Why does the legend of Sam Davis endure?

December 16, 2007, Mike West, The Murfreesboro Post

“Google” the phrase “Confederate hero” on the Internet and you will get thousands of hits with many of them mentioning names like Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. So why does the memory of Confederate scout Sam Davis still endure?

Smyrna can thank Sumner Archibald Cunningham for that honor.

Cunningham, a Confederate veteran himself, was the founding editor of the monthly Confederate Veteran magazine. A Bedford County native, he served in the 41st Tennessee Infantry and fought with the Army of Tennessee at Franklin and Nashville.

After the war, Cunningham wrote a book about his experiences and launched a career in journalism. By 1885, he was a popular columnist at the Nashville American published by Edward Ward Carmack. While there, he got involved with a group of Southern newspaper men who were promoting plans to construct a memorial for Jefferson Davis.

While Carmack went on to be a powerful voice for the temperance movement in Tennessee, Cunningham became one of the most important figures in the Lost Cause movement.

Carmack’s push for a ban on alcoholic beverages led to a run for governor that divided the states Democratic party. He was assassinated in 1908 by Robin Cooper, the son of his rival and former boss, Duncan Brown Cooper.

Carmack had encountered the father and son on the streets of downtown Nashville. He fired the first shot, wounding Robin Cooper who returned fire, killing the newspaperman instantly. He became a martyr for prohibition and a statue of Carmack, created by noted Nashville sculptor Nancy McCormack, was commissioned by the Tennessee General Assembly. The sculpture still stands on Capitol Hill in Nashville, ironically, over the entrance to State Capitol tunnel, which is named in honor of Sen. Reagor Motlow. The Motlow family once owned Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg.

About that same time, a second statue was commissioned for Capitol Hill. This one, Cunningham, described as the highlight of his career. This sculpture was to perpetuate the story of Sam Davis, The Boy Hero of the Confederacy.

Romanian born artist George Julian Zolnay, later called the Sculptor of the Confederacy, won the commission. He is best known for his bust of Edgar Allen Poe and for the Jefferson Davis Memorial in Richmond. He was a sculptor in New York when the Davis work was crafted.

The Sam Davis statue was more than a monument to a single soldier. It was a study in reconciliation for antebellum Southern culture. Standing relaxed with one leg slightly bent, Davis looks calm in the face of impeding death. His chin is tilted up and his gaze looks firm and resolute. His arms are casually crossed with an air of defiance.

Zolnay and his Sam Davis statue became national news at the turn of the century. Even the New York Times featured the sculptors effort to capture his spirit.

But Cunningham and the Confederate Veteran were chiefly responsible for the statute and for pulling the story of Sam Davis out of obscurity.

The monthly magazine was developed out of a newsletter Cunningham established as a way to keep donors to the Jefferson Davis Memorial fund informed about progress on the project, which still stands in Richmond.

Founded in 1893, the Nashville-based magazine was popular due to its low cost ($1 a year) and its efforts to memorialize the story of rank-and-file Confederate soldiers.

By 1904, it had the highest circulation of any Southern magazine. John A. Simpson, Cunningham’s biographer, said the Confederate Veteran was an outstanding example of personal journalism, closely reflecting the opinions and prejudices of its proprietor.

With the Jefferson Davis Memorial complete, Sam Davis became Cunningham’s new project.

He began to piece together his story from a variety of sources. Much of his information came in the form of letters from people who actually knew Davis or participated in the events surrounding his death. He depended greatly upon letters written to the magazine from people like Mary Kate Patterson, who married Davis older brother, John G. Davis.

In a February 1896 letter, she recounted the last time she saw him alive. Like so many others of the era, the Civil War was her glory days and she spent the rest of her long life trying to recapture that feeling.

Married three times, she was left alone and penniless after outlasting three husbands. Her first, John Davis, was killed during a steamboat explosion along with H.B. Shaw, the commander of Coleman’s Scouts.

Other members of Coleman’s Scouts also wrote Cunningham, as did Union veterans, the most notable one being Gen. Grenville Dodge, who sent Davis to his death on the gallows.

Dodge had received the brunt of the criticism regarding Davis execution and was the focus of several letters written to Cunningham who weaved them into a commentary reflecting his own opinion.

For example, there was a letter from former Coleman scout R.B. Anderson of Denton, Texas, who protested Davis being considered a spy.

If Sam Davis was a spy, every man in the Confederate army captured inside of the Federal lines was a spy. If Sam Davis had done as Dodge wanted him to do, he would not have been worthy of a place in the Capitol grounds of Nashville, Anderson wrote.

Dodge felt compelled to respond to allegations raised by Cunningham in his magazine and ended up giving his account of Davis arrest and execution.

The ex-Union general also gave a donation for the statue. “I appreciate fully that the people of Tennessee and Davis comrades understand his soldierly qualities and propose to honor his memory,” Dodge wrote. “I take pleasure in aiding in raising the monument to his memory, although the services he performed were for the purpose of injuring my command, but given in faithfully performing the duties he was assigned to.”

Thus fanning the flames, Cunningham organized fundraisers for the Davis statue, which he said would reflect courage and firmness of the Confederate soldier element.

The Tennessee General Assembly finally endorsed the concept in 1899 and passed a joint resolution creating a committee that was authorized to erect the statue when $5,000 was raised. At that point, Cunningham’s fundraisers had gathered $2,100.

By 1902, sculptor Zolnay was already at work on the Davis project. He told a writer for the New York Times about his enthusiasm for the young soldiers story. Mr. Zolnay heard this story while visiting in Nashville, and became fired with the desire to immortalize this sublime heroism in bronze, a March 23, 1902, New York Times article said.

The reporter said Zolnay met with Davis parents, his sister and veterans who knew the scout, but was unable to obtain a photograph or image of him.

Other sources speculate that the artist used the face of Andromeda, his sister, for inspiration. Under the circumstances, he did not propose to make a physical likeness of Sam. He thought only to embody in his work the spirit of youth and heroism to create the ideal Sam Davis.

For weeks he dreamed of nothing else, the reporter said. Eventually, he completed a bust and invited John Kennedy, the man who brought Davis body back to Smyrna for burial, to view it in a Nashville studio. He expected Mr. Kennedy to say: “A pretty bust. Who is it?” Instead the veteran gave a sudden start. “My God! Sam!” he cried, and throwing his arms about the statue, he burst into tears, the Times reported.

The completed bust and the publicity generated for it helped push Cunningham’s fundraising drive to completion, but Cunningham had been pitching the story of Sam Davis at Confederate veterans events for years.

One perfect example was the May 24, 1896 meeting of the Cheatham Bivouac of the United Confederate Veterans at Sam Davis gravesite.

That event, organized by Cunningham, was covered by the Nashville American newspaper. James Trotwood Moore was another writer who championed Sam Davis, collecting much valuable information after he was named state librarian and archivist in March, 1919.

A poem, entitled ‘Davis was too brave to die‘ by Moore, accompanied the newspaper coverage.

Another early advocate of Davis was Bromfield L. Ridley of Smyrna, who featured him extensively in his ‘Battles and Sketches of the Army of Tennessee‘, written in 1906. Ridley was a classmate and playmate of Davis.

There may have been soldiers who would have done as he did, yet we know that under the most trying circumstances he sealed his faith with his blood and offered up his life on the altar of duty rather than betray his friends and country.

The respect that we pay his memory today is the outpouring of a sentiment that actuates every Southern heart. The coming ages will place his character forward as a typical Confederate soldier and as an American, Ridley said.

The Sam Davis Statue was ultimately completed and unveiled to great acclaim in June 1909. Meanwhile, his story continued to grow.

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