Did a Yankee sympathizer promote Sam Davis legend?

BY GREG TUCKER • May 24, 2009

With the cooperation of the occupying Union Army leadership, John C. Kennedy retrieved the body of Sam Davis in December 1863. He also brought home a tale of courage and loyalty that established the young Confederate spy as the "boy hero of the Confederacy."

"I will die a thousand deaths before I will betray a friend," were the famous words attributed to Sam Davis, hung as a spy refusing to betray a friend to save his own life. A memorial to Smyrna’s most significant individual in Civil War history, the Sam Davis home attracts 14,000 visitors annually.

Several mysteries color the Davis legend. Historians generally agree, as did many of his contemporaries, that Davis was betrayed and identified to his Yankee captors by one of his contacts. Who exposed him, and did Davis know before his death the identity of his betrayer? Also, who was Kennedy and what connection did he have with the occupying army and the Davis family?

Before his capture, Davis was part of the Coleman Scouts, who were scouting and spying on the Union Army in Middle Tennessee. Operating under the authority of Gen. Braxton Bragg and commanded by "E. Coleman," aka Captain Shaw, the spy network included several civilians, soldiers and at least two women — Mary Kate Patterson and Robbie Woodruff. (At least one source notes that Davis and Woodruff "were an item" with "thoughts of marriage.")

Ironically, the friend Davis refused to identify (Captain Shaw) was also in federal army custody when Davis was being interrogated. Shaw, however, was held as a prisoner of war, not as a spy like Davis. Shaw was later transferred to a Union POW camp in the north, and was released after the war.

When the Davis family heard "by grapevine" that a young spy had been caught and hung in Pulaski, they feared the worst and requested that a "good friend" (Kennedy) go to Pulaski to "learn the truth." Kennedy was a Kentucky native and relative newcomer to Middle Tennessee prior to the War. According to his own account, he was told: "If it is Sam, do your best to get his body and bring it to us."

Davis’ mother gave Kennedy pieces of cloth from her son’s clothing to enable identification. Lacking personal familiarity, Kennedy relied on the cloth and general description, and the circumstances of the execution, when claiming the body.

Kennedy obviously had strong ties to the leadership of the occupying army, whether business or personal, for he began his quest by going to the headquarters of Gen. Lovell Rousseau in Nashville to get a written pass for travel through various military jurisdictions. These connections were apparently known to the Davis family, since they asked Kennedy for help that could only come through contact with the Union Army.

‘My God — it’s Sam!’

Only two specific references to the Kennedy/Rousseau relationship are known. One refers vaguely to the General’s "obligation to Kennedy for kindness received from him before the opening of the war." Another describes Rousseau and Kennedy as "boyhood friends from old Kentucky." In any event, Kennedy got his pass and with the help of some bluff and bluster, according to his own account, made it to Pulaski.

Kennedy continued to receive Union leadership cooperation, and the body of the spy was quickly exhumed. The identification is recounted as follows: "The height, about five feet seven or eight inches, the apparent age … and the slender build all corresponded to that of Sam Davis. To more fully prove his identity, Mr. Kennedy turned back the coat and compared the lining of the gray jacket with the piece given him by Mrs. Davis. They were alike … he unwound the cords of the hangman’s cap … and, turning back the cap far enough to disclose the upper lip, marked faintly with the young man’s first mustache, he was fully convinced that the body was Sam Davis."

Inquiring as to the exact circumstances of the capture and execution, Kennedy was given a detailed accounting of the boy’s extraordinary conduct and courageous comments during interrogation and prior to the execution. As for the arrest and capture, Kennedy learned that "there was no account of the details of Davis’ capture in the army records." The details were "secret."

Kennedy did learn that during the interrogation Davis was asked: "Are you the man our scouts chased so close on the Hyde’s Ferry pike last Tuesday that you beat their horses in the face with your cap and got away?" Davis’ identity as the individual in this incident was known only to himself and those he had told. The young spy was visibly startled by the question, perhaps realizing the identity of his betrayer, but refused any comment.

In recounting his experience claiming Davis’ body, Kennedy emphasized the deference, respect, admiration and assistance of the Yankee leaders and soldiers when his mission was explained. The message was that even those on the other side of the conflict were deeply moved and impressed by the courage and loyalty of the young spy who refused "to betray a friend."

Kennedy worked in Nashville after the war as purchasing agent for the NC&St.L Railroad. In 1896 he told his Sam Davis story at the January meeting of the Tennessee Historical Society. This initiated the Sam Davis Monument Fund with Kennedy as treasurer.

We define "heroes" based on courageous, unselfish acts, but such conduct must be witnessed and reported to be recognized and celebrated. Certainly the detailed and sympathetic reporting by a probable "Yankee sympathizer" willing to lend his influence to relieve the pain and uncertainty of a grieving family accounts in significant part for the recognition and legend of "the boy hero of the Confederacy."

Kennedy played one more role in the Sam Davis legend. In 1902 when New York sculptor George Zolnay was commissioned to do the statue of the Smyrna native, which now stands at the southwest corner of the State Capitol, he had only written and oral descriptions from which to work. When the initial clay bust was completed, Zolnay — working in Nashville — sought out Kennedy and brought him to his studio without explanation. When the bust was uncovered, Kennedy reportedly exclaimed: "My God — it’s Sam!"

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