Delaware’s Samuel Boyer Davis: A near-death experience

            In this modern age, spies caught in the act in the United States generally are sentenced to long prison terms. During the Civil War years, however, spies, real or suspected, almost always ended up at the end of rope.

            Two of the most celebrated espionage cases in the mid-nineteenth century conflict were that of Timothy Webster and Sam Davis. Webster was a secret agent in Richmond who was exposed while in the employ of the Northern spymaster Allen Pinkerton. Corey Recko describes his life as a spy and death on the gallows in “A Spy for the Union.”

            Davis was a member of the 1st Tennessee Infantry Regiment who volunteered for a newly-formed company of scouts and agents in the service of Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg. Federal forces captured him couriering documents that described Union battle plans. When Davis refused to divulge the name of his contact, he received a sentence of death by hanging carried out on November 27, 1863.

            In one of the strange coincidences during the Civil War, another soldier named Sam Davis served as a spy for the Confederacy and received the death sentence. Lt. Samuel Boyer Davis was a Delawarean from New Castle County.

At Gettysburg, while serving as member of Maj. Gen. Isaac Trimble’s staff, Davis was wounded and captured, but managed to escape from a hospital where he was recovering in Chester, PA. After working his way back into the South, Davis received an assignment at infamous Andersonville Prison in Georgia.

While on a visit to Richmond in 1864, Davis met Sgt. Harry Hall Brogden, a member of the clandestine Confederate Signal Corps. Brogden was a “secret line” facilitator who covertly shuttled agents, contraband, newspapers, and mail between North and South across the Potomac River. He was on assignment to carry important documents through the North into Canada where the Rebels had established a base to conduct special operations into the U.S.

Wanting a break from his assignment at Andersonville, Davis volunteered to take Brogden’s place on this hazardous journey northward. In “Spies of the Confederacy,” John Bakeless relates that Davis crossed the Potomac from Virginia along the secret line route to Pope’s Creek, MD then continued on to Washington, DC.

Along the way he learned the unsettling news that authorities were on the lookout for an agent carrying secret documents. Nonetheless, Davis’ travels took him to Ohio and then Detroit, MI before safely crossing the river into Windsor, Ontario. 

Having completed his mission, Samuel Davis agreed to return to Richmond with messages for officials in Richmond. Some he memorized, but others were written on the white silk lining of his coat sleeves.

One consideration that Davis did not take into account during his trip back into the U.S. was his former service at Andersonville. Ironically, while he was traveling by train through Ohio, Union soldiers who had spent time at Andersonville recognized Davis and confronted him. He at first denied his identity, but finally admitted who he was.

Arrested by a poorly-trained provost marshal in Newark, OH, Davis had ample opportunity to dispose of the documents he was carrying as well as the silk lining inscribed with telltale messages. Nonetheless, he faced a court martial in Cincinnati as an enemy officer in disguise, and received the death sentence.

Scheduled for execution on February 17, 1865 at the prison on Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie near Sandusky, OH, Davis learned unofficially that he would receive a reprieve. President Abraham Lincoln himself had sent a telegram meant to save the condemned man’s life, but his ambiguous wording was misinterpreted to mean the sentence was to be carried out.

Davis watched from his cell as gallows were under construction. The morning he was to climb those steps, crowds gathered to witness the execution. He watched the rope being tested, and a band practiced the Dead March. At the last minute, however, the prison commander arrived to inform Davis, “I have a commutation for you.” The courageous young man who had been reconciled to his fate simply replied, “I am glad to hear it, sir.”

Samuel Boyer Davis would spend time in prison at Fort Delaware and Fort Warren in Boston. He regained his freedom upon release in December 1865 after the Civil War had ended.

Twenty years later, Davis paid a visit to Maj. Lewis E. Bond in Cincinnati, the man who served as judge advocate at his court martial. The two former adversaries had a friendly chat, and Bond curiously asked Davis about his mission that had led to his arrest and incarceration. However, Davis reportedly remained true to his secret service oath and maintained his silence.

For his service to the South, Davis’ name is inscribed on the Confederate monument in Georgetown.

Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts, and Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” a History Book Club selection available at Bethany Beach Books. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website www.tomryan-civilwar.com.