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 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.
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.