Two lonely graves in Greenbrier County are testament to how much unfinished business was left by the treaty at Appomattox that ended the American Civil War.
The first grave, that of Confederate spy Nancy Hart (also known as Nancy Hart Douglas), lies high atop a mountain crag just 7.5 miles from the only stoplight in Richwood in Nicholas County. Twenty feet away is another grave — that of Ivan Hunter, a Richwooder who died in April 1965 of an infection caused by a broken leg.
Nancy Hart’s exploits during the war have been chronicled in stories and books. Early in the war she was a scout and spy for the Moccasin Rangers, a pro-Confederate guerrilla group. In 1861, she was captured by Union soldiers and taken to Summersville, but managed to escape.
She survived the war, married former Ranger Joshua Douglas, and lived in Greenbrier County. Some uncertainty surrounds the year of her death. She was buried on Manning Knob in Greenbrier County, near the Nicholas County line.
A love story — somewhere in time
All of this is decades removed from the life of Ivan Hunter. So, why the two graves?
The short answer is that it seems Ivan was smitten with Nancy. He’d never met her, of course, but for years he manned a fire lookout tower on Manning Knob that overlooked her grave. He spent many hours with her in this solitary perch. What went on between the romantic Ivan and the spirit of the long-dead Nancy, nobody knows, but Ivan became obsessed with her, and her memory.
The affinity was so strong that Ivan — after he became a deathbed convert to Catholicism — made his family promise to bury him by Nancy Hart on Manning Knob.
Although the fire tower is long gone, the graves remain. Nancy Hart’s is surrounded by a split-rail fence. Ivan Hunter rests just outside the enclosure.
Tending the graves
More than 50 years after the death of Ivan Hunter, two descendants came to Manning Knob. Lee Hart, a distant relative of Nancy, and Joe Hunter, a grandson of Ivan, visited Richwood to tend to these two graves and keep alive the spirits of their ancestors. They also rekindled some of the old fire of the North versus South conflict.
Lee Hart is a devotee to the “Southern Cause.” He is past president of the Virginia Sons of Confederate Veterans, and spends much of his time restoring Confederate graves and cemeteries. A genteel Virginia gentleman from Suffolk, his Southern drawl spills from his lips like honey. “Yes ma’am,” he says after every response.
Joe Hunter is a college professor from Boston. He and others of Ivan’s family had gathered in Richwood in 1992 for the Mill Whistle Players’ production of the musical drama, “Bury Me By Nancy Hart.” The play, written by this reporter, was produced in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the West Virginia Department of Culture and History.
In the play, Joe’s grandfather, Ivan, serves as the narrator, telling the story of Nancy’s wild escapades in flashbacks.
A daring escape
According to an eye-witness account, Nancy Hart and a female companion were captured foraging in the woods in the summer of 1862. Their guerrilla band, the Moccasin Rangers, had been ambushed and scattered by the Union Guard. The two women were taken captive by Col. William Starr of the United States Union Army and housed in the attic of a Summersville farmhouse.
After spending about two weeks in close quarters with the Union guards, Nancy charmed a private and coaxed a gun from him. She shot him dead then escaped on Col. Starr’s horse, riding bareback to Gen. Jackson’s regiment in Fayette County. She guided the Confederate soldiers into Summersville, where they captured and burned the town.
Ever since the play in 1992, the Hunter family has gathered at Camp Splinter near Richwood. If any family member has died that year, they scatter the ashes on Ivan’s burial site. Clumps of white ashes can even be seen from time to time around Ivan’s tombstone. The family also leaves artifacts by the grave, items with sentimental value, such as toys or a pair of old slippers.
Both Lee and Joe are enamored of the past and their ancestors. In 2017, Lee and fellow SVC member Phillip Woods visited Richwood with a plan. First, they wanted to restore the tombstone of Nancy’s husband, Joshua Douglas, in the Richwood City Cemetery. Lee also wanted to put a Southern Iron Cross on the graves of Joshua and Nancy, and erect a 16-foot flagpole on Nancy’s grave with a Confederate flag.
Even though Ivan had been a Southern sympathizer in a romantic, nostalgic sense, Joe Hunter said he and his family were nonetheless offended by the Rebel battle flag because of some of the painful connotations it carries. Joe said they objected to erecting the controversial flag over a burial site that included his grandfather and the ashes of his father and other family members.
A compromise was reached. Lee agreed not to fly the incendiary battle flag of Virginia — what most people call the Dixie flag, the “Stars and Bars.” Instead, he raised one of the three versions of the flag of the Confederate States of America. To the average person, the flag, with its circle of stars and two red stripes, fluttered rather innocuously in the breeze atop Manning Knob for two years.
But someone in the past year, unknown to Lee or Joe, added the battle flag. It has been attached beneath Lee’s original Confederate flag. Joe Hunter was okay with the flagpole as long as it was planted inside the split-rail enclosure, but he hasn’t seen this newest addition.
Poetry book and future plans
Joe, for his part, is honoring his forefathers in a different way. A new plaque has been recently affixed to the top of Ivan’s tombstone. It names Ivan’s twin sons, John and Ivan Jr., whose ashes are scattered on the hilltop.
A book of poetry by Joe’s father, Ivan Norton Hunter, son of Ivan Sr., has been released through Joe’s efforts and the contributions of Fayetteville photographer Melvin Hartley. The book, “Spruce Wind’s Song,” came out in January and contains beautiful and haunting lyric poetry by Ivan Jr., who went by Ivan Norton to distinguish himself from his father.
One of the poems is a tribute to Ivan Sr., and includes a photo of his father with the Manning Knob fire tower in the background. Joe also included some other old family photos in the volume.
In October, Joe Hunter will visit Richwood to do a book signing and reading of his father’s poetry.
In the meantime, Lee Hart has more plans for Nancy’s gravesite. He wants to replace the current marker, placed there in 1986 by an elementary school class who made it a class project. The pedestal holding the plaque is eroding, and Lee wants to replace it with a more permanent granite pedestal.
He would also like to correct a couple of errors on the bronze marker. Nancy did not die in 1902 as the marker states. She was buried around 1912 according to the accounts of two of her granddaughters. In addition, the marker fails to include her married name, Douglas, saying only Nancy Hart.
She’s also referred to on the marker as a “Civil War Heroine,” a statement that is certainly a matter of opinion, depending on what side of the Mason Dixon line one’s sympathies reside.
A folk figure
The original marker on Nancy’s grave is gone. It was discovered by newspaper editor Jim Comstock, who wrote extensively about Nancy and claimed to have attended the burial of Ivan. Comstock described the original marker as an oval-shaped piece of rock on which was scratched “NANCY HAPT” (sic).
Nancy Hart has become a sort of local folk figure in Richwood — not a heroine, really, but more of a Jesse James-type character.
Muralists have immortalized her image on the side of a building in the center of town. Whistle Punk Taphouse and Grill features a sandwich named for her, and local shops sell T-shirts with her famous photo and the simple message, “I Spy.”
One can only speculate on what Ivan Hunter Sr., sitting alone in his watchtower, would think about Nancy Hart’s ongoing notoriety. One can imagine he would be pleased.
Susan Johnson is the author of “Bury Me By Nancy Hart,” and writes a column for the Nicholas Chronicle. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.