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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
To the first charge and specification, Sam pleaded not guilty, relying on his uniform and the wording of the specification, which described the role of a scout, not that of a spy. To the second, he pleaded guilty.
The findings and sentence of the court were swift:
The court finds the accused as follows: Of the specifications, first charge, guilty; of the first charge, guilty. Of the specifications, second charge, guilty; of the second charge, guilty. The court does therefore sentence the said Samuel Davis of Coleman’s Scouts, in the service of the so-called Confederate States, to be hanged by the neck until he is dead, at such time and place as the commanding general may direct. …
Finding and sentence of the commission approved. The sentence will be carried into effect on Friday, November 27, 1863, between the hours of 10 o’clock a.m. and 6 o’clock p.m. Brig. Gen. F. W. Sweeney, commanding the Second Division, will cause the necessary arrangements to be made to carry out this order in the proper manner. …
Sam had expected a verdict of guilty even on the first charge, but he had not been prepared for the severity of the sentence. In the few days left to him, however, he did not waver in his determination to shield Captain Shaw and the espionage organization. To couriers who came now and again from General Dodge repeating his offer of leniency in exchange for information, he gave the same answer: “I will not tell.”
Chaplain James Young of the 81st Ohio Infantry, the unit detailed to carry out the execution, spent much time with the doomed youngster. During Sam’s last night on earth, they talked about war experiences, about home, about anything except the next morning. Together they prayed and sang Sam’s favorite hymn, “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks.” Chaplain Young provided Sam with the paper and pen he asked for and prayed alone while the boy wrote his last letter home:
Pulaski, Giles County, Tenn. Nov. 26, 1863.
Oh how painful it is to write to you. I have got to die tomorrow morning—to be hung by the federals. Mother do not grieve for me. I must bid you good bye for ever more —Mother, I do not hate to die. Give my love to all. Your Dear Son
Mother tell the children all to be good. I wish I could see all of you once more, but I never never [will] no more.
Mother and Father,
Do not forget me, think of me when I am dead, but do not grieve for me, it will not do any good.
You can send after my remains if you want to do so, they will be at Pulaski, Tennessee. I will leave some things too with the hotel keeper for you. Pulaski is in Giles County, Tennessee, south of Columbia.
Chaplain Young was with Sam when the gray dawn broke on November 27 and a wagon creaked up before the tent where they had spent the night. Over the Chaplain’s arm was draped the dyed Federal army coat, all that Sam had to give him. Captain Armstrong and a guard troop watched silently as Sam climbed into the wagon and seated himself on the rough box which was to be his coffin. Muffled drums began to roll as the little procession, silent save for the clop of the mules and the tread of the soldiers, approached the place of execution on Seminary Ridge.
Sam was calm as he climbed down from the wagon and turned to the provost marshal.
“How long have I to live, Captain Armstrong?” he asked.
“About fifteen minutes, Sam,” Armstrong replied. Sam was silent for a long moment. Then: “What news is there from the front?”
Captain Armstrong told him that the Confederates under General Bragg had been sharply defeated at Lookout Mountain on November 24.
“I am sorry,” Sam said, and fell silent again. Then he murmured almost to himself, “The boys will have to fight the battles without me.”
Captain Armstrong looked at the death warrant in his hand and then at the boy. Hardened to war though he was, he almost broke.
“Sam,” he said huskily, “I would rather die myself than execute this sentence on you.”
Sam was in better control than the provost marshal.
“That’s all right,” he replied. “You are only doing your duty.”