top of page

Who was Sam Davis?

Who was Sam Davis? There have been several replies made to this question over the years. Davis has been multiply labelled as "The Boy Hero Of The Confederacy," a soldier doing his duty, a living example of the Southern gentleman's code of honor, and a spy. Which is the correct answer? All of them are, to a certain degree. Simply put, Sam Davis was a young man who, in the midst of war and the many senseless deaths which accompany it, made his death meaningful - and with it, his life.


On 6 October 1842, Sam Davis was born in the Stewartsboro (now Smyrna), Tennessee farmhouse of his parents Charles Lewis Davis and Jane Simmons Davis. By all accounts, his life was that of a normal boy in a middle class rural Southern family until November 1860 - when Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. With whispers of an approaching war already on the wind, Davis' parents enrolled him in Nashville's Western Military Academy. Davis' academic career at WMA was destined to be a short one, however. Davis left the Academy in April 1861 and volunteered for the 1st Tennessee Infantry (Company I - "Rutherford's Rifles") the following month. Davis officially became a Confederate soldier in August 1861, when the 1st Tennessee was mustered into the Confederate Army.


Davis served as an infantry private under Robert E. Lee during Lee's Virginia/West Virginia campaign until December 1861, when the 1st Tennessee was transferred to Major General Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson's command for the defense of the Shenandoah Valley. Davis performed with distinction, earning several commendations for valor during the First Valley Campaign of 1862. The 1st Tennessee participated in this campaign until March 1862, when the Federal capture of Fort Donelson and Fort Henry led to the transfer of the 1st Tennessee to the command of General Albert Sidney Johnson for the defense of Corinth, Mississippi. Sam Davis and the 1st Tennessee Infantry arrived in time to engage in fighting on both days of the Battle of Shiloh - one of the bloodiest clashes of the Civil War. Davis was wounded slightly, and his valor was once again noted by his regimental officers.


In June 1862, the 1st Tennessee was transferred to the command of General Braxton Bragg as part of the newly-formed Army of Tennessee, to conduct offensive operations in Tennessee and Kentucky. Davis' participation in these operations included the battles at Perryville, Murfreesboro (Stones River) and Shelbyville. For Bragg to continue his operations, however, more detailed information on Federal troop and supply movements was required. To meet these needs, a special calvary company was formed. This company was staffed with the creme-de-la-creme of the soldiers - men who had repeatedly demonstrated courage, endurance and coolness under fire. Sam Davis was one of about 30 soldiers transferred to Coleman's Scouts in July 1862, under the leadership of Captain Henry B. Shaw (working under the pseudonym "Capt. E. Coleman").


During his time with Coleman's Scouts, Davis performed his scouting duties in the middle Tennessee/northern Alabama area. During the time of the Battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga (fall 1863), Davis worked within the city limits of (federally-held) Nashville, gathering information on the city fortifications and Union troop dispositions. Davis was even able to eavesdrop on conversations between Union General Rosecrans and his officers. Eventually, the area got too "hot" for the intelligence-gathering activities to continue - Union troops were constantly on the move in the area, increasing the Scouts' chances of detection. Many scouts (Coleman's and others) had been captured or killed - so many that when Davis came into the Scouts' headquarters (located at Big Creek, TN about 20 miles south of Columbia) in mid-November with a load of Union newspapers and dispatches, there was nobody available who could relay the delivery on down the courier line. Thus it was that on 19 November 1863, Capt. Shaw happened upon Davis on the road with a large parcel of mail and packages, trying to find a crossover to Confederate territory. Shaw gave Davis a special dispatch to deliver to General Bragg (headquartered in Chattanooga) and suggested Davis try crossing into Dixie territory south of Decatur, Alabama.


Davis' route took him to Giles County, Tennessee and the city of Pulaski - then home to the headquarters of the Union Army's 16th Corps. On the morning of 20 November 1683, while riding down Lamb's Ferry Road about 15 miles south of Pulaski, he encountered two soldiers in Confederate uniform who said they were conscripting for the Confederate Army. Over his Confederate uniform Davis was wearing a coat given him by his mother on his last trip home - a Union coat (taken from a deserter) and dyed brown with walnut hulls. Davis stated that he was already a member of the Confederate Army and presented his pass for verification, whereupon he was arrested. The two men in Confederate uniform were actually Union soldiers of the 7th Kansas Calvary.


The two soldiers took Davis to their commanding officer. A search of Davis' effects revealed (hidden in his saddle and the soles of his boots) detailed documentation on Nashville's fortifications, 16th Corps troop positions and movements, and a hand-written record of the entire wartime activities of Coleman's Scouts - addressed to General Bragg and signed "Capt. Coleman." Union General Grenville Dodge, commander of the 16th Corps, immediately took personal charge of Davis' interrogation. The letter to Bragg conclusively identified Davis as a member of Coleman's Scouts, and Dodge wanted Coleman; also, the information on the 16th Corps was so detailed, Dodge was certain Davis had been in communication with an informer in the ranks of Dodge's own officers. Davis was subjected to incessant interrogation for several days, with his inquisitors pushing hard both for the identity of his source for information on the 16th Corps and the true identity of Capt. Coleman. Davis was repeatedly promised leniency (a promise which was escalated to freedom during the interrogation) if he would divulge the names, or death by hanging as a spy if he would not. Little were they aware that Davis not only knew Capt. Coleman's true identity of Henry B. Shaw, he also knew Shaw's location - in the next cell. Shaw had been arrested under his own name as a Confederate soldier on furlough, but the Union troops had no clue that he was their elusive "Capt. Coleman". Throughout all interrogations, Davis revealed nothing to his captors. By all accounts, the Union soldiers (including Gen. Dodge) grew very fond of the young man's courage and his strong sense of personal honor. Many of them wanted Davis to talk so his life would be spared - but the young man remained silent.


On 25 November, a court-martial found Davis guilty of spying, despite the testimony of both arresting soldiers and their commanding officer (Capt. L. H. "Chickasaw" Naron) that Davis was wearing his Confederate uniform when arrested. Davis was sentenced to hang on 27 November 1863. As the gallows on which Davis was to be hung was constructed in full view of Davis' jail cell, the Union officers continued to interrogate Davis. At this point, they were virtually begging Davis to reveal the requested names, so execution of the sentence could be deterred. Davis was ridden from the jail to the gallows in a wagon, sitting on his own coffin. The last soldier to appeal to Davis did so as Davis stood on the execution gallows. Capt. Naron promised Davis his horse, his sidearms, and an escort to Confederate lines if Sam would reveal who gave him the papers he was carrying. Davis' reply is still remembered today, as it echoes the sentiments of Nathan Hale in an earlier war:


"I am but a private soldier in the Confederate Army. The man who gave me this information is worth ten thousand more to the Confederate cause than I, and I would sooner die a thousand deaths before I would betray a friend or be false to duty."


According to some reports, the Union Captain overseeing the execution broke down at the last minute and was unable to pronounce execution of the sentence. Sam Davis' last words before the hood was placed and the trapdoor sprung were directed at the hangman - "Soldier. Do your duty."


Sam Davis was not a Mason - at the time of his execution, he was just seven weeks past his 21st birthday. Davis' display of personal honor and integrity in refusing to betray the confidence bestowed upon him, however, illustrate to the utmost degree the virtues Freemasonry tries to instill in its members. Sam Davis Lodge #661 resides within a mile of the Sam Davis Home (the farm where he lived as a child); however, this Lodge bears Sam Davis' name because of the man, not the location.


Copyright 1998 by Floyd Dennis, Jr.

bottom of page