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“Mother, I Do Not Hate To Die”

May 2024
16min read

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Had General Dodge but known it, he would have had to look no further than his own military jail in Pulaski to find the man he wanted so badly. For in the roundup “Dr. E. Coleman,” the herb peddler, had at last been picked up and detained because of his skimpy identification papers.

Again, one wonders why no one connected “Dr. Coleman” with the man whose name was signed to the pass Sam carried. It read:

Headquarters General Bragg’s Scouts, Middle Tennessee, September 25th, 1863. Samuel Davis has permission to pass on scouting duty anywhere in Middle Tennessee or south of the Tennessee River as he may think proper. By order of General Bragg. E. Coleman, Captain Commanding Company of Scouts.

And the letter Sam carried bore the same signature:

Giles County, Tenn., Thursday morning November 19, 1863

Colonel A. McKinstry, Provost Marshal-General, the Army of Tennessee, Chattanooga.

Dear Sir:—I send you seven Nashville and three Louisville papers and one Cincinnati, with dates to the 17th—in all eleven. I also send for General Bragg, three wash-balls of soap, three tooth brushes and two blank books. I could not get a large size diary for him. I will send a pair of shoes and slippers, some more soap, gloves and socks soon.

The Yankees are still camped on the line of the Tennessee and Alabama railroad [evidently Nashville and Decatur]. General Dodge’s headquarters are at Pulaski; his main force is camped from that place to Lynville; some at Elk River and two regiments at Athens. General Dodge had issued an order to the people in those counties on the road to report all stock, grain and forage to him and he says he will pay or give vouchers for it. Upon refusal to report he will take it without pay. They are not taking all they can find. Dodge says he knows the people are all Southern and does not ask them to swear to a lie. All the spare forces around Nashville and vicinity are being sent to McMinnville. Six batteries and twelve parrott guns were sent forward on the 14th, 15th and 16th. It is understood that there is hot work in front somewhere. Telegrams suppressed.

Davis has returned; Gregg had gone below. Everything is beginning to work better. I send Roberts with things for you and General Bragg with dispatches. I do not think the Federals mean to stay; they are not repairing the main points on the road. I understand part of Sherman’s forces have reached Shelbyville. I hope to be able to post you soon. I think part of some other than Dodge’s division came to Lynville from the direction of Fayetteville. One of my men has just returned from there. The general impression of the citizens is that they will move forward some way. Their wagon trains have returned from Nashville. Davis tells me that the line is in order to Summerville. I send this by one of my men to that place. The dispatches sent you on the 9th with papers of the 7th, reached Decatur on the 10th at 9 p.m. … I am with high regard, E. Coleman Captain, Commanding Scouts

Sam could have saved himself by revealing that “E. Coleman,” “Dr. Coleman,” and Captain Shaw were one and the same man, but Sam steadfastly refused to tell anybody anything. To a final plea by General Dodge he replied, “The man who gave me the information is more important to the Confederacy than I.” That left the Federal commander no choice. A court-martial was convened on November 24.

Sitting in judgment were Colonel Madison Miller, 18th Missouri Infantry Volunteers; Lieutenant Colonel Thomas W. Gains, 56th Missouri Infantry Volunteers; Major Lathrop, 39th Ohio Infantry Volunteers; and Captain George Elliott, 39th Iowa, judge advocate. Charges and Specifications were:

Charge 1 : Being a spy.

Specification: In this, that he Samuel Davis of Coleman’s Scouts, in the service of the so-called Confederate States, did come within the lines of the United States forces in Middle Tennessee, for the purpose of secretly gaining information concerning these forces and conveying the same to the enemy; and was arrested within said lines on or about November 20, 1863. This in Giles County, Tennessee.

Charge 2: Being a carrier of mails, communications and information from within the lines of the United States Army to persons in arms against the United States government.

Specification: In this, that the said Samuel Davis on or about November 20, 1863, was arrested in Giles County, Tennessee, engaged in carrying mails and information from within the lines of the United States forces to persons in arms against the United States government.

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.

Dear Mother

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.”

His step was firm as he mounted the gallows and paused for a moment, gazing out over his beloved Tennessee hills. As the hangman stepped forward with a white hood, Colonel E. J. Chickasaw, chief of the scouts of the XVI Army Corps, pushed his horse to the foot of the gallows.

“I want to remind you again of General Dodge’s offer,” he called above the rolling drums.

“What was that?” Sam asked, without turning his head.

“Your life, your horse, your sidearms and safe conduct to the Confederate lines if you will tell who gave you those papers.”

Then Sam turned and, looking down from the gallows, gazed straight into the eyes of the Yankee officer. “I will not tell,” he said firmly. “I would die a thousand times before I would betray a friend.”

Colonel Chickasaw turned away. The hangman adjusted the white hood and the noose. Captain Armstrong closed his eyes as his arm rose, then fell in finality. The gallows rope jerked taut and swung gently in the rain.

Sam Davis “came home” for the last time on December 24, 1863. A neighbor, John C. Kennedy, drove the wagon that rumbled up the long drive to the front veranda where Charles and Jane Simmons Davis waited for their son. Beside him sat Oscar, Sam’s younger brother, who had also made the sorrowful trip to Pulaski. He brought a message from the Yankee provost marshal at Pulaski for the parents of Sam Davis:

“Tell them for me that he died the bravest of the brave, an honor to them, and with the respect of every man in this command.”

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