“Mother, I Do Not Hate To Die”

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But Sam was already answering roll call in the Confederate Army. He enlisted in Captain William Ledbetter’s Rutherford Rifles on April 30, marching off to the war with the blessings of his parents and the great admiration of his younger brothers and sisters.

In the ensuing year he served under Robert E. Lee in western Virginia, under Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, under Albert Sidney Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard in Mississippi. In August of 1862, Sam, now battle-hardened and battle-scarred—he had been wounded at Shiloh—marched over the mountains into Kentucky, as General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee launched the invasion that was to end in disastrous defeat at Perryville on October 8. Sam was two days past twenty years old.

Just when Coleman’s Scouts became active is uncertain, but there is little doubt that General Bragg, sitting out the summer of 1863 around Shelbyville, Wartrace, and Beech Grove, Tennessee, kept his intelligence corps busy, inasmuch as his Army of Tennessee was in Union-controlled territory and Confederate safety depended on knowing what the Yankees were up to. As Bragg retreated southward and eastward late in the summer, General B.F. Cheatham, Second Brigade commander, called for volunteers to serve as couriers and scouts under Captain H.B. Shaw, his chief of intelligence, to keep General Bragg alerted to Union movements.

Sam volunteered at once and despite his youth was accepted as a scout. Strictly speaking, these men were not spies. They did penetrate Union lines to gather and relay information, but they did so in uniform, with their safety depending on daring and the speed of their horses rather than upon disguise—except for Captain Shaw himself. In the guise of “Dr. E. Coleman,” an itinerant herb peddler, he roamed behind the Federal lines at will, sometimes accepted as a nuisance but never subjected to other than casual questioning. He operated around Nashville, Franklin, Columbia, Smyrna, Pulaski, and other Union-held Tennessee towns with no difficulty at all, meeting his couriers when it was possible and passing along to them what information he had. Only a very few of his own men knew the real identity of “Dr. Coleman,” but the passes they carried, signed “E. Coleman, commanding Scouts, by order of General Bragg,” were never questioned inside Confederate lines. And if identities were vague, the operations of Coleman’s Scouts were not. They became the eyes and ears of the Army of Tennessee.

The pace of war quickened in eastern Tennessee in early fall of 1863. General Rosecrans bluffed Bragg out of Chattanooga, but Bragg turned on him and assaulted him at Chickamauga Creek, twelve miles south of the city. Bragg failed to follow up the success his troops had won, however, and found himself in the futile position of besieging Rosecrans in Chattanooga.

This position was one of potential disaster. General U. S. Grant’s army, freed by the fall of Vicksburg, was moving eastward toward Chattanooga; General W.T. Sherman was marching his troops toward a juncture with Grant; and a part of Sherman’s command, the XVI Corps under General Grenville Dodge, was moving eastward from Corinth, under orders to repair and hold the railway line that ran north from Decatur, Alabama, to Nashville. Grant, now in command of all armies in the west, replaced Rosecrans with General George H. Thomas, who had saved the Union army from complete rout at Chickamauga, and ordered him to hold Chattanooga at all costs. This boded ill for General Bragg, and Coleman’s Scouts redoubled their efforts to keep him informed of all Federal movements—especially those of General Dodge; Grant’s plans for Chattanooga were obvious.

Sam Davis and five other scouts were detailed to the mission of noting General Dodge’s progress across middle Tennessee and passing on their scraps of information to each other for relay. Dodge, however, knew from his own intelligence reports that the Confederates had an accurate knowledge of his movements, and the reputation of Coleman’s Scouts had come to his attention. Indeed, some of the information the Confederates had was so accurate that it appeared to have come directly from General Dodge’s staff. No one connected this with the continued presence of “Dr. E. Coleman.” It seems inexplicable that the coincidence in names should not have been noted. But if it was, the possibility of the bumbling herb-quack’s being a Confederate intelligence officer was discarded as absurd.

In any event, no one bothered “Dr. Coleman.” But by the time General Dodge reached Pulaski and, for some reason of his own, paused to throw up fortifications around the town, the activities of Coleman’s Scouts bothered him to the extent that he ordered the 7th Kansas Cavalry—the Jayhawkers—into the field to capture or break up the Scouts. Several were captured but none with any evidence that would substantiate any action more serious than detention as a prisoner of war.

Early in November, via the grapevine by which they kept in touch, Sam and the other scouts operating in middle Tennessee were summoned to a rendezvous with Captain Shaw somewhere near Pulaski on the night of the eighteenth. He had important information for General Bragg concerning the deployment of General Dodge’s forces and the movement of troops and heavy armament around Nashville.