Regret can weigh on anyone, even those whose accomplishments and fame seem to belie any hint of guilt.
But General Grenville Dodge made a decision, against the backdrop of the Civil War, that stayed with him until the end of his days. The builder of the majestic house that bears his name could never get the image of this young man out of his head; could never forget that he ordered the death of 21-year-old Sam Davis.
In the closing years of his life, Dodge wrote, “I regretted to see the sentence executed, but it was of the fates of war, which is cruelty itself, and there is no refining it.”
Davis was a member of the southern gentry. He had plans for his life: to marry, have children, take charge of the family plantation and grow old as a man held in high esteem. History, however, would bring him a much shorter life and a greater legacy riddled with complexity.
In early 1863, Dodge was stationed in Corinth, Tennessee, charged with organizing, developing, and managing a clandestine intelligence network to procure information for the Union Army using spies placed throughout the Confederacy. Conversely, the program sought to identify southern spies within Union ranks. Referred to as the “secret service,” Dodge’s program would eventually develop into the Department of Army Intelligence, but in its infancy, Dodge personally nurtured it. Second only in priority to the collection of useful intelligence was the protection of each of his agents and their sources. (Even after the Civil War, General Dodge refused to share the identity of his agents.)
By November of that same year, Union soldiers captured young Davis. Immediately, it was clear that Davis was a courier, not a spy. Davis wore an incomplete Confederate uniform and a dyed Union army overcoat, complete with cap. He had a note from a Confederate general identifying him as a courier. He was arrested along with several others in Confederate uniforms and civilian clothes.
Hidden in Davis’s shoes: an array of material meant for Confederate General Braxton Bragg: newspaper clippings, letters, and information telling the location of Dodge’s troops. But the discovery of papers stolen from Dodge’s battlefield desk and found in Davis’s possession distressed and aggravated Dodge greatly.
Davis appeared before Dodge who warned the young courier he would be tried as a spy and hung unless he divulged the identity of his commander, known only by the alias E. Coleman. Unknown to Dodge, Coleman (real name Captain Henry Shaw) had been captured separately from Davis but placed in the very same prison cell! Not only was Shaw Davis’ commander, but had also been his teacher. Davis refused to identify Shaw, exclaiming as he sat on his coffin, “I would rather die a thousand deaths than betray a friend.”
Many pleaded with Davis to comply. They saw him as a kind, demure, handsome young man, as well as educated and well spoken. Stretching his neck, they agreed, would prove unpalatable. Citizens from nearby towns approached Dodge to plea for Davis’s life. Yet Davis would not relent. In a letter to his mother before his execution, Davis wrote, “Dear mother. O how painful it is to write you! I have got to die to-morrow — to be hanged by the Federals. Mother, do not grieve for me. I must bid you good-bye forevermore. Mother, I do not fear to die. Give my love to all.”
A Cincinnati-based reporter sent the following dispatch: “All nature seemed to be in mourning, and many warm hearts, loyal and true, but more that were not, melted into sympathy. Four companies of the 111th Illinois and two companies of the 7th Iowa were drawn up, forming a hollow square with fixed bayonets, with the gallows in the center of it. Hundreds and thousands were the spectators; the soldiery paraded about the guard; the citizens, gazing with scowls from their dwellings. The Provost Marshal took off the prisoner’s hat, for his hands were tied behind him, and then Chaplain Young, of the 81st Ohio, addressed the throne of mercy in behalf of his soul.”
The officer in charge of the execution reportedly became unnerved by Davis’ youth and calm demeanor and had trouble carrying out orders. Adding to the pathos, Davis purportedly said to him, “Officer, I did my duty. Now, you do yours.”
Soldiers tied a white hood over Davis’ head and sprung the trap door. Many witnesses turned away as Davis writhed in agony for three minutes. “He stood it like a man,” one Union soldier noted in his diary the following day. “He never paled a bit but stood it like a hero.” His friend and commander, Captain Shaw (a.k.a E. Coleman), witnessed the hanging from his jail cell. What was going through Shaw’s mind as he saw his protégée suffer and die on his behalf?
Years later Dodge wrote, “I have often regretted the fate of this young man, who could brave such a death when his life rested in his own hands. His mind was one of principle, though engaged in a wrong cause.”
Dodge would write often of Davis. As the years passed, Dodge possessed more and more reticence about his decision, while the legend of Davis grew. Davis’s martyrdom produced poems, novels and plays about his life. Every schoolchild in Dixie knew the story. He was dubbed the “Nathan Hale” of the South, and citizens of Nashville erected a statue of Davis downtown.
One of the donors was Dodge.
The statue portrays Davis with a rifle over his shoulder, head slightly down, cap off, canteen at his side and conveying a stoic comportment. It is the image of a martyr.
Fast forward to our own day.
The statue of Davis is among those Confederate monuments under scrutiny. What exactly the statue represents generates a wide chasm of opinion. Some say it represents the common young soldier of the Confederacy. They suggest that moving the statue would “erase” and “cover up” history. Others cite that this statue, erected over 45 years after Davis’ death, represents the South’s efforts to generate monuments to celebrate the “noble lost cause” in the midst of racist Jim Crow laws. They see it not as a monument, but as a beacon of white supremacy.
Dodge’s feeling of regret produces ripples that reach out to us today. History is alive and, as always, the past, present, and future are in conversation at the General Dodge House.