The sun was shining. No clouds marred the sky. The gallows was tall. Eternity was nigh. Sam Davis was 21 years old.
Sam did not want to die; but he was willing to do so. He had just uttered his last words, “If I had a thousand lives I would lose them all before I would betray a friend or a confidence.” He had been offered his life and a clear path back to Confederate lines if he would give his captors the name of the commander of his unit of scouts, but Sam knew life would not be worth living if he proved himself unworthy of existence. Sam Davis died within a few minutes of uttering those words but one hundred fifty years later his name is still remembered as a synonym for bravery, fidelity, and honor.
Nothing in the early life of Davis marked him as being of heroic stuff. He was born near Smyrna, Tennessee, on October 6, 1842, the son of Charles Lewis Davis and Jane Simmons Davis.
Jane was the second wife of Charles Davis, his first wife having died, and Sam had three brothers and a sister from the first marriage as well as siblings younger than he. The Davis family owned a large farm and some twenty slaves which marked them as a comfortably well-off family, though not by any means were they among the plantation aristocracy.
Sam attended the local schools as a boy and, at age 19, went to Nashville to enroll at the Western Military Academy. This school had a good reputation and included on its faculty Edmund Kirby Smith and Bushrod Johnson, both future Confederate generals. In 1861, when Tennessee declared itself independent and then joined the Confederacy, Sam left school and joined the First Tennessee Infantry commanded by Colonel George Maney. The 1st did its training at Camp Harris at Allisonia before being sent to Virginia on July 10, 1861. In the Old Dominion the Tennessee boys served under Robert E. Lee in the Cheat Mountain Campaign and then under Stonewall Jackson in the Bath Campaign. In February 1862 the regiment returned to Tennessee where it was split into two wings. The wing in which Sam served was sent to Corinth and saw action at Shiloh and around Corinth. The 1st was heavily engaged at Perryville and at Murfreesboro. The winter of 1862-63 was spent near Shelbyville but the army fell back to Chattanooga following the Tullahoma Campaign.
Sometime in late 1862 General Braxton Bragg authorized the organization of a company of 100 men whose duty was to penetrate U.S. lines and collect information. These men would operate in uniform and would carry credentials from army headquarters identifying them as “scouts” but they would still run the danger of execution if caught. Captain B.H. Shaw was chosen to lead this unit but he would always use the name of E. Coleman and the unit would be known as Coleman's Scouts. The Scouts are mentioned in reports of the Battle of Stones River as having brought Bragg information of the U.S. advance. It is not known just when Sam Davis joined the Scouts but it is reasonable to assume that it was early in the history of that unit when the army was located in Middle Tennessee, an area Sam knew well and in which he had many friends and relations from whom he could collect information. We do know that John Davis, Sam's older brother, was an original member of the company and that he helped select the other members.