Dark Secrets

An Officer & A Spy: The Two Samuel Boyer Davises

portrait of Samuel Boyer Davis

Samuel Boyer Davis by Thomas Sully (1819)

Colonel Samuel Boyer Davis made his reputation in the U.S. Navy as an officer and a gentleman. He bestowed unusual names on his sons honoring the state he had successfully protected against the British. But his grandson, bearing the same name, would change that reputation forever.

Photos accompanying this post are of the historic houses of Lewes, Delaware and the coastline he helped to protect.

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historic-delaware-lewes-houseSamuel was born on Christmas Day in Lewes, Delaware, 1765. During the Revolutionary War, his father was taken prisoner by the British and so poorly treated that he died soon after his release. Samuel’s widowed mother placed him temporarily in an orphanage. But he developed a love for the sea in his coastal town and joined the French Navy during an overseas trip to France.

During his enlistment, he assisted in the rescue of Baron Pierre de Boisfontaine’s family, caught on the island of Santo Domingo in the midst of a slave insurrection.

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Samuel would marry the baron’s daughter Marianne “Rosa” Elizabeth. With the approaching French Revolution, he resigned his commission in France. The two settled in New Orleans under the Spanish government, where he became such a wealthy sugar cane plantation owner he effectively retired.

The couple had three sons: Horatio, Oscar and Alonzo. Oscar, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, died in 1840; Alonzo also a lieutenant in the Navy, died in 1854 the same year as his father; Horatio, a captain in the 32nd U.S. Infantry during the Mexican war, died in New Orleans in 1857. Alonzo named his son in honor of his father: Samuel Boyer Davis.

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Samuel’s quiet existence ended in 1812 during the outbreak of yet another war. Commissioned by the U.S. Army as a lieutenant-colonel, Samuel returned to his home state. There he was charged with the defense of the Delaware Bay entrance.

(*The home they lived in upon their return to Lewis: Fisher’s Paradise on Pilottown Road, still stands today. It’s on the market, you can tour it here).

Mansion

This is the only photo I could find of Delamore Place, from a Wilmington newspaper when the house was going to be sold by the Bayard family, source.

After the war, Samuel bought an estate in Wilmington, christened Delamore Place. After Samuel’s death, Delamore would pass hands to Ambassador Thomas Bayard.

Bayard was one of the Southern-styled Democrats credited with stopping Delaware from seceding with the South (because he believed in peace, not abolition- he worked against government protection for freed slaves during the rise of the Kl Klux Klan and argued against the 14th Amendment which guaranteed equal protection of the laws to all Americans).

After Bayard’s death the mansion was sold at auction and divided into low-cost apartments. In 1921 it burned in a fire.

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Samuel also lived in Philadelphia were he served in the legislature. After a 1834 Congressional loss, he permanently returned to Delamore Place and wintered on his Louisiana plantation.

In January of 1837, now a widower, Samuel married Sally Janet Jones. His first wife had died several years earlier. Samuel was now 71-years old, his new wife was 21.

Together they had five children: two girls and three boys. The two girls were the youngest, named Elizabeth Victoria and Harriet Harper. Their three sons were more unusually named after the three counties of the state of Delaware: Newcastle, Kent and Sussex; though Newcastle went by their shared middle name: Delaware.

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Samuel Boyer Davis died in 1854 at the age of 89. But his children kept the unusual names going. Newcastle’s son was named Sussex Delaware Davis and his brother Sussex chose the same name for his own son who died before reaching the age of two.

After his father’s death, Kent studied law at Princeton and when he graduated in 1861 at the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War, he dutifully joined the U.S. Marine Corps. During the war, the Second Lieutenant married but less than three months later, and only four months before the war’s end, he would die in Washington D.C. He was 24-years old.

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In a strange turn of events, while Kent served the North, his half-brother’s son, (we’ll call this Samuel Boyer Davis, “Davis” to avoid confusion), served the Confederacy. Davis had been born to Alonzo and his wife in Delaware, but Delaware was a border state (technically a slave state, less than 2% of the population were slaves in 1860) and Davis chose to serve on the southern side.

During the war Lt. Davis was shot through the lung and captured at Gettysburg. He held none of the same affection that the original Samuel Boyer Davis held for Delaware. The lieutenant escaped from a hospital in Chester, Pennsylvania and traveled back south.

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While working for the Confederacy’s Secret Service as a spy (alias: Willoughby Cummings), Davis was recaptured by two Union soldiers. They had been POW’s at Andersonville Prison Camp where Lt. Davis served as second in command. (You can read Davis’ book “Escape of a Confederate Officer from Prison: What He Saw at Andersonville” here.)

Recognizing him, they brought him to Fort Delaware (we visited that in the post “The Art of Surviving, Escaping and Cooking Rats in a Confederate Prisoner of War Camp”).

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Davis was sentenced to be hanged and sent to Johnson’s Island on Lake Erie for the deed. As the date neared, he watched the gallows built and then, that morning, the crowd gather. So it was at the literal last minute when he heard that President Lincoln himself commuted the death sentence, supposedly because Davis had treated Union officers so kindly at Andersonville that he had been removed from his position there.

Despite the show of clemency from Lincoln, Davis was transferred to another prison bound in irons and beaten to the point of hospitalization. Word that he planned to escape Fort Delaware had reached the high command of General Schoepf.

Schoepf and Captain George W. Ahl stood by with pistols, ready to shoot, if Davis resisted the beating they’d ordered. (Both of them are mentioned in the aforementioned Fort Delaware post, famous for the cruelty streaks).

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Davis spent the rest of the war as a POW before being released in December of 1865, more than half a year after the official end of the war. He lived out the rest of his life in Alexandria, Virginia often lending his home to meetings for the Daughters of the Confederacy, of which his wife was vice-president. In 1914, he died in Washington, D.C.

Believe it or not, there are more secrets from this family but you’ll have to wait for my book. 😉

*Kent, Newcastle and Samuel are all buried in the cemetery we visited in “Stories From A City of the Dead.”

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Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11