The story of Sam Davis
Sam Davis was born on Oct. 6, 1842. His family was middle class farmers in Middle Tennessee who did pretty well for themselves. The Davis moved to a new ante bellum home in Smyrna and there Sam grew up to become one of the most promising young men in Rutherford County. His mother and father saw to his education and, at age 18, Sam left the family farm to attend the Western Military Institute in Nashville.
Sam Davis excelled in college and was remembered by his classmates as responsible and trustworthy. Two of his favorite teachers at the Institute were Bushrod Johnson and E. Kirby Smith–both would go on to achieve recognition as Generals in the Confederate Army. As Sam Davis’ first year of college began to come to an end. Word spread about the incident at Fort Sumter, S.C. The students and teachers at the Nashville college knew that the War Between the States had begun and that their services would soon be required if Tennessee was going to protect itself against an invading force.
President Lincoln’s handling of the situation in the border state of Kentucky did not look promising to Tennessee. Kentucky’s leadership was divided over the conflict and naively declared itself neutral. It was immediately invaded by Union Marshals, who suspended the authority of local governments and established quasi-military rule. For many people, that action showed there was no negotiating room to resolve the issue.
Sam Davis, his teachers, and fellow students knew what was coming. The Union Army would soon invade the state and, as with any such action, homes would be seized, schools burned, and people killed. The school was dismissed and the students returned to their homes. Sam Davis now 19-years-old returned to his home and enlisted in the Rutherford Rifles, which was given the designation of the Tennessee Infantry’s Company I, CSA. With Tennessee now in the fight, Davis and his company were shipped to Virginia to serve in the opening campaigns of the war.
While fighting under Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, word came to the First Tennessee that Fort Donelson had fallen and the Union Army was invading West Tennessee. Davis’ company was dismissed from Virginia and returned to Corinth, Miss. where they were assembled for action in the coming Battle of Shiloh. Sam Davis proved himself an able soldier under fire and earned the respect of those who served with him. By the time the Battle of Shiloh was over, Davis had built an impressive resume. He had served under four of the Confederacy’s greatest Generals – Lee, Jackson, Johnston, and Beauregard. After General Braxton Bragg assumed command of the Army of Tennessee, Davis’ record of service was brought to his attention for a special project the controversial general was devising.
Sam Davis was chosen to become a member of an elite group of men known as Coleman’s Scouts. There assignment was to operate behind enemy lines and gather intelligence on Union troop movements and other vital information for General Bragg. They were carefully chosen and only the best were culled from the ranks of the Confederate Army.
Coleman’s Scouts were led by Captain Shaw. In order to protect his identity, Shaw was given the alias and codename E. Coleman. The alias was the only name ever used to identify Shaw by Confederate leaders and his own scouts. The captain often wandered between the battle lines posing as a herb doctor. Even the Union soldiers who knew of the disheveled "doctor" never figured him to be one of the most wanted men in the south. His men were just as effective.
For over a year, they worked dutifully and became a first class operation. What was even more dangerous was the fact that the scouts often wore their Confederate uniforms. A single Confederate soldier on horseback could often maneuver near military installations and their presence not be seen as unusual, as many local Confederates often slipped back to visit their families. In any case, Coleman’s Scouts always regarded themselves as a military unit and functioned as one. Davis’ work in the group was exemplary and earned the silent praise of his superiors. During a trip to Union-held Nashville, Davis dined in the St. Cloud Hotel at the same table with General Rosecrans listening to the Union commander as he unveiled plans of military movements in Tennessee. When the information gathered by E. Coleman and his scouts on Union troop movements led to the surprising Confederate victory at Chickamauga, Union officials were furious and put a price on the heads of the scouts and their leader E. Coleman.
On a cold November night in 1863, Davis returned to Smyrna, well behind enemy lines, to visit his family. When he arrived, Davis tapped on the dining room window to get his mother’s attention and slipped into the house. His father repaired his son’s boots and his mother gave him a hand-dyed Confederate overcoat to help keep him warm in the oncoming winter. After a brief emotional visit, Davis left his family home and made a rendezvous with E. Coleman and some of the Scouts. The men agreed they needed to regroup in northern Alabama and start making their way towards Confederate-held Chattanooga where they would make a report to General Bragg. Coleman also gave a report to Davis to take with him in case the men came to trouble. One by one they slipped out of the territory and began working their way south to the prearranged meeting place.
Davis rode quietly southward and into Giles County. As he approached a Union outpost on Nov. 20, he was spotted by a group of Kansas Cavalrymen and captured. Because of his Confederate uniform, Davis was taken as a Prisoner of War and routed eleven miles to the County seat of Pulaski. A search of his person found maps and information he had gathered as well as the papers given him by E. Coleman. He was jailed and put under the direct charge of Union General Dodge for interrogation and disposition. The Union General observed how young Davis was and seized upon the opportunity to try and frighten him into confessing who his superior was and where he could be found. In spite of Sam Davis’ uniform, he quickly accused the young Tennessean of being a spy – threatening him with a Federal court marital and death by hanging for his crimes if he did not tell him who had given him the information. Davis held fast and refused to sell out his men. The general quickly assembled a "federal court" that found Davis guilty of spying and sentenced him to hang on Nov. 27. With the decision to execute Davis now official and with a date affixed, General Dodge assigned Union Army Chief of Scouts Levi Naron to interrogate Davis and get the answers, offering him his life and freedom from the cell he was occupying. When Davis returned to his cell, three captured prisoners sat in the one adjacent to his. Sam glanced at the men and marched on as if he had no interest in them or knew who they were. The men in the cell were, in fact, E. Coleman and fellow scouts Joshua Brown and W.L. Moore. The very men the General was seeking sat right under his nose in his own cells and he didn’t even know it, nor would he. The three men sat silently while Union officials constantly interrogated Davis and offered him his freedom for just the names of Coleman’s Scouts.
Sam Davis continuously told Naron that he would never betray the trust placed in him and, if Tennessee could not be restored to the southern Confederacy, he would rather die anyway. His refusal to be an informant earned the admiration of Pulaski citizens and even his captors. The Union soldiers were so taken with Davis’s resolve to remain silent that they often visited the Tennessean and begged him to save his own life and name the scouts. During one of the visits, Davis remarked:
"I do not fear for death, but it makes me mad to think I am to die as a spy."
On Nov. 26, 81st Ohio Infantry Chaplain James Young went to the cell where Davis was to comfort him. He was touched by the ongoing story of Davis and quickly made friends with the young man. Davis and the Chaplain spent the entire day and night together. On the night before his execution, Davis requested that the Chaplain join him in singing "On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand" and the two stayed in prayer throughout the night. The coffin for Davis had been brought into his cell and the Tennessean sat on its lid as he listened to Naron’s final offer of freedom for the information. Davis looked hard at the Union Scout Chief and replied:
"Do you suppose were I your friend that I would betray you?" Sam asked. "Sir, if you think I am that kind of man, you have missed your mark. You may hang me a thousand times and I would not betray my friends."
Before the night had ended, Davis penned a final letter to his family.
"O how painful it is to write you!" Davis wrote. "I have got to die tomorrow– to be hanged by the Federals. Mother, do not grieve for me. I must bid you good-bye for evermore."
Davis went on to tell his parents where they could collect his personal belongings and where his father could collect his remains after the execution. He then wrapped his belongings and gave them to the Chaplain who had befriended him. He gave the chaplain the coat his mother had made for him as a gift for the final moments of friendship he had given the young Confederate.
On the gallows, the offer for freedom was again made of Davis. Sam Davis refused and uttered the words to the Provost Marshal. "I am ready."
At 10:20 a.m. Nov. 27, 1863, Coleman Scout Sam Davis was dropped from the gallows and hanged. Union soldier John Randal, who had helped capture Davis, watched with tears streaming down his face as the young Tennessean was executed. He later stated that he had never witnessed such a pathetic and heroic scene and noted other Federal soldiers in tears.
Many of the Union soldiers stationed at the post were in disbelief that the General had gone through with the execution and silent resentment towards him began to grow among his men. The story of Sam Davis began to spread in Tennessee and even in the Union ranks where nothing but respect was offered for his actions and sacrifice.
Following the execution, the prisoners in the cell next to Davis were put on trains and sent north to Union prisons. Somewhere along the tracks in Kentucky, E. Coleman jumped from the train and escaped into Confederate territory where he continued his work.
Although Pulaski is about 70 miles south of Smyrna, word got to Davis’ parents that their son had been killed. They didn’t know for sure it was their son and asked family friend John C. Kennedy to travel to Pulaski and, if it was true, to locate their son’s remains and bring them home.
After a federal run-around, Kennedy managed to get a note from Union General Rosseau allowing safe passage as far as Columbia. From there until he reached Pulaski, Kennedy relied on the illiteracy of Union pickets and reached the city before the Provost Marshal found him out. He handed the Marshal the note, who immediately declared it invalid. After Kennedy told him he was there to collect the body of Sam Davis, the Marshal’s attitude changed and he offered help and the statement to Davis’ parents:
"Tell them for me that he died the bravest of the brave," the Marshal said, " an honor to them, and with the respect of every man in this command."
The Provost Marshal then gave Kennedy return passes and offered a company if necessary to retrieve the body. The Marshal then gave an account of Davis’ saga and Kennedy went to the graveyard where he exhumed the Tennesseans body. As he lifted the coffin lid and began his work of identifying Davis, a group of Union soldiers gathered with their hats in hand and watched the solemn proceedings. When the body was loaded in the new coffin and Kennedy returned to Pulaski, the Provost Marshal gave him the personal effects of Sam Davis the Ohio Chaplain had entrusted him with following his departure from the city. The body was returned to Nashville where it was properly shrouded and taken to Smyrna. Sam Davis’ mother passed out at the sight of the coffin and it took Kennedy a while to convince Charles Davis that he should remember his son as he last saw him. Acting as only a family friend could, Kennedy walked the horses across the creek from the home and buried Davis in the family graveyard. As the Tennessean was committed to his final resting place, little did anyone know that he would soon become a legend throughout America. From Pulaski throughout Middle and West Tennessee, monuments commemorating Sam Davis started going up. The phrase he repeated over and over to his Union captors: "If I had a thousand lives, I would lose them all before I would betray my friends or the confidence of my informer." would forever enshrine him as the "Nathan Hale of the South" and earn him the respect of soldiers on both sides of the war.
The coat that Sam Davis gave to the Ohio Chaplain remained in the clergyman’s possessions until he was 73-years-old. The former chaplain returned the coat to the editor of Confederate Veteran magazine, where it was returned to Tennessee. The search for artifacts of the young Tennessean continues to this day. In 1994, Tennessee Historical Commission Executive Director Herb Harper located a boot knife belonging to Davis in a Knife Shop in Boston. Harper purchased it and donated it to the Tennessee State Museum where it is included in a display on the Tennessean. In addition, a photograph has been recently found that is being studied and authenticated as that of Sam Davis.
The Davis’ hid their family pictures in the hay of their barn – fearing the Union Army would burn their home. When Union soldiers raided them, however, they set fire to the barn rather than the house and all photographs of Sam Davis were thought lost.
Around the turn of the century, the Tennessee legislature commissioned an official monument of the Tennessean and contracted world-renowned sculptor George Julian Zolney to do it. He worked from descriptions and used Sam Davis’ younger brother as a model. In 1909, Governor Malcolm Rice Patterson dedicated the new monument. The governor had attended the ceremony dedicating Andrew Jackson’s monument as a child and recalled the event during his speech.
"Little did I think then, even in the day dreams of my youth, that one day as Governor I would be called upon to accept in the name of the state another figure in bronze erected on this side of the grounds," said Governor Patterson, " not of a man on horseback, but of a young man scarcely more than a boy, who belonged to another and later age of our history, who stands without the marks and accouterments of rank without any other sign save that of a soldier ready to fight and ready to die. The name and fame of Andrew Jackson filled the mind with wonder and admiration; the memory of Sam Davis, with infinite love and tenderness."
With the dedication, the monument became the only one on the capitol grounds not commemorating a U.S. President.
In 1865, as the War Between the States came to a close, the Confederate States of America commissioned their own National Medal of Honor. Before it could strike the first one, however, the government was defeated. Post-war politics didn’t recognize former Confederates and the duty of bestowing this highest military award was eventually handed over to the Sons of Confederate Veterans. In 1976 in Memphis, the Sons of Confederate Veterans held their National Convention and assembled for a very special meeting. In Memphis 111 years later, the SCV first awarded their highest military honor posthumously to Sam Davis of Smyrna, Tennessee. Davis would be one of four Tennesseans to receive the Confederate Medal of Honor. The second recipient was also a Coleman Scout from Tennessee named Pvt. Dewitt Smith Job, Lt. General N.B. Forrest was the eighteenth, and East Tennessean James Keelan was the fortieth to receive the award. The best book on the subject is "Valor in Gray" by Greg S. Clemmer and should be available from local bookstores.
Sam Davis’ boyhood home in Smyrna is located 20 minutes away from Nashville and is a state historic site featuring numerous artifacts of the family’s life in the middle Tennessee town. It is open from 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission is $4 for adults, $3.50 for seniors, and $2.50 for children under 12. Special discounts are available for groups. The home is considered one of the best examples of an antebellum middle class farm home in North America. There are many events held at the home throughout the year. Its Christmas program is considered one of the most popular Holiday events in Middle Tennessee.