“Mother, I Do Not Hate To Die”

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The dawn seemed reluctant to break through the dismal skies over middle Tennessee on November 27, 1863, and by ten o’clock the gray clouds had given way to rain. The drops fell on soldiers of the 81st Ohio Infantry drawn up around a gallows on Seminary Ridge, just outside the town of Pulaski, and on a slender youngster in gray seated on a coffin in an army wagon that rumbled toward the hollow square of troops.

The dawn seemed reluctant to break through the dismal skies over middle Tennessee on November 27, 1863, and by ten o’clock the gray clouds had given way to rain. The drops fell on soldiers of the 81st Ohio Infantry drawn up around a gallows on Seminary Ridge, just outside the town of Pulaski, and on a slender youngster in gray seated on a coffin in an army wagon that rumbled toward the hollow square of troops.

One spoken name and Sam Davis, soldier of the Confederacy, just turned twenty-one, would be freed with his sidearms and a safe conduct to his own lines. But that name Sam Davis, in honor, could not speak.

It had been cold and clamp, too, on the night of November 19—not quite eight days before—when the exhausted boy had reined in his equally fagged horse in a thicket on the banks of the Tennessee River near Minor Hill Village and slid from the saddle to rest. Ahead of him lay the crossing of the icy Tennessee and two days’ hard riding to Decatur, Alabama—the “scout line” to General Braxton Bragg’s headquarters. Once he was across the Tennessee, though, he would be comparatively safe. In his boots and in the skirt of his saddle were papers that might mean victory or disaster for Bragg’s army.

He drew his shabby overcoat tightly around him and curled up in the scanty protection of the underbrush. Perhaps he drowsed, but if he did, it was not for long; suddenly a circle of horsemen in dusty blue crashed out of the night, and the young soldier stared into the muzzles of a dozen Yankee carbines. The Kansas Jayhawkers had captured another—and probably the most valuable—of Coleman’s Scouts.

There was no portent of war or tragedy, and certainly none of a hangman’s noose, when Sam Davis was born on October 6, 1842. He was the oldest son of Charles Lewis Davis and his second wife, Jane Simmons Davis. The elder Davis had arrived in Tennessee from Virginia in the late 1820s, and had gradually become one of the wealthiest landholders in Rutherford County. The home at Smyrna in which Sam grew up still stands, an imposing dwelling of classically symmetrical lines, balanced by arrangements of outbuildings, gardens and grounds. (Owned now by the state, the house is maintained by the Sam Davis Memorial Association.) With twelve slaves working the land, Charles Davis was able to spend much time with his growing family. His second wife bore him nine children, while the first had left him with four.

Mr. Davis was a kind and indulgent father, but a stern one, too, when need be. He taught his sons to ride and shoot, to fish, and to tree a coon, but he also taught them to cobble a shoe, plow a straight furrow, plant a tree, and dig a grave. These things they learned quickly, but even more quickly they learned that disobedience or malingering brought a swift and heavy hand. Above all, Davis taught his boys the wisdom of holding one’s tongue, keeping the peace, and never yielding an inch when honor was involved. Sam’s mother was shy and self-effacing, but more than anything she ever said, the influence of her presence, her wordless wisdom, and her faith in God left their imprint on the boy.

When Sam was eighteen he was enrolled in the oldest and most distinctive institution of learning in middle Tennessee: the Western Military Institute of Nashville. It was then headed by Bushrod R. Johnson and Edmund Kirby Smith, both of whom the Yankees would come to know well later as Confederate generals. Sam’s classmates were to say of him, “He was a friend and could be trusted implicitly.”

On April 12, 1861, the guns at Fort Sumter halted Sam’s education abruptly. Three days later, President Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, called on Tennessee Governor Isham G. Harris to provide two regiments of militia. On April 17, he received Governor Harris’ reply: “Tennessee will not furnish a single man for purpose of coercion but fifty thousand, if necessary, for defense of our rights and those of our Southern brothers.”

By that time Sam was on his way home, his decision made. Charles and Jane Davis agreed with him that he should follow his conscience. Tennessee, which was to become the bloodiest battleground of the war next to Virginia, did not commit herself with any blind, impetuous gesture. On February 9, 1861, a vote for secession had been defeated, but after Fort Sumter and President Lincoln’s call for troops to invade the South, Governor Harris and his pro-secession element were able to swing the sentiment. In a second referendum on June 8, 1861, “articles of separation” from the Union (the technical difference between this and outright “secession” is dear to the hearts of Tennesseeans even today) were approved by a two-thirds majority, the opposition centering largely in eastern Tennessee, where slavery was a negligible factor and where United States Senator Andrew Johnson had a strong influence.