Press, Published History, and Regional Lore: Shaping the Public Memory of a Revolutionary War Heroine

Article excerpt

This article tells the story of Nancy Hart of Georgia, a colorful Revolutionary War heroine whose feats have been recounted in newspapers, magazines, history books, and public speeches for more than 175 years. It illustrates important symbiotic relationships between the nineteenth-century press, published histories, and regional memory. The purpose is not to argue that either journalists, historians, or word-of-mouth accounts contributed more to the legend of Hart, but to draw attention to how the three interacted and informed each other. It argues regional memory is an important part of American collective memory, and the press, through its unique form of storytelling, contributes to regional and national mythology by amplifying and legitimising it for a larger audience.

Nancy Hart, an "extra loyal Georgia woman," single-handedly captured a squad of British soldiers during the American Revolution, according to press accounts and local lore. The soldiers forced her to cook for them, and when they sat to eat, she grabbed a musket and demanded their surrender. Because she was "cross-eyed," the soldiers were unable to tell who was in her sights, and so none were able to charge and overtake her. The captured soldiers were held until help arrived, and then shot or hanged, depending upon the account. Thus, probably around 1780, she stepped onto her historical pedestal as a heroine of the Revolution.1 More than eighty years later in 1861 a group of women in La Grange, Georgia, formed an all-female militia to protect their homes from Union troops. Member Leila C. Morris recalled the militia's founding in an 1896 gathering in Atlanta: "We so admired the loyalty and daring bravery of Nancy Hart that we enthusiastically adapted her name for our company."2 The Nancy Harts reportedly became "a well-organized, disciplined, commissioned military company," according to the Civil War Times Illustrated in 1994, and though they never fired a shot against the enemy, they, too, became part of local legend.3

This study illustrates important symbiotic relationships between the nineteenth-century press, published histories, and regional memory. It examines changing portrayals of this Revolutionary War heroine, as recounted for more than 175 years, including accounts of the all-woman Civil War militia that her legend inspired. The purpose here is not to argue that the journalists, historians, or wordof-mouth accounts contributed more to the legend of Hart but to draw attention to how the three interacted and informed each other. It seeks to add to the growing body of scholarship on media and public memory, arguing that regional memory is an important part of American collective memory and that the press, through its unique form of storytelling, contributes to regional mythology by amplifying and legitimizing it for a larger audience. It also adds to our understanding of mediated heroism, another important aspect of media scholarship, as well as the history of the American press. Stories of the Revolutionary-era Hart exemplify one case of evolving collective memory and illustrate the role of the American press in shaping and perpetuating such public memories.

The stories of Hart and the "Nancy Harts" provide a fascinating example of how collective memory is used to serve the present. The latter invoked the memory of the former to fight against the nation that Hart was revered for helping to found. How societies use collective memories is culturally revealing, and the media play a role in preserving and even strengthening such memories.

The study of American public memory has become an important genre of historical scholarship. Public memory is not simply a shared record of the past but is a "body of beliefs about the past that help a public or society understand both its past and its present, and, by implication, its future," John Bodnar wrote in 1994.4 Barry Schwartz noted the importance of understanding memory. "As a model of society, collective memory reflects past events in terms of needs, interests, fears, and aspirations of the present. …