It was a hot summer afternoon in 1780...
The kind when the heavy clothing styles of the American Revolutionary War clung damply to a sweating body. The war had been going on for quite a while by then. The colony known as Georgia had been invaded by the British, but its people didn’t intend to surrender.
The six British soldiers crossing over Wahatchee Creek had no real knowledge of the area in Georgia that they were patrolling, nor did they care to. They had been away from home for a long time and were very unhappy about it. They had no use for the Whig locals who wouldn’t bow to British rule. And they cared even less for the local Cherokee tribes. They had spent a long day trying to flush out Georgia militiamen and teach the other locals to respect the King. Now they were pursuing a young Whig who had been spying on them. They’d come close to catching him twice. But then he’d guided his horse into the creek and they’d lost him.
The lead soldier pointed to a small cabin on top of the hill. “Maybe he’s up there,” he said. And he kicked his horse forward. The horse hesitated a moment. He had been stretching his head down toward the creek, hinting that he wanted a drink. But his rider didn’t care about such things. If he gave the horse time to drink, they might lose the Whig boy. The lead soldier gave his mount an impatient kick. And with a blow of disgust the horse did as he was told.
The other five soldiers followed with their equally thirsty horses. They were all tired of the chase. “Maybe we can get some dinner up there,” one of the soldiers suggested.
That had occurred to the lead soldier as well. He was the eldest man among them, but that only put him near thirty. He didn’t actually have a higher rank. But he had the most experience and he came from a slightly better family. “Hello!” he bellowed. “Soldiers of his Majesty the King!”
“Eh?” a female voice answered from inside the cabin. A woman came out with a home-made broom in her hand as if she’d been sweeping. “Eh?” she repeated. She was around forty with long graying red hair falling out of the bun that was clinging with uncertainty at the back of her head. She was tall, easily six feet. Her face had been ravaged by smallpox in her youth and by the hard work of her adult years. Her clothes were homespun and well worn. But her eyes were her most striking feature, for they were crossed. In no way did she look like a threat to the six men.
“You think she’s tetched?” one of the soldiers asked.
“Looks like she should be in Bedlam,” another laughed. Bedlam was the nickname of a famous madhouse in London.
“We’re soldiers of His Majesty the King!” the lead soldier repeated, more loudly this time. “We’re looking for a boy of about sixteen. He was on horseback.”
“No one’s come here for days,” the woman said, tilting her head sideways.
“Look around back,” the lead soldier said to the man on his left.
The soldier on the left, a twenty five year old with matted brown hair and a face that seemed to be in a permanent sneer, did as he was told. Meanwhile the five remaining soldiers looked at the woman, who was now leaning on her broom and watching them with her crossed eyes.
There was a high pitched squeal from the back of the cottage and the sneering soldier returned on foot with a squealing girl that didn’t look much older than ten in his arms. They were followed by an old turkey that seemed curious about all the fuss. “Look what I found!” the sneering soldier said. He released the child and she ran into her mother’s skirts. “I found her hiding in the smoke house out back with the turkey.”
“Dirty little thing, isn’t she?” one of the men laughed.
“She’s my daughter,” the woman said. She smoothed back the child’s red hair, but was careful not to remove any of the ashes on her face. The girl was just getting near the age when she might be interesting to soldiers like these. So her mother had instructed her to slouch, act childish, snarl her hair, and coat her face with ash from the smoke house whenever strangers like these came to the cabin. It was a perfect ruse. All the soldiers saw was a dirty child.
“I see the resemblance,” another soldier laughed.
“Where’s your husband?” the lead soldier asked.
“Away,” was all the woman would say.
“Better stay away too. The King doesn’t tolerate traitors.”
“Did you find any food in that smoke house?” the youngest soldiers asked. He was barely eighteen and always looking to be fed.
“No. Just a couple jugs of corn liquor,” the sneering soldier answered.
“That’s for me!” a soldier with a red face said.
“She must have some food,” the youngest soldier insisted. “Woman, what do you have to eat?”
“I don’t have anything. Your like has been around here before. That old turkey is all I have left. He’s really a pet for my daughter.” The turkey in question straightened himself up and flapped his wings as if he were trying to show that he wasn’t all that old.
“She’s lying,” the sneering soldier said. “The whole side of the cabin is covered with hanging antlers. Her husband must be a bloody good hunter. She’s probably got another smoke house stocked with meat, hidden around here somewhere.”
“Let’s get her to tell us where it is,” the red faced soldier suggested.
“It’s too hot to work,” the lead soldier said. He lifted his musket and shot the turkey.
The woman screamed her objections, but the men just laughed.
“Now you have something to cook,” the lead soldier announced. “Get to it. We’re hungry. You better find something else to go with it too. Or you and your daughter will be feeling my musket next. You won’t be the first ones we’ve killed today.”
The other men laughed heartily at that.
The woman motioned to her daughter to collect the turkey. The men dismounted and handed their horses off to their youngest member. He tied them to a tree so they were at least in the shade. He thought for a moment about walking them down to the creek for a drink, but he was afraid he might look less manly to the others if he showed too much interest in the horses. So he left them behind as quickly as possible and followed the other men into the cabin, making sure to push the woman aside as he’d seen the others do. The lead soldier shoved the woman especially hard. She was slightly taller than he was and it irritated him.
There was a small square table near the door. The soldiers piled their muskets in the corner across from it and gathered around the table. The woman noticed that the lead soldier was the only one who had a bayonet on his musket and that he hadn’t bothered to reload it after killing the turkey.
“Go get the whiskey!” the lead soldier told the woman as he sat down and threw his booted feet up onto her small table. “We’re thirsty!” He was the only one of the soldiers who wore boots and he was proud of it. They were a sign of his higher status. The rest of them only had cloth gaiters over their shoes and stockings to protect them from mud and wear.
The woman turned and did as she was told. When she came back into the cabin the men had opened the back door and taken off their red woolen jackets. Soon the room smelled of male sweat, unwashed uniforms, and corn liquor.
While her daughter started to prepare the turkey, the woman pulled out some homemade bread and served it to the men. “I need water for the stew,” the woman said, half to her daughter and half for the benefit of the men. “Sukey, run down to the well and get me some.”
The girl nodded. The men were too involved in their second round of drinks to notice the girl hesitate as her mother briefly held her fist to her mouth in a secret gesture.
The men continued to drink. Their third and fourth rounds soon gave way to the fifth. They talked loudly of how they couldn’t wait to brag to their captain how they’d killed the woman’s neighbor and would soon do the same with the young lad who had eluded them that afternoon.
“I’ve still got that traitor’s blood on my breeches!” the red faced soldier said proudly, slapping the brown stains on his legs.
“I’ve still got his stain on my bayonet,” the lead soldier said.
“Serves him right,” the sneering soldier growled, “for taking too long to die.”
“I’ve got to clean it off before it fouls my weapon.”
“Not before we have another drink,” the red faced soldier said as he began pouring again.
So lost were they in self-congratulations, that they stopped watching the woman as she quietly wandered from her cupboard in the corner near their muskets to the cooking pot in the fireplace. This is exactly what the woman wanted. When Sukey returned from the well with the water, her mother took it and then waved for her to go outside again. Sukey knew what to do. First she untied the horses to slow down the soldiers later. The horses immediately took advantage of their freedom to head down to the creek to drink and graze. Then the girl stationed herself outside the cabin right in the vicinity of the soldier’s guns. The little cabin had been under attack from Indians and British soldiers many times. In order to defend it better, the woman and her husband had put chinks in the walls so they could shoot from a place of comparative safety. One by one, the woman started to pass the soldier’s guns to Sukey through the chinks in the wall, starting with the lead man’s musket. The woman noted the blood on it as she passed it out to her daughter. It confirmed what they’d said about killing her neighbor.
Finally, the sneering soldier noticed what the woman was doing. “Hey!” he shouted, springing to his feet. “She’s taking our guns!”
The woman raised one of the three remaining muskets into her arms and pointed it at the men. “I’ll shoot the first one that moves!” she warned.
This was almost laughable to the men. Here was this strange older woman telling them what to do, daring to threaten them with one of their own weapons. They didn’t come from genteel backgrounds, but still there wasn’t a single woman from their world who would dare lift a musket, much less actually shoot one. Even though they’d spent some time in the colonies, they hadn’t bothered to get to know any of the locals. They had no idea that women settlers had to be ready to hunt and protect their homes as readily as their men folk.
Wanting again to look more manly to the other five, the youngest soldier charged the woman, his arms outstretched to tackle her.
The woman had no choice. They had already killed her neighbor and intended to kill the young Whig who’d come to her earlier in the day looking for help. She had no doubt that they would have killed her husband or older sons if they’d been around. Despite her crossed eyes, she was an excellent shot. She easily hit the young soldier and killed him.
At the sound of the explosion, Sukey came running into the cabin and handed her mother another loaded musket.
This seemed to anger the lead soldier even more. Not only had this woman shot one of his men, she had challenged his authority. “Let’s all charge her!” he ordered.
But the other men weren’t so sure they wanted to rush this crazy looking woman whose daughter seemed so comfortable handing her loaded muskets. The woman’s unchanged expression told them she’d had no trouble killing their youngest member. And with her crossed eyes, how could you even tell who she was aiming? They stayed where they were as the lead soldier charged alone.
Once again the woman shot. And the lead soldier dropped to the dirt floor, dying quickly from a well-aimed shot to the temple. As he hit the floor Sukey handed her mother another fresh musket.
The remaining soldiers raised their hands in a sign of surrender.
“Sukey. Did you blow that conch shell by the spring like I told you?” the woman asked her daughter.
“Yes, Mama,” Sukey answered. “I let the horses go too. They went on down to the creek.”
“Good. My husband and his militia should be here soon. We’ll all just wait here quietly.”
The British soldiers shifted slightly, but they did as they were told. The only sound in the cabin was Sukey picking up another one of the loaded muskets in readiness to hand it to her mother. Before long they heard the sound of several horses riding up outside.
“Nancy!” a man called.
“In here,” the woman answered, still holding her gun on the soldiers.
A thin middle-aged man rushed into the room, followed by several other men of the Georgia militia. “You all right?” the thin man asked his wife.
“Course, Benjamin,” Nancy answered. “Can’t say the same for all these Red Coats, though. They were bragging about killing John Dooley. And they were looking to kill another young man who was here earlier. I promised that boy I would put an end to their hunt and I did.”
“We should line ‘em up and shoot ‘em,” one of Ben’s militiamen said raising his rifle.
“No,” Nancy said. “Shooting’s too good for them. The penalty for murder should be hanging.”
“All right,” Benjamin agreed. “As the highest ranking militia officer here, I say lead ‘em out.”
“You should have known better than to pick on Nancy Hart,” one of the militiamen laughed as he pushed the red faced British soldier to the door of the cabin. “The Indians around here call her Wahatchee. They named the creek after her. Probably as a warning that it was the border of her territory. You cross her and you might just end up hanging on the side of the cabin like all those antlers from all those deer she’s shot.”
“What?” the British soldier asked.
“Wahatchee,” Nancy said proudly. “That’s what they call me. They tell me it means War Woman.”
- - - - - - - - - -
Nancy Hart’s exploits didn’t end or begin here. She also did some spying on the local British camps disguised as a man while pretending to be a half-wit. And she helped fight off an attack by the British on a fort filled with women and children.
She lived a long life after the war. Benjamin died before her. She married again, but outlived her second husband as well. She spent her last days with her son John and his family.
It’s said that the grave of the six soldiers mentioned in this story was found in 1912 near where her house used to be while they were doing railroad work.
Nancy Hart is not the only woman who used the ruse of being crazy. One union spy from Virginia used the same method. Her name was Elizabeth Van Lew.
There was another Nancy Hart in the Civil War. She was mostly in West Virginia and fought on the side of the Confederacy.
Copyright 2009 by Mary Anne Gruen