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A Civil War Story - The Northern General and the Southern Boy Soldier

Thirty minutes north of my home is the city of Pulaski, Tennessee.

a statue of Sam Davis in front of a pretty courthouse
A statue of Sam Davis stands in front of the Giles County courthouse in Pulaski, Tennessee

Pulaski is a charming southern small city, sitting in an area that is home to both farming and modern industries. Among other things Pulaski is home of the University of Tennessee Southern, the STARR Theatre, and the Giles County courthouse. The area is rich in southern traditions and culture as well as southern hospitality.

Setting the Stage

Back during the American Civil War, a few southern towns were of strategic value due to their location along the railroad. At that time the railroad ran from Nashville to Decatur, Alabama and then from Decatur on east to Chattanooga or south to Birmingham. Pulaski was one of those strategicaly important towns. Early in the war the Union Army took control of that railroad line, including the cities of Pulaski and its Alabama cousin city just 30 miles south, Athens, Alabama.

In late 1863, after the Union Army took control of Chattanooga and the surrounding area, it was clear that Union General Sherman was going to march to Atlanta. A key factor in that campaign succeeding was for the blue army to be able to keep Sherman supplied with supplies, including ammunition, food, and medical supplies. That made all railroads going south from Nashville vital to the war effort.

The Northern General

On April 12, 1831 in Danvers, Massachusetts, Sylvanus and Julia Dodge gave birth to a boy and named him Greenville. Greenville Dodge would grow up with a love for railroads. He studied engineering at a military academy and became a railroad engineer.

His career took him to the state of Iowa where he became a successful businessman, banker, and railroad builder. He became a leader in the railroad's westward expansion and in 1859 met an Illinois lawyer also working for the railroad named Abraham Lincoln.

In 1856, while living in Council Bluffs, Iowa Dodge organized the Council Bluffs Guard, a citizen soldier volunteer group. When the Civil War broke out in 1861 Iowa governor Samuel Kirkwood asked Dodge to travel to Washington D.C. to secure weapons for Iowa militia groups to use in the war. Shortly after that, Dodge joined the Union Army and was named a Colonel in the 4th Iowa infantry. Later promoted to Brigadier General, Dodge's units would serve the Union army well not only in battle, but as a railroad builder and repair unit. Dodge would eventually be promoted to Major General.

In addition to his other contributions to the war effort, Dodge developed an intelligence network, a large group of spies, who provided valuable information about Confederate activities and strengths. Some historians write that Dodge's greatest contribution to Union victory was the valuable information that his spy network provided to Union General Ulysses Grant during his campaign to defeat Vicksburg, Mississippi.

The Southern Boy Soldier

In 1842, on October 6 in Rutherford County Tennessee, Charles and Jane Davis were blessed with a baby boy and named him Sam. Sam Davis grew up in the area and later attended Western Military Institute in Nashville. There he was influenced by future Confederate general Bushrod Johnson.

When the Civil War started in 1861, Davis enlisted in the Confederate Army. As a Southern soldier he fought in several battles, including Shiloh and Perryville. After recovering from injuries he suffered at Perryville, be joined a Confederate unit referred to as Coleman's Scouts.

That unit was a group of couriers for the gray army and usually wore Confederate uniforms. Union soldiers called them spies.

Union general Greenville Dodge had been assigned to the south middle Tennessee area in order to keep the railroad lines running. He set up headquarters in Pulaski. In the autumn of 1863 Dodge ordered his men to find and destroy the operations of the Coleman Scouts. On November 20, 1863, Union soldiers captured Sam Davis near Minor Hill Tennessee, just southwest of Pulaski.

Davis was found to be carrying lots of papers and information regarding Union positions and activities, including information from a meeting General Dodge had held just a few days previous. The Union soldiers called Davis a spy and sent to to Pulaski to appear before General Dodge.

The Two Meet

Sam Davis was just a few days shy of his 21st birthday, but his face gave a younger appearance. Because of that many people started calling Davis the "Boy Soldier". A short time after his capture the Northern General met the Southern soldier for the first time.

an old sign about the headquarters of General Dodge
The Sign That Stood Outside the Union Headquarters After The War

General Dodge knew that because of the information that Davis was carrying the Union military court would have no problem convicting Davis as a spy and sentencing him to hang. So when they first met fact to face, Dodge appealed to Davis to tell them where he got the information that he was carrying and in return he would be imprisoned but not hanged. Davis refused to talk.

Years later when Dodge looked back at the event he wrote, "When brought to my office I met him pleasantly. I knew what had been found upon him, and I desired to locate "Coleman" and ascertain, if possible, who was furnishing the information, which I saw was accurate and valuable, to Gen. Bragg. Davis met me modestly... ...I tried to impress upon him the danger he was in and that I knew he was only a messenger, and held out to him the hope of lenient treatment if he would answer truthfully, as far as he could, my questions. He listened attentively and respectfully to me, but, as I recollect, made no definite answer, and I had him returned to the prison."

Davis is reported to have told Dodge, “I know that 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 I am doing mine. If I have to die, I do so feeling that I am doing my duty to God and my country.”

Davis was locked away for a few days and Union spies were sent into the prison pretending to be Confederate captives and try to get Davis to talk to them - but to no avail.

For a second time Davis was brought before General Dodge. Once again Dodge offered for Davis to be imprisoned rather than executed in return for the information that he wanted. A second time Davis refused.

Davis was tried for being both a courier and a spy. He pled guilty to being a courier but not guilty of being a spy. The Union military court found him guilty of both and sentenced him to be hanged.

Dodge also wrote, "I regretted to see the sentence executed; but it was one of the fates of war, which is cruelty itself, and there is no refining it."

It was reported that General Dodge selected a hillside near the center of town for the execution and that when some of the public complained that it should not be done as such a public show Dodge replied, "I want him hung where you all can see him".

On the night of November 26th Davis was allowed to write a letter to his family.

"Dear Mother:

Oh, how painful it is to write you! I have got to die to-morrow morning--to be hanged by the Federals. Mother, do not grieve for me. I must bid you good-by forevermore. Mother, I do not fear to die. Give my love to all.

Your son, Samuel Davis

Mother, tell the children all to be good. I wish I could see you all once more, but I never will any 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. Father, you can send after my remains if you want to do so. They will be at Pulaski, Tenn. I will leave some things, too, with the hotel keeper for you. Pulaski is in Giles county, Tenn., south of Columbia.


On the morning of the execution Davis was taken by wagon to the site of the hanging there on a hill in Pulaski. Davis rode on the same wagon that was carrying the coffin that would soon hold his body.

Before Davis climbed the gallows the Union officer in charge at the site expressed regret for what he had to do. Davis reportedly said to him, "It does not hurt me, Captain. I am innocent and I am prepared to die; so do not think hard of it."

Davis was then presented a letter from General Dodge again telling Davis that he would be spared if he would provide the information that the Federals wanted. Davis replied, "Do you suppose that I would betray a friend? No, sir; I would die a thousand times first!"

At 10:30 that morning, on November 27, 1863 Sam Davis, the Southern Boy Soldier, was executed.

In Closing:

Because so many brave men, both North and South, died in the war, the heroic story of Sam Davis was neither widely recorded nor widely told for many years. Eventually when reporters and magazine writers talked to veterans of the war, the story was relayed as an act of heroism mostly from veterans of the Union Army that witnessed the execution more than southerners.

Greenville Dodge returned to Iowa and the railroad business after the war where he continued to be a key player in building the Transcontinental Railroad. He eventually went into politics and was elected to the US Congress from Iowa's 5th District.

The body of Sam Davis was returned to his family in Smyrna and buried in the family cemetery. The Davis plantation is now a museum and tribute to that hero. A statue of Sam Davis stands in Nashville near the state capitol. And a statue of Davis was erected in 1906 in Pulaski. A beautiful statue, it should be noted that it stands on the south side of the Giles County courthouse and faces south.

Many thanks to the Giles County Historical Society and the County History Museum.

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