Harber’s History Lesson: Spymaster Henry Shaw was leader of Coleman Scouts

Susan Harber, The Daily News Journal, May 15, 2017

Members of the legendary group of heroes known as “Coleman’s Scouts”

Henry Shaw of the Coleman Scouts was the son of Thomas Shaw, who came to America from Scotland and settled in both Lancaster, Pa., and North Carolina. Thomas established roots in Robertson County in 1821 and made Clarksville his home. Living a carefree existence, Henry was born in 1826 and had six siblings. He grew up to become a riverboat captain prior to the Civil War and excelled in this vocation.

Shaw (alias E. Coleman) was the head spymaster of Shaw’s Scouts, also identified as Coleman Scouts, of whom Sam Davis served. Shaw was a school teacher in 1856, and Sam was his beloved student. Shaw was educated at the Nashville Military Academy (present-day Montgomery Bell); and he was an active Mason. Shaw married Sarah Ann Yates in Davidson County on May 15, 1845. Sarah bore one child Richard (1847), who was crippled; and they were devoted parents. Historical records indicate Henry and Sarah did not always live together.

In 1863, both Gen. Benjamin Cheatham and Gen. Braxton Bragg of the Army of Tennessee were impressed with Shaw’s military expertise and recommended him as the leader of their skilled cavalry company of 45 secret service soldiers. These men were primarily from both Rutherford and Williamson counties. John Davis, Sam’s half-brother, co-founded this band of scouts and was a right arm to Shaw.

Coleman Scouts were proactive in acquiring the size, disposition and movement of Union forces. The scouts were in three dangerous battles that included Shiloh, Stones River and Chickamauga. Every scout was thoroughly trusted within the operative network to track Union movements and interrupt communications, while gaining military intelligence. The traits Shaw preferred were a man of youth, unmarried, familiar with the terrain of Tennessee, expert horseman, smart and loyal. To enter the realm of his band of agents was a real honor and highly sought by many young Rebels.

Shaw’s command was to perform the illusive task of remaining invisible to Federal soldiers. His pseudonym of “E. Coleman” was his persona and the only name he was ever addressed by a Confederate leader. As he assumed the clandestine appearance of an “old, seedy, awkward man,” Shaw disguised himself in cipher on the battle lines as a handicapped herbal doctor. He was quite a dramatic actor in his role as protector of highly sensitive, secretive information. Shaw moved freely among enemy lines as a spymaster, knowing he would be executed if captured.

In September 1863, the Army of Tennessee heralded victory in the Battle of Chickamauga. Gen. Bragg sent Coleman’s Scouts into Central Tennessee to determine the number of enemy troops moving into Chattanooga as reinforcements. Henry Shaw and Sam Davis were assigned to this important mission. They would carry out the assignment and return to Chattanooga to reveal their observations to Bragg. The scouts trailed the Union Army into Pulaski and counted the number of cannons and regiments, memorizing the information to avoid being captured with documents. Meanwhile, the Yankees were well aware of the famed Coleman Scouts and were constantly on high alert for their presence.

On Nov. 20, 1863, the Jayhawkers captured a 21-year old Sam Davis with a pass signed by E. Coleman. They also secured papers concealed on Sam from the desk of Gen. Grenville Dodge. In turn, Dodge placed great pressure on Sam to identify E.Coleman’s location to save Sam’s life. Yet, Sam refused to betray Shaw and would not name the source of the secret documents for his freedom. He was quickly and illegally tried, convicted and hanged. Gen. Dodge stated after the execution, “This man was too brave to die.” Throughout the ordeal, Sam was chivalrously composed. One of his last statements was, “I had rather die a thousand deaths than betray a friend.” Henry Shaw was indeed his friend to the end.

What the Union unit did not know was that Sam Davis’ leader Henry Shaw had been captured separately near Campbellsville at the Shuler home and was sitting in a jail cell in Pulaski having arrived one day prior to Davis’ execution. From his cell window, Shaw viewed Sam being led to the gallows. The emotions of the day were forever engraved on the soul of this Coleman Scout leader.

Shaw, remaining incognito, was later sent by Gen. Dodge to a prison on Johnson Island on Lake Erie and remained there until 1865. He was not hanged and had his life spared. Nevertheless, tragedy was imminent in 1867, when John Davis, Sam’s half-brother, and Shaw were aboard a steamboat, the “David White,” near Helena, Ark., on the Mississippi River. They had invested in this boat as a newfound profession after the war. A boiler explosion killed them both and thus closed the chapter on a ring of highly skilled scouts. Henry Shaw lived a full 41 years and was buried in a Springfield, Tenn., cemetery. These trusted soldiers from the community of Smyrna followed their abiding authority Captain Henry Shaw … as brave to the end.

Contact Susan Harber at [email protected].

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