Thursday, April 01, 2021

Small wonder: Where 'Boy Hero of Confederacy' was hanged

The Sam Davis Memorial Museum on Sam Davis Avenue in a residential area of Pulaski, Tenn.

Like this blog on Facebook
 | Follow me on Twitter

In Pulaski, the “Wild Turkey Capital” of Tennessee and original home of the KKK, they honor Confederate spy Sam Davis in the state’s smallest museum on the very grounds where he was hanged by the U.S. Army in 1863.

A copy of this image, purportedly
of Davis, is displayed in the Sam Davis
Memorial Museum.
Literally, as the kids say, on the very grounds.

“The gallows were right here,” says my guide, 76-year-old Sam Collins, as we stand near the middle of the 15 x 22-foot Sam Davis Memorial Museum, dedicated in 1950. (Eerie? Yup, but this tale gets more twisted. Stick with me.)

Soon after we meet, I know I’m going to enjoy the visit with Collins, a gruff, no-B.S. Pulaski lifer who serves as the local historical society VP. The 76-year-old Vietnam vet wears bib overalls and clenches a toothpick between his teeth. Collins enjoys telling stories and life’s simple pleasures – he still uses a flip phone, doesn’t own a credit card, and drives a yellow 1984 Silverado pickup truck. His father was manager at Milky Way Farm, the local estate once owned by candy magnate Franklin Mars. The place produced the 1940 Kentucky Derby champ and enough stories for Collins to fill a book.

Pulaski’s mini-museum must have peaked in popularity decades ago. Visitation over the past few years has averaged roughly 200 people annually, Collins tells me, even fewer since the COVID pandemic hit in March 2020. “Every one of the locals,” he explains, “has already seen it.”

A close-up of the front of the museum.
In Pulaski, Tenn., they salute the humble wild turkey.

The son of slave-owning parents from Smyrna, Tenn., Sam Davis served with “Coleman’s Scouts,” a cavalry/intel unit attached to the Army of Tennessee. On Nov. 20, 1863, the 21-year-old soldier was captured by Union soldiers at Minor Hill, a few miles from the Alabama border, with intelligence regarding the Union Army in Middle Tennessee. Vigilance may not have been embedded in his DNA -- according to local lore, Davis was discovered by Yankees asleep under a plum tree.

Union General Grenville Dodge interrogated Sam Davis,
the Confederate spy. (Library of Congress)
Jailed by the Federals in nearby Pulaski as a suspected spy, Davis was interrogated by the provost marshal and General Grenville M. Dodge, the local commander. Reveal your sidekicks or else, Dodge demanded of Davis. “He very quietly, but firmly, refused to do it,” the general wrote decades later in The National Tribune, a newspaper for Civil War veterans. “I therefore let him be tried and suffer the consequences.”

Found guilty of espionage by a court-martial appointed to try him, Davis was sentenced to death by hanging. On the morning of Nov. 27, on a “pretty eminence, north east of Pulaski, overlooking the town,” he was led to the gallows. The hanging was witnessed by hundreds of Union soldiers, many of whom admired Davis’ bravery as he faced his demise. Dodge, on the other hand, angrily dismissed protests by local citizens, who were aghast by the public execution.

“I want him hung where all of you can see him,” the general said. “There are more of you guilty of his crime – I know it – and if I ever get my hands upon you, d—d you, I’ll hang you upon the same gallows.”

Offered another chance to reveal his informants and thus gain his freedom, Davis again refused. The trap door of the gallows was sprung, and Davis writhed in agony for several minutes.

A bronze plaque mounted on the front
of the museum.
“I remember that when he reached the platform his head struck the noose and that he stood and looked at it for an instant,” an Iowa veteran who witnessed the grim event recalled decades later. “Then the rope was adjusted, a lever was touched, the drop fell, and we marched back to our quarters conscious that we had seen a hero die.”

“All nature seems to be in mourning,” wrote a Cincinnati newspaper reporter who attended the execution, “and many warm hearts, loyal and true, but more that were not, melted into sympathy.”

"It was a heart-rending, sickening sight to me," a 7th Iowa veteran recalled, "and every heart went out to [Davis] in sympathy and sorrow..."

“[O]ne of the fates of war,” Dodge called the hanging.

Three decades after his death, Davis The Spy became a Lost Cause martyr, propped up mostly by the publisher of the Confederate Veteran, Sumner Cunningham. In 1906, Pulaski dedicated a monument to Davis on its public square. Three years later, nearly 4,000 people attended the dedication of a Davis monument outside the Tennessee State Capitol building in Nashville. (Dodge and other Union soldiers donated money for the monument.)

 “In all the glorious gifts or treasure and honor and courage and life and heroic devotion the South had to give, and did give freely,” the Nashville Tennessean wrote about the dedication, “it gave nothing more sublimely noble and heroic than Sam Davis.”

A monument at the site of Davis' capture in Minor Hill, Tenn., near the Alabama border.

In 1926, at the site of his capture, nearly 2,500 people attended the dedication of another Davis monument. “I would rather die a thousand deaths than betray a friend or be false to a duty,” read words attributed to Davis inscribed on the gray-granite stone.

Even more than a half-century after his execution, the mythologizing remained at full blast.

The monument to Sam Davis in front of
 the county courthouse in Pulaski, Tenn.
"The prettiest county courthouse in the 
state," says my museum guide, Sam Collins.
“Highways are being built all over the state,” the Tennessean wrote in 1926. “What highway could be more sacred than a national highway to Sam Davis, perpetuating the memory of his bravery and teaching the younger generation how to live and how to die?”

Streets and at least one park in Tennessee were named after Davis. His boyhood home in Smyrna, roughly 20 miles from Nashville, became a virtual shrine and a state landmark. Davis was practically deified, and his story tugged at the heartstrings of Tennesseans. 

"Sam Davis' death a great American epic," read a headline over a lengthy story about the spy in The Rutherford (Tenn.) Courier in 1942.

At a pageant at the Davis family plantation in 1951, the woman who played the soldier’s mother wept – for real – during a scene. When Davis’ body was brought home during the play, a woman in the audience “fainted and others had to go the back yard to get a grip on themselves.”

In 1999, 137 years after his death, a bronze statue of Davis was installed at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville. Davis was a student at Western Military Institute, a predecessor of the academy. (The statue was removed in 2020.) The "Boy Hero of the Confederacy” eventually had a Tennessee highway named after him, too.

In 1950, the State of Tennessee appropriated $15,000 to build the Pulaski museum/memorial on the very site where Davis was hanged. “[The museum] provides space for numerous historical articles of the Confederate era,” the Nashville Banner wrote the day of the dedication, “that were formerly housed in the brick building on West Madison street [in Pulaski] where the Ku Klux Klan was organized.”

   GOOGLE STREET VIEW: The Sam Davis Museum at 134 Sam Davis Avenue in Pulaski.

Museum artifacts, including the shackles (left) used to restrain Davis on his execution day.

The museum today stands in a residential area on – surprise! – Sam Davis Avenue. In a display case there, iron shackles used to restrain Davis at the execution catch my eye. “That’s about as cool as it gets,” says Collins, a retired science teacher/former school superintendent. Almost as cool is a large, inscribed stone against the far wall – it once marked Davis’ execution site.

Other artifacts and memorabila in the museum are more mundane: books about the boy “hero,” a trunk used by Davis while he was a student at Western Military Institute, two pieces of rock from the chimney of a house the spy used as a hideout, a photo of Davis’ elderly sister, a 20th-century painting of the hanging, group images of Confederate veterans, and a few Civil War-era weapons. There simply isn’t room for much more.

A large, inscribed stone that once marked
the Sam Davis execution site.
The State of Tennessee once asked Collins for an emergency preparedness plan for the museum, among the smallest in the U.S. (A museum inside an elevator shaft in New York City is the teeniest. Or is it the one in a converted shed in Arizona?) “If something happens, you go out the door,” Collins says with a smile about his emergency “plan.” Then he eyes the only exit, five steps or so away.

Before we depart, Collins tells a final story. He points to a depression about 15 yards from a bed of irises in front of the museum. The house that once stood there, he says, was destroyed in a fire. Arson, as it turns out, two decades ago. The woman who lived there was killed by her son, who was convicted of her murder and imprisoned for life.

Yes, these grounds are quite eerie.


-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? Email me here.


-- Cincinnati Commercial, Dec. 8, 1863.
-- The (Nashville) Tennessean, April 30, 1909, May 2, 1926, Sept. 28, 1952.
-- Nashville Banner, Nov. 27, 1950. 
-- Smith, Henry I., History of the Seventh Iowa Veteran Volunteer Infantry During the Civil War, Mason City, Iowa, E. Hitchcock Printer, 1903.
-- The National Tribune, Sept. 15, 1904, July 4, 1907.


  1. Wow - great story and bit of history - thanks John

  2. And to mirror that was the "other" boy hero of the Confederacy, 16 yr old David Owen Dodd of Arkansas who, in a very similar story, met the the same fate.

  3. G'Day John,

    Excellent to finally be able to "fill in the blanks" on this historic incident. I've touched on it before, but never in such detail.

    Many thanks.


    Far North Queensland, Australia