Maury County’s Almost Boy Hero

The story of Sam Davis is possibly one of the most famous tales from the War Between the States. The young, twenty-one year-old scout was executed in Pulaski, Tennessee even though his Yankee captors gave him several chances to give the name of his informant in order to save his own life. Rather than betray the trust of his friend and informant, he was hanged by the Federals on November 27, 1863 and took the secret with him to the grave.

As his story made its way across the South, many began referring to Sam Davis as the “Boy Hero of the Confederacy” or the “Confederate Nathan Hale.” A play and several books have been written to chronicle the young life of Sam Davis. Numerous memorials have also been erected, including three statues in Tennessee—one being on the grounds of the State Capital Building.

One of Maury County’s own, Mr. Billy Moore, nearly became a young martyr himself. Moore and Davis both served in the Coleman Scouts, both were arrested within a day of each other, and were held prisoner in the Giles County Courthouse at the same time. Fate had other plans for Billy Moore, it seems.

Born in Maury County, Tennessee as William James Moore in 1840, Billy enlisted in Voorhies’ 48th Tennessee Infantry in the fall of 1861 and was surrendered as Fort Donelson fell on February 16, 1862. He spent the next several months imprisoned and sick in Fort Morton, Indiana on the outskirts of Indianapolis.

According to his granddaughter, Frances M. Stephenson, the Yankee doctor assigned to care for the Confederate POWs was so concerned by Billy Moore’s condition he tried to talk to the young soldier into taking the Oath in return for his release. Moore refused because he knew that he was going to rejoin the Confederate Army as soon as he was exchanged or escaped and he did not want to take an oath he knew he was going to break. (This so impressed the Yankee doctor that he remembered Billy Moore’s name and looked him up after the War.)

After finally being exchanged in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Billy Moore returned to Middle Tennessee and was assigned to Coleman’s Scouts. Captain Henry B. Shaw was the commanding officer of the scouts. He used the name “E. Coleman” as an alias in order to hide his true identity. Although a complete listing of the men that served under “Coleman” is not available, it is easy to believe they were at least one hundred members strong. These men had cunning, were daring, and knew the lay of the land—all of these qualities were necessary to be a successful scout.

It was in this band of Confederate scouts that Billy Moore and Sam Davis became acquainted. With just a couple of years difference between them, the two became friends and were often riding companions as they conducted missions gathering information or delivering correspondence for E. Coleman. It was on one such occasion that Billy Moore met the lady that was to be his wife.

Billy Moore and Sam Davis, along with their commander, Henry Shaw, were riding together near Florence, Alabama. The trio happened upon a gospel meeting and decided they would sit and listen. A young Virginia Scruggs sat near the front row. Bored with the preaching, she looked around the congregation to see who was in attendance and that’s when she caught a glimpse of the three Southern Scouts. One stood out from the rest—or loomed above them, rather. Billy Moore stood at six feet and two inches tall in stockinged feet and weighed less than one hundred pounds. Tall and skinny, this glimpse of Moore left an impression on Virginia Scruggs and after the meeting, the two were introduced and a romance was kindled. The two would be married in 1865 when the war ended, but, for now, the war was still raging.

Billy Moore

Billy Moore

Billy Moore was sent across the Tennessee River to deliver some papers to Alabama in November 1863. Despite the fact the Federal Army was in Pulaski, Captain Shaw (Coleman) met Moore in Giles County. He had more papers he needed taken across the Tennessee River.

Moore told his captain that he’d need a new horse before he could go on another mission, so, with Shaw’s permission, Billy Moore took the papers and rode to Columbia to change horses. On his way back to Giles County, Billy Moore was south of Columbia on the Pulaski Pike and was just about to ride past the Foster Farm when he noticed a light in the window. Thinking it odd, he decided to stop and investigate.

With a pistol in his hand, Moore knocked on the door. After being let into the house by a young slave, he was conducted to the parlor. When the parlor door opened, Moore was welcomed by three Yankee officers with drawn guns pointed at him. There was no way to escape.

Luckily, the Yankees did not search Moore. They had no idea that he was carrying secret information from the illusive Coleman. Billy Moore told his captors he was cold and they were kind enough to move him to a seat in front of the fireplace. When the Yankees weren’t looking, Billy reached into his jacket, removed the papers, and tossed them in the fire.

His granddaughter wrote, “The Yankees were astounded, but the papers were irretrievably gone. Later, when offered food, Moore adroitly chewed up his identification papers, along with the corn-pone and bacon, and washed it all down with a gigantic swig of buttermilk.”

Billy Moore was taken to the Giles County Courthouse and held there as a prisoner. In just a few days, another prisoner would arrive; one that Billy Moore knew. It was Sam Davis.

Unlike Billy Moore, Sam Davis was not lucky enough to get rid of his papers. The papers included details about Federal troops and fortifications. Ironically, the papers were intended to be carried by another man—a man already in jail. Billy Moore.

In his own words, Billy said in an interview with Frank H. Smith, “The papers that Sam Davis had on him when he was hanged had my name on them instead of his, and had written on them to Gen. Bragg that I was to carry them out to him. Davis got in the next day after I was captured, and Shaw sent him on with the papers.”

Davis was thrown in the Giles County Courthouse and officially charged with espionage. He was to be executed by hanging. Only one thing could save his life—if he revealed the name of his informant. This, Sam Davis refused multiple times. His famous quote being, “I would rather die a thousand deaths than betray a friend.”

One thing Sam Davis and Billy Moore both knew was that it really did not matter if Davis gave up the name of his informant. He would probably still be executed or, in the least, kept captive the remainder of the war. Billy Moore, in his interview with Frank Smith, told of another of Coleman’s Scouts that had been captured: “Dee Jobe was one of our scouts. The Yankees caught him, swung him up by the thumbs, cut his tongue out, and left him to die.”

The only way out of this was to escape.

Sam Davis seemed to be the focus of their captors, so Billy Moore used this to his advantage and looked for ways to make his escape. Just as he had done when captured, Billy Moore complained. This time, he told them he was too warm. His jailers took him to a nearby window and opened it, allowing Moore to sit and take in some cool, November air. That wasn’t all he took in, though. He noticed the sentries down below and the changing of the guards and how often they made their rounds.

He saw that one sentry was not very attentive to his duties. Once the guards had made their rounds, that’s when Moore decided to try it. He jumped from the second-story window and crashed into the Square below. Just as he thought, the nearby sentry had not noticed. Billy Moore crawled into a ditch to take cover until he was ready to make his move. Seeing the sentry was still oblivious, Moore got up and made a run for it—no one, including the sentry, seemed to notice.

The next day, as Billy Moore dodged Yankee pickets and patrols on his way north to Columbia, Sam Davis was executed on a hill overlooking Pulaski. Having returned to Columbia, Billy Moore acquired a new horse and rejoined the scouts. He served until the end of the War, then he married his sweetheart. The two would live out their days in Billy’s family home, Locust Hill.

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Billy Moore’s “Locust Hill” still stands today on Mooresville Pike. 

Billy Moore died in 1913. He is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery just steps away from the Confederate Monument. A fitting place, as in his heart, he was still a Confederate. He had never taken the Oath.

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Billy & Jennie Moore’s monument in Rose Hill Cemetery. The Confederate monument and section is in the background.

Maury County’s Worst Christmas

Maury County has seen many joyous Christmas seasons since its founding in 1807. With so many cheerful tales of Christmases past, it would be hard to single one year out as the best Christmas in local history.

But, one year is agreed upon as the worst Christmas Maury County has ever seen—Christmas 1864.

Frank H. Smith, in a special December 1904 edition of the Columbia Herald, wrote, “At this, the most prosperous Christmas tide that Maury County has ever known, it may be interesting to recall some incidents of this season forty years ago, the gloomiest and most depressing holidays our country ever had.”

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Frank H. Smith (third from the left) sits on the front porch of the Athenaeum Rectory with his siblings.

Why was this the “gloomiest and most depressing” Christmas? Simply, the Civil War was the cause of this county-wide depression.

After the fall of Atlanta, Confederate General John Bell Hood had a radical idea. He would invade Tennessee and take the fight to the enemy. If things went according to his plan, he would take Nashville and march further north, linking his army with Lee in Virginia where they could prolong or possibly win this war that had been raging since 1861.

In late November, Hood and his men swept the Union forces north from Pulaski and across Maury County. Cornering the Yankees in Spring Hill on November 29th, Hood was poised to win the first major battle of his plan. But, it didn’t happen. During the night of the 29th and morning of the 30th, the Union Army slipped through the hands of the opposing Southern army, marching north towards Franklin.

The Confederates awoke to find the fields opposite of them empty. Hood, “wrathy as a rattlesnake” as one subordinate called him, ordered his men north in pursuit of the Federals. They would catch up to the Union Army at Franklin and find them heavily fortified. Hood, still upset about the blunder the night before, ordered his men to attack. Just before dusk, the Confederate Army descended Winstead Hill, marching north toward the Union lines, the evening sun gleaming off of their bayonets.

The men would fight well into the night. In the end, the fighting would be hand-to-hand.

As the sun rose over the grisly scene, witnesses would say that a person could walk across the battlefield and never touch the ground as bodies covered every surface. The citizenry of Franklin emerged from their hiding places and began the overwhelming task of tending to the wounded. With so many wounded in Franklin, wagons were soon loaded with injured soldiers and driven south to Maury County.

Several dead officers were also brought to Columbia. Frank H. Smith wrote, “Generals Cleburne, Gist, Strahl, Adams, and Granberry gave up their lives for the cause they believed right. I think that all of these bodies had been brought to Columbia the second day after the battle.” Funerals were held for the generals and, in a haste, these men were buried in the pauper section of Rose Hill Cemetery. Some of the generals were even placed in pauper’s caskets, as “proper” coffins could not be found in Columbia. Later, the generals would be reinterred in the graveyard at St. John’s Church.

As Columbia dealt with the dead and wounded, General Hood was busy moving what was left of his army north. The Union forces at Franklin dealt Hood a crippling blow, but he was intent on seeing his plan through to the end. On December 15th and 16th, the forces of Generals Hood and Thomas fought on the hills surrounding Nashville. Hood’s forces were routed on the 16th and his army was never an effective fighting unit again.

Hood’s army retreated south, the same route it marched north, and soon this defeated force was in Maury County. The men, demoralized, hungry, and threadbare, took what they could to feed and warm themselves. There wasn’t much for them, though. Both the Union and Confederate armies had stripped the farms and homes of resources when they were in the area not even a month earlier.

In Columbia on December 20th, Hood placed cavalier Nathan Bedford Forrest in charge of the army’s rear guard with orders to hold Columbia as long as possible. With the bridges burned, Union forces rested in the rain and sleet of present-day Riverside while they waited on the pontoons to arrive. Forrest and his rear guard did what they could to check the Union advance. By Christmas Eve the Yankees would be in town.

A member of Forrest’s rear guard, I. N. Rainey would later write a diary of his wartime experiences. Being a Columbia native, he was given a three-day furlough to spend Christmas with his family. He wrote, “By Mother’s request, I invited several of my messmates to spend the night of Christmas Eve ’64 with us… The Yankees were in town, the skirmish lines between us and the courthouse.” Rainey’s home, Woodland, is now Woodland Park.

Rainey and his messmates spent Christmas Eve at Woodland and woke up early for Raineybreakfast on Christmas Day. While he and his friends ate, his younger brother stood watch in case a Yankee patrol happened by. Sure enough, his brother ran into the dining room shouting that the Yankees were coming through the front gate, roughly 300 yards from the house. Rainey and his friends rushed out the back door of the family home and to the barn, followed by his parents and siblings. As they mounted their horses, he kissed his mother goodbye and rode away, waiting for the report of the Yankee guns.

It never came. As soon as Rainey and his fellow soldiers crested a hill, they swung around to find the Yankee soldiers waving their hats at the fleeing Confederates. Rainey and the other Confederates returned their wave and galloped off, thankful his parents would not have to witness a gunfight on Christmas Day.

From Woodland, the small band of cavalrymen road to Pulaski Pike. Rainey wrote, “My brother Joe stood in the middle of the pike shooting as fast as he could load at the opposing line between him and the public square.” The opposing line was a blue tide that could not be stopped, however, and the rear guard would be pushed further and further south until it was out of Tennessee.

After weeks of tending and burying wounded men—many of them possibly family or friends—and witnessing fighting in the streets of Columbia on Christmas Day, it is easy to see why the Holiday Season of 1864 was one of the worst on record. To make matters worse, many citizens were like the southern soldiers—cold and without food.

Smith wrote: “The suffering for fuel was very great in town; there were no teams in the country to haul wood (coal was almost unknown here then) and if there had been teams, the roads were nearly impassable, and if the teams had come to town they would have been ‘impressed’ at once. Dead shade trees were at a premium, and many a green tree was used for fuel, with fences, outhouses and old furniture used to help many them burn… But the greatest suffering was for food. The country seemed to have been stripped of everything eatable…”

Frank H. Smith, a resident of the Athenaeum Rectory, was a teenager in 1864, still too young to fight in the War like his two older brothers. He was able to feed his family this Christmas by sneaking into the stables of the Columbia Institute where the Union officer’s horses were stabled. There, he stole some of the dried corn being used as fodder and his mother was able to grind it into meal for cornbread.

In 1904, Smith ventured there may have been one happy man in Maury County in 1864—Union General George Thomas. While pursuing the Confederate rear guard, Thomas stopped at McCains Presbyterian Church. While there, he received the telegram appointing him to the rank of Major General. Smith may have been wrong, though. Some report General Thomas said the appointment to Major General was too late to be appreciated. (He felt he deserved the appointment after the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863.)

Despite any problems we think we may have, compared to 1864 the size of our problems should seem to diminish a bit. Count your blessings this Christmas. We have so much to be thankful for.

Merry Christmas!