Delaware’s Samuel Boyer Davis: A near-death experience
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.
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
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,
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
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
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,
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit
his website www.tomryan-civilwar.com.