SHOULD WE PAPER OVER THE NANCY HART STORY?

(06/25/2022)
By Susan Johnson For Daily Mail WV Apr 23, 2021

(Susan Johnson has been a longtime biographer of Nancy Hart)

The Nancy Hart burger at the Whistle Punk Taphouse and Grill in Richwood is a classic beef patty topped with thick-cut peppered bacon, a local egg fried over easy and a slab of cheese.

It’s not the best seller among the popular restaurant’s signature sandwiches. That would be the Marian McQuade, named for the founder of Grandparents’ Day, or the Jim Comstock, which honors the publisher and founder of the West Virginia Hillbilly.

Owner Lance Raffo has never had a customer take offense at the burger, which is named for a notorious Confederate guerrilla and spy who killed several Union soldiers and is responsible for the burning of Summersville in 1862.

Most people who dine at the Whistle Punk park under a huge mural of Nancy Hart painted on the side of a Main Street building. Her tombstone perches just 7 miles away atop Manning Knob, one of the highest peaks in West Virginia. Placed there in 1986 by a class of fourth graders from a local elementary school, the bronze plaque on the grave reads “Civil War Heroine.”

But is Nancy a heroine? If so, to whom and for what cause?

Nancy didn’t start out as a partisan. Her 92-year-old granddaughter said she never knew them to own slaves; in fact, Nancy’s father allegedly called it shameful when he and Nancy saw a white man beat an enslaved person.

She was more like a groupie, hanging out in the woods with whatever soldiers she came upon — guerrilla bands, Rebels, Union soldiers, Home Guard. She was a guide, a courier, a scout, a spy, but mainly she loved to hang out around the campfire with teenage boys. She sang, danced, flirted and demonstrated her cracker-jack skills with a rifle.

Eventually she fell in with a guerrilla band called the Moccasin Rangers. Historians claim she was in love with their leader, Perry Conley. More than likely, it was Joshua Douglas she favored.

The Moccasins were responsible for all manner of mayhem during the border skirmishes — burning down post offices and sabotaging bridges. Nancy soon became a wanted woman.

The heat was on, so in the fall of 1861 the teen-aged Nancy hid out in the Roane County home of her pregnant sister, Mary Price. The Home Guard stormed the Price house. But Mary had sewn the diminutive Nancy up in a pillowcase and rested her head on it, pretending to be in labor. One of the soldiers knelt down and ran his sword under the bed where Mary lay, so close to Nancy she could smell his breath.

Later, when the Home Guard learned they had been duped, they took Mary’s husband William and hanged him in a tree, leaving his boots under his dangling body. For days, the enraged Nancy stalked one of the men who hanged her brother-in-law and later reported to her sister, “He just dropped off a log.”

But the Price incident shattered Nancy’s family, who left West Virginia for Kentucky. Nancy’s new family were the Moccasin Rangers. The violent band was ambushed in the spring of 1862 and scattered. That’s when Nancy and a female companion were captured by Col. William Starr. (Starr would later commission an itinerate ambrotypist to take the famous photograph of Nancy, posed like the Mona Lisa with a Yankee cap atop her head.)

After her escape from Starr, Nancy was reunited with her lover and later husband, Joshua Douglas, in late 1862. She never was heard from again. He died in 1907 after suffering a stroke riding into Richwood on a mule. He was given an honorable burial in Richwood City Cemetery, thanks to the “Lost Cause” movement of the early 20th century.

Nancy got a primitive rock tombstone miles away from Joshua.

So should Richwood be honoring a spunky teenager who supported the “Southern Cause,” regardless of her sympathies?

The family of Ivan Hunter, the watchtower scout who asked to be buried beside her, do not want to see the Confederacy glorified near the resting place of their loved ones (several family members’ ashes are scattered there). They objected when the Hart family wanted to plant the divisive Virginia battle flag on her grave.

On the other side, Lee Hart, a distant relative of Nancy, reveres her as a heroine. He also wants the errors on her tombstone corrected. Beside her grave, he raised a flag of the CSA and planted a Southern Cross in the ground beside her.

The controversy atop Manning Knob, however minor, is reflective of the larger question of preserving or destroying Confederate monuments.

Is it wrong to remember the story of Nancy Hart in a play or a mural or a hamburger? In Richwood, she’s more or less considered a colorful outlaw. Still, visitors to Richwood from other parts of the world are jarred by the sight of an occasional Rebel flag on a truck tailgate. Should we scrub Nancy from our local history in the interest of political correctness?

I, for one, believe history is like an onion, with layers and layers of stories trying to get at the truth. The fact that the schoolchildren from Beaver Elementary got a few facts wrong in 1986 is itself a layer of that onion. That marker should remain, with a new marker setting the record straight.

At Monticello, visitors still tour the quarters where hundreds of Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved persons lived in subhuman conditions. When I went there as a child, I remember the docent explaining how nice and cozy the slave cabins were. A more accurate account is being given to tourists these days. In fact, a whole new wing at Monticello is devoted to telling enslaved person Sally Hemmings’ story as Thomas Jefferson’s concubine.

New layers of history need to be added to the earlier layers — to elucidate, revise, correct. Some, though, would like to scrub the slave-owning Jefferson’s name and likeness from any public school, park or building.

Manning Knob, of course, is not public property and in this case, the stakeholders in the history of Nancy and Ivan worked out a compromise whereby competing versions of the past can live side by side. That way each generation can decide for itself what the truth is.

Public property is different. Statuary that glorifies human exploitation or a cause such as the trade and demoralization of Africans should not be held up for adulation in the public square. But I also don’t believe these statues should be unceremoniously dragged down by an angry mob. These statues should be moved to a museum or other venue. Why? Because the story of the people who erected them and the story of the people who took them down is just as worthy of preservation as is the story of the man, or woman, cast in bronze.

Because it happened. It’s history. That’s the truth.

Susan Johnson is a writer who lives in Richwood. Her column “My Side of the Mountain” appears weekly in the Nicholas Chronicle.