Organized in military formations and skilled in marksmanship and battle tactics, the women were prepared to defend their town against a Union incursion—and near the end of the war, they did.
One thousand, three hundred men left LaGrange during the first year of the war, and the town, which was located in a strategically important spot halfway between Atlanta and Montgomery, Alabama, became a vulnerable target due to its location and its rail lines, which continued to operate throughout the war.
The women of LaGrange and their departing husbands worried that, should the town be attacked, the boys and old men who remained wouldn’t be able to hold Union soldiers at bay. So Nancy Hill Morgan, the wife of a departing officer, suggested that the women form their own militia to defend their town.
“When did you ever hear of a military company of women?” Hart’s friend Mary Heard reportedly responded. But soon Heard was at Hart’s side to organize a group of women soldiers to fend off Union troops.
They took their name from another woman warrior, Ann Morgan “Nancy” Hart. During the Revolutionary War, Hart, who lived in the then-frontier of Georgia, fought against British Loyalists. It’s unclear how many of her reported exploits actually happened in real life, but she was reputed to have killed at least one Loyalist, captured others, and spent years resisting them. She also served as a spy and is thought to have fought at the Battle of Kettle Creek in 1779.
As historian John Thomas Scott notes, Hart’s memory was cherished in the South. “By the time of the Civil War,” he writes, “the name Nancy Hart seems to have been accepted in Georgia as symbolic of women willing to defend hearth and home against oppressive foreign invaders.”
Hart and Heard’s militia consisted largely of their former classmates and their sisters. Armed with a copy of William Hardee’s Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics, the assistance of a local man who couldn’t fight due to a disability,and the often-outdated weapons the men had left behind, they began teaching themselves to drill like a real infantry regiment. They assigned members ranks and duties. Using muskets, pistols and other weapons, they drilled twice a week and slowly began to improve their marksmanship and military organization.
The women continued to train as the war progressed, even though they doubted they’d ever see action. In the meantime, they served as nurses for the wounded and sick from nearby battles. But even as they tended to the wounded, the Nancy Harts kept up their training and marched through the streets of LaGrange.
It looked like the Nancy Harts would get through the entire war without firing a shot at Union soldiers. But that changed in April 1865, when Union troops raided West Georgia, destroying manufacturing facilities in a swoop they called Wilson’s Raid after commanding officer Brigadier General James H. Wilson. A Confederate officer telegraphed LaGrange to let them know that the nearby town of West Point was under siege. The few men who remained in LaGrange marched away to help defend it, and the Nancy Harts prepared for battle.
The women stepped into their familiar formation and marched to the campus of the LaGrange Female College, which was located on the edge of town. As civilians and the remaining Confederate cavalrymen fled, 40 Nancy Harts stood in a group waiting to fight. The fleeing men begged them to hide, but they refused.
Soon, a column of 3,000 federal troops approached, and the Nancies noticed several of their family members among the prisoners that came with them. Union Colonel Oscar LaGrange (unrelated to the town) approached, and asked to speak to the militia’s captain. When Morgan complied, she told him that they were willing not to engage in battle if the colonel would promise not to plunder the town.
LaGrange complimented Morgan on her well-trained troops and agreed not to attack homes or civilians. She handed over the town to the attacking soldiers. As LaGrange went back to his soldiers to give orders to take over the town, he was overheard saying “The Nancy Harts could probably use their eyes with better effect than their old guns.”
The Union soldiers stayed true to their word and did not attack homes or civilians. They did, however, destroy local warehouses, rail lines, and other strategic targets, and looted local stores. The town’s residents were spared, though, and in gratitude, the Nancy Harts cooked dinner for LaGrange.
For the town, the Nancy Harts’ truce was considered a victory. The women had protected LaGrange without firing a single shot. After the war was over, the group disbanded and the women went back to their everyday lives—as everyday as life could be in a town that had lost a quarter of its men.
Like other upper-class white Southern women, the Nancy Harts were bound by strict codes of femininity, and their use of guns and military maneuvers would have been unthinkable outside the context of the war. The few remaining accounts of the women show that they enjoyed their drills and the chance to socialize and develop new skills. But when women like Morgan talked about their military service, they emphasized how dainty and womanly they remained, even while toting muskets and pistols. “In feminine dress of ruffled skirts and flowered or feathered heats, their hearts beat in unison,” Morgan recalled.
The Nancy Harts weren’t the only women who trained for battle during the Civil War: Women in girls’ schools in the region also trained for battle. But the Nancies were unusual in that they not only remained prepared throughout the entire war, but that they actually met Union troops. “They were never called to field duty, it is true,” Morgan later recalled, “but they stood ever in readiness and rendered a service equally effective as guards over the defenseless and their homes.”