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“Mother, I Do Not Hate To Die”
A choice between life and honor is a fearful one for any man. Here is the unforgettable story of how it was made by a twenty-one-year-old Confederate private.
February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
On his way to this rendezvous, Sam Davis took time —probably on the night of November 6—to pay what was to be his last visit home. After dark, when he knew the younger children would be safely in bed, he guided his horse cautiously along the banks of the creek to a certain boulder where he and his young brother Oscar had played Indians in their childhood. Hitching the mare to a tree, he crept across the lawn to a side window and peered in, to make sure his mother and father were alone. His mother recognized him through the pane when he tapped, and without a sound she opened the side door to allow her son to slip inside and into her embrace. Charles Davis shook his boy’s hand.
The three of them talked softly of many things while Sam’s mother moved about quietly, fixing something for him to eat. It was important not to wake the children, because they might later inadvertently let slip the fact that Sam had been there. His father noticed that Sam’s boots were broken, and offered to mend them. If he noticed, as he cobbled the boots, the stiff papers hidden in the soles, he said nothing. Sam was carrying new maps of the fortifications around Nashville. If the father’s hands trembled a little as he realized what mission his son must be on and the penalty that could be exacted if he were captured, he gave no indication that would alarm the boy’s mother.
The little time that Sam could spare passed quickly. He peeked through the bedroom door at the younger children as they slept, and murmured a farewell. A last embrace from his mother, a final firm handshake from his father, and Sam eased the door open enough to slip through. His mother noticed the shiver that went through him at the bite of the November night and whispered him back inside; Sam had no coat over his thin, almost makeshift uniform. She had one for him—a heavy one, abandoned because of its weight by a wounded Union soldier along the Smyrna road. This she had carefully dyed to a brownish gray with butternut hulls, against just such a need. Gratefully the boy slipped into the coat, and vanished into the night.
Sam kept his rendezvous on the eighteenth. Known to have been present also were Captain Shaw and two other scouts, Joshua Brown and W.J. Moore. They exchanged their scraps of information, and the scouts memorized Captain Shaw’s important news. It was agreed that everyone would attempt to get through by different routes, but that Sam was to carry the actual messages. The military notes and a letter addressed to the provost marshal of the Army of Tennessee he concealed in his saddle skirts. Into his saddle bags were thrust seven Nashville newspapers, three from Louisville, and one from Cincinnati, together with some personal items for General Bragg. If he were captured, these could hardly be called military contraband. It was hoped that any search would go no further.
Sometime on the nineteenth the scouts broke cover, each on his own. Sam’s route carried him wide of the Federal pickets at Pulaski toward the Tennessee River. Once across, he would be comparatively safe. Then he was to go in a wide circle toward the “scout line” and General Bragg’s army. But General Dodge’s Jayhawkers were doubly alert. Joshua Brown and W.T. Moore were captured, and that night the blue-clad cavalrymen closed in on Sam on the banks of the Tennessee.
The search was not as perfunctory as Sam had hoped. The military papers he carried were quickly discovered in his boots and saddle, and Sam was taken immediately to the provost marshal, Captain W.F. Armstrong, in Pulaski. He stoutly refused to give any information regarding the papers.
General Dodge himself did no better in his questioning when Sam was brought before him the following morning. The prisoner would not tell where or how he got the documents or, more important to General Dodge, who had prepared them. More than forty years later, recalling the meeting, Dodge wrote:
He was a fine, soldierly-looking young man, dressed in a faded Federal coat, an army soft hat, and top boots. He had a fresh, open face, which was inclined to brightness; in all things he showed himself a true soldier; it was known by all the command that I desired to save him. … His captors knew that he was a member of Coleman’s Scouts, and I knew what was found upon him, and desired to locate Coleman and ascertain, if possible, who was furnishing information so accurate to General Bragg. Davis met me modestly. I tried to impress on him the danger he was in, and as only a messenger, I held out to him the hope of lenient treatment if he would truthfully answer my questions. I informed him that he would be tried as a spy and the evidence would surely convict him, and I made a direct appeal to him to give me the information I knew he had. He very quietly but firmly refused to do it. I pleaded with him with all the power I possessed to give me some chance to save his life. I discovered that he was a most admirable young fellow, with highest character and strictest integrity. He replied, “I know, General, I will have to die; but I will not tell where I got the information and there is no power on earth that can make me tell. You are doing your duty as a soldier, and if I have to die, I shall be doing my duty to God and my country.”