Story of David O. Dodd
Owen Dodd was born in Victoria, Lavaca County, Texas, November 10, 1846.
At age 17 in 1863, he was a dark-haired boy of slight build and a winning
personality. His father, Andrew Dodd, and his mother, Lydia, were married
in a village somewhere south of Little Rock and immediately moved to Texas
where David and his sisters, Leonora and Senhora, were born. Records provide
little insight into Andrew Dodd's means of livelihood, but his movements
indicate he earned his living in some sort of itinerant enterprise. David's
sister Leonora died sometime before the war.
David was 10 years old, the family returned to Arkansas and settled in
the environs of Benton. It was there that David attended school for the
first time. His sister Senhora was sent to Little Rock to live with her
aunt, Mrs. Susan A. Dodd, and to attend school in the capital city. In
the fall of 1861, the Dodds moved to Little Rock to be closer to Senhora,
and David transferred to St. John's College, out beyond the arsenal, where,
ironically, he was to die two years later.
Dodd family remained in the capital city until August 1862 when Mr. Dodd
and David traveled to Monroe, Louisiana, leaving the boy's mother and sister
with Mrs. Susan Dodd. David was now 16 and he took a job in the telegraph
office in Monroe, staying with relatives there during the fall and early
winter of 1862 while his father traveled to Mississippi to enlist, as he
told David, in the Confederate army.
January 1863, David quit his telegraph job in Monroe after about four months
employment and went to Grenada, Mississippi. There, curiously, he found
his father not in the Confederate army but operating some kind of store.
For the next nine months, David worked for his father and then, in September
1863, he began his fateful journey back to Little Rock.
Union, meantime, had taken Vicksburg and word had just reached Grenada
that Little Rock had fallen. So Mr. Dodd went to Union military headquarters
and obtained a pass for David to go to Little Rock to bring his mother
and sister to Mississippi.
back in Little Rock, David took a job clerking in a Main Street store (perhaps
the mercantile establishment of Alderman Henry). There being no mail service
at this point in the war, three months passed without Andrew Dodd receiving
any news from his wife, his son or his daughter. So the husband-father
crossed the Mississippi, traveled north through Confederate Arkansas and
sneaked through Union lines at night. Reunited with his family, Dodd immediately
arranged through friends and relatives to have a wagon waiting for the
family beyond Union lines south of Little Rock, and on December 1, 1863,
under the cover of darkness, the father, mother, son and daughter traveled
cross-country toward Benton.
week later, the Dodds arrived in Camden, and a curious thing happened.
Mr. Dodd went to the headquarters of Confederate General James F. Fagan
and obtained a pass for David to return to Little Rock, ostensibly to wind
up some family business. David subsequently admitted that he delivered
letters to several of his acquaintances on his re-arrival in the city.
moved in with his aunt, Mrs. Susan Dodd, and for the next couple of weeks
he was a popular figure with the city's younger set, especially the girls.
There were, after all, very few teenaged boys left in Little Rock, except
for some of the Union soldiers. David even became popular with some of
the younger servicemen stationed at the arsenal, especially because he
usually was accompanied by a local girl or two.
December 28, 1863, David visited the Provost Marshal's office at St. John's
College (several hundred yards southwest of the arsenal) and had no trouble
obtaining a pass through Union lines to rejoin his family in Camden.
headed out the Benton Road, riding a mule, showing his pass to Union sentries
at the city line and again at a point eight miles from Little Rock, where
the outpost sentry tore up the pass, explaining to David that he would
have no further need for it because he was entering Confederate territory.
short way farther on, David detoured to spend the night with his uncle,
Washington Dodd, who had lived in the area for years. He obtained some
pocket money and a handgun from his uncle, and the next morning, December
30, he resumed his trip south. He took a crosslots route back to the Benton
Road, instead of returning the way he had come to his uncle's house, and
this proved to be a fatal mistake. Had he followed his earlier route, David
would have stayed in Confederate territory. But his cross-country course
took him back through an area controlled by the Union, and it was there
he encountered a foraging party of Union cavalrymen.
by these horsemen, who demanded to see a pass or other identification,
David tried to explain how his pass had been destroyed the previous evening
by the last Union sentry he met. But the foragers were not convinced. They
forced the boy to ride his mule alongside them as they led him back to
the sentry post. As it happened, the sentry who tore up David's pass was
no longer on duty. So the cavalrymen took their captive to the nearby guardhouse
to be questioned by the lieutenant in charge of the guard south of the
city. This officer, too, became suspicious when David was unable to produce
personal identification. So he ordered him to empty his pockets. The money,
both Confederate and Union, did not surprise the officer. Neither did the
handgun. Anybody traveling in remote areas without at least a pistol would
be thought foolhardy. Some letters David was carrying to relatives and
friends in south Arkansas caused no concern, but a memorandum book aroused
curiosity. The officer found most entries in the book innocuous, but one
page, written entirely in Morse Code, prompted him to arrest the boy on
suspicion of espionage and send him back to Union headquarters at the arsenal
in Little Rock.
Steele called in a telegrapher from the Little Rock telegraph office to
decode the suspicious page of David's memorandum book. The result was formal
charges of espionage and formation of a Court Martial to try the case.
The Morse Code in the memorandum book proved to be a highly accurate synopsis
of Union strength in Little Rock, even listing the number of artillery
pieces in certain units.
two days, David Dodd was questioned by Federal military officers who were
extremely anxious to identify the Union "traitor" who gave him
detailed information about Little Rock defenses. They also demanded to
know for whom David was working. Some histories claim the youngster steadfastly
refused to answer either question, but Walter Scott McNutt's Elementary
History of Arkansas maintains, without attribution, that David blamed
General Fagan in Camden for his plight. He reportedly told Union investigators
that Fagan refused to issue him a pass to Little Rock through Confederate
lines unless he agreed to spy.
was now committed to the State Prison to await trial. The military tribunal
convened January 2, 1864, at the arsenal with General John Milton Thayer
as the presiding officer of the Court Martial. The trial record indicates
the boy was asked repeatedly to name the Union traitor and the person to
whom he was directly responsible. But in the four days the Court Martial
lasted, David kept silent. His attorneys, William Walker, who was hired
by Alderman Henry, and William Fishback, who later became Governor of Arkansas,
had little but David's ignorance on which to base a defense, and the defendant
made only a feeble effort to explain his Morse Code information as something
he did to exercise his telegraphic skills. The boy did not take the witness
stand, but his attorneys submitted a written deposition of his testimony.
Court Martial lasted four days. David Dodd was convicted of spying for
the Confederacy and was sentenced to be hanged at the discretion of General
Steele. The boy was immediately transferred back to the State Prison to
await his execution, and General Steele designated Friday, January 8, 1864,
as the fateful day.
happened in the two days between David's conviction and his hanging. But
through it all, there was no indication that the boy was ever other than
stoical. Troops immediately set to work constructing a gallows on the front
campus of St. John's College, but as the execution would demonstrate, the
Yankees were much more adept at killing people in hot blood than in cold
Henry had been forbidden to attend the espionage trial. The occupying army
still feared his ability to cause trouble. But the alderman courageously
approached the Provost Marshal following David's conviction and asked permission
to visit the lad in his prison cell. Alderman Henry, it will be remembered,
was a close friend of David Dodd and that apparently was the reason he
was allowed a brief visit with the boy. It was during this visit that David
asked Alderman Henry to take charge of his burial, and the alderman agreed,
though he was certain the Yankees would object.
avoid arousing further Union animosity, the alderman went directly from
the prison to the home of friends, Dick Johnson and Barney Nighton, at
Fifth and Rock Streets and arranged for them to apply for General Steele's
permission to take responsibility for the boy's funeral." With the
understanding that Alderman Henry would not attend, Steele chose a small
delegation of David's friends to serve as bearers and mourners and granted
Nighton permission to receive the body.
these plans were being made, there were repeated appeals to General Steele
to grant the young spy clemency, but the commander explained that death
was mandatory under military law when a spy is convicted by Court Martial.
Nevertheless, the city still held out hope that there would be a last minute
reprieve because of David's age.
he was moved to the guard house at the arsenal in the early morning hours
of his execution day, David penned a heartwrenching farewell to his parents
Click here to read what he wrote.
more poignant than anything Little Rock had ever seen now touched the soul
of the city. There were grumblings about David's conviction, and there
even were reports - idle gossip, perhaps - that Confederate troops would
storm back into the capital city on a rescue mission. Such talk may have
convinced some people, though it is doubtful the majority of Little Rockians
believed it. Stricter surveillance of all now approaching the arsenal was
an indication that General Steele had heard this talk and was taking it
bitter cold weather with snow covering the earth and the coercive attitude
of the Union military, the vast majority of Little Rock's residents trekked
cautiously past the arsenal toward the campus of St. John's College where
all had heard the execution would be carried out. Many hundreds of men,
women and children trudged to the site from the north side of the Arkansas
River, crossing on ice that had solidly covered the stream for several
weeks. Many of those entering the arsenal area wondered why they were not
challenged by military sentries, but they found the answer when they reached
the college campus clearing from the woodland that surrounded it, the civilian
spectators were awed by a military formation of hundreds of blue-clad soldiers
who stood in a square human barricade around a simple gallows. The gibbet
consisted of two tall timbers joined at the top by a rough crossbeam from
which hung a hangman's noose. Silence was the order of the afternoon. One
estimate said there were 6,000 spectators. Anyone who spoke kept his voice
down, and complete silence spread across the throng just before 3 o'clock
when the prison wagon bringing David Dodd from the guard house was seen
approaching. The boy was sitting on his rough wood coffin.
northwest corner of the phalanx of troops parted to admit the two-horse
team, and from that point on, all was very methodical, except for one obvious
embarrassment a Union oversight caused. The prison wagon backed up to the
hanging noose, and David was told to stand on the tailboard. His arms were
tied behind his back and his ankles were bound. Then, to the dismay of
the officers in charge, it was discovered that those who planned the execution
had overlooked the military requirement that a blindfold be in place before
any convict is executed.
were few, if any, at the scene who were more composed than David Dodd,
and it was he who rescued his executioners from their embarrassment.
will find a handkerchief in my coat pocket," he told the soldiers.
Thus the doomed lad was blindfolded with his own kerchief.
was a brief pause for the reading of the official sentence: Death by hanging.
The Provost Marshal next fitted the noose around David's neck and stepped
aside while a local minister, Rev. Dr. Peck, voiced an invocation. All
the while, spectators standing outside the square of soldiers and crowding
every window on the north side of the college building kept silent and
virtually motionless, as if disbelieving what they were witnessing. Nobody
seemed to notice the bitter cold that embraced the city. Spectators wondered
what was being said when the Provost Marshal stepped onto the wagon tailgate
and conversed briefly with the condemned boy. No one could hear and there
is no written record of the conversation, but there has been speculation
ever since that David might have been given one last chance to save his
life by naming his co-conspirators.
Provost Marshal stepped down from the tailgate of the prison wagon, and,
in another instant, he tripped the tailgate latch. Thus began a horror
that sickened even some of the battle-hardened soldiers ringing the area.
Man of the civilians and not a few of the military men averted their eyes.
The scene before them was a shocking demonstration of Union ineptitude
traditionally are conducted so that the victim's fall when the trap is
sprung will break his neck and render him immediately unconscious. But
that's not what happened to David Dodd. In the first place, the wagon tailgate
was not high enough to provide the necessary fall, and the Provost Marshal
had failed to realize that new rope would stretch.
when the tailgate fell, David's tightly-trussed body simply slid to the
end of the rope, stretching it and allowing the boy's feet to touch the
ground. Slowly, David began to strangle and ever more frantically he began
flinging his weight from side to side in agony and terror. A stalwart soldier
quickly shinned up one of the timbers of the gibbet and, sitting on the
crossbeam, pulled hard on the rope to hasten the boy's death. But it was
more than five full minutes before young David's body hung motionless,
and many onlookers were nauseous. A medical doctor finally was able to
find no pulse, and the body was cut down. The corpse was placed in the
prison wagon and carried to the Provost Marshal's office at St. John's
College. There, military doctors examined the pitiful remains and reported
death due to "a disrupted spine."
hour or so later, after most civilians had left the area, David's body
was loaded in a wagon provided by Dick Johnson and Barney Nighton and was
taken to Johnson's home on Rock Street where it was prepared for burial.
General Steele insisted that the funeral be kept simple and quiet. But,
by Alderman Henry's pre-arrangement, the body, ready for interment, was
displayed on a couch on Johnson's front porch and many mourning residents
passed that evening to view the remains.