October 11, 2013

Had I a thousand lives to give: Memorializing the Boy Hero of the Confederacy

Sam Davis became a courier for the Confederacy after his time as a soldier ended in injury. In November 1863, he was found by the Union Army secreting Union battle plans. He refused to name his accomplice, and his alleged response to his captors became legendary: "If I had a thousand lives to live, I would give them all rather than to betray a friend." Supposedly, even as they were about to hang him as a spy, they offered him another opportunity to save his own life by giving them information. He refused and was hanged. He was 21 years old.

The incident and Davis's commitment to his beliefs inspired many in the South, even after the Civil War. His youth and resiliency inspired his nickname as the "Boy Hero of the Confederacy." On October 11, 1906, nearly 43 years after Davis's capture and execution, local citizens led mainly by women unveiled a statue of Davis in Pulaski, Tennessee near the spot of his death (pictured above shortly after its unveiling; incidentally, the same town has infamous notoriety as the founding place of the Ku Klux Klan). Read at that ceremony was a poem by Alabama-born poet John Trotwood Moore. In fact, Moore's poem, "Sam Davis," had already been published and its popularity helped spread support for the monument and increased Davis's status in collective memory of Tennessee.

"Tell me his name and you are free,"
The General said, while from the tree
The grim rope dangled threat'ningly.

The birds ceased singing—happy birds.
That sang of home and mother-words.
The sunshine kissed his cheek—dear sun:
It loves a life that's just begun!
The very breezes held their breath
To watch the fight twixt life and death.
And O, how calm and sweet and free.
Smiled back the hills of Tennessee!
Smiled back the hills, as if to say,
"O, save your life for us to-day."

"Tell me his name and you are free,"
The General said, " and I shall see
You safe within the rebel line—
I'd love to save such life as thine."

A tear gleamed down the ranks of blue—
(The bayonets were tipped with dew).
Across the rugged cheek of war
God's angels rolled a teary star.
The boy looked up—'twas this they heard:
"And would you have me break my word?"

A tear stood in the General's eye!
"My boy, I hate to see thee die
Give me the traitor's name and fly!"

Young Davis smiled, as calm and free
As he who walked on Galilee:
"Had I a thousand lives to live.
Had I a thousand lives to give,
I'd lose them, nay, I'd gladly die
Before I'd live one life, a lie!"
He turned—for not a soldier stirred—
"Your duty, men—I gave my word."

The hills smiled back a farewell smile.
The breeze sobbed o'er his hair awhile,
The birds broke out in glad refrain,
The sunbeams kissed his cheek again—
Then, gathering up their blazing bars.
They shook his name among the stars.

O Stars, that now his brothers are,
O Sun, his sire in truth and light.
Go tell the list'ning worlds afar
Of him who died for truth and right!
For martyr of all martyrs he
Who dies to save an enemy!

The poem obviously romanticizes the event, showing that the very landscape of Tennessee supported his actions and his decisions. Even the enemy regrets such a strong, young hero should die. The monument of Davis equally romanticizes the subject, showing him with arms crossed defiantly and fearlessly. Whether or not these depictions are entirely accurate is irrelevant; Sam Davis was one of many examples of Southerners creating larger-than-life legends about the Confederacy to give it a positive image.

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