Boy Hero of the Confederacy

The rope was new and therefore it stretched, the condemned was slight in stature, and the distance from the bed of the wagon to the ground wasn't far enough. Instead of breaking his neck and a quick, merciful death, the condemned's tiptoes touched the dirt and he slowly strangled, struggling and jerking for almost 5 minutes. Women observers and a few men became sick and at least one battle-hardened soldier fainted. Finally, two of the enemy soldiers took pity, or maybe they just couldn't stand to watch the spectacle any more themselves, and each grabbed one of the hanging legs and pulled down, adding weight to hasten his death. It was a freezing, overcast day on January 8, 1864 and David Owen Dodd had just been executed as a Southern spy. He was 17 years old.

David Dodd's grave in Mount Holly Cemetery
David was born in Lavaca County, Texas on November 10, 1846 to a well-to-do family who owned several business ventures. The Dodd family had moved to Little Rock, Arkansas a few years after David was born and were living there when the Civil War broke out. David's father became a sutler, selling provisions to the Southern army. David, being too young to be drafted into the war, became a cadet at St. John's College. In September, 1863, he took a break from his studies to accompany his father on a buying trip to Mississippi, but while they were gone, the Federals captured Little Rock.

David, due to his age, was obviously not a combatant so his father thought it was safer for him to return to Little Rock to escort his mother and 2 sisters to Mississippi where his father had found a place to live. With the proper passes in hand, he was able to find passage for them on a boat heading south, but it was crowded with Yankee soldiers who amused themselves with abusive language toward the ladies so they got off of the boat before it got underway and went back home.

The senior Dodd soon sent word that he was in the process of getting the proper paperwork which would allow him to fetch his family himself. While waiting for Dad to come get them, David earned money for the family by clerking in stores selling provisions to the Union soldiers. In one of the ironies of this war, for a short time, the father was selling provisions to the southern army while the son sold provisions to the northern army. Eventually, after a harrowing trip in a buckboard wagon, all members of the Dodd family made it to what they considered the safety of Mississippi.

Being ever the business man and looking for an opportunity to make a profit, the elder Dodd concocted a plan to buy a large amount of tobacco. With the northern troops burning the southern crops, tobacco was becoming a rare commodity so the plan was to buy as much tobacco as possible, store it for a while and then sell it at the higher price as it became ever more scarce. Mr. Dodds was a little short of the needed funds so he decided to call on his associates back in Little Rock to get them to join the venture and pool their money. David was once again dispatched to Union controlled Little Rock.

While getting a pass which would get David safely through the Southern territory, General Fagan, as he was signing his approval of the document, said, "I expect a full report when you return." Whether he said this in jest, as he professed for the rest of his life, or if it was a veiled order which David took seriously, has always been up for debate.

David made it back to the Union lines and with the business documents and Southern pass along with his birth certificate showing he was underage and therefore considered neutral, he acquired an approved pass through the Northern controlled territory. He arrived in Little Rock a few days before Christmas and by all accounts, concluded his business and also attended several holiday parties. He spent considerable time in the company of a very fetching young lady, 16-year-old Mary Dodge who was an ardent southern supporter. Her father, a native of Vermont, was a supporter of the north and had become friends with several of the high-ranking Yankee officers. These officers often spent time in Mr. Dodge's home where his daughter, no doubt, overheard their conversations as they sat in the home's parlor damaging the area's stock of alcoholic beverages.

On December 29th, David, riding a mule, reluctantly left the company of Mary for his journey back to Mississippi. As he crossed out of the Union-controlled territory, the last Yankee guard took his Union pass and tore it up since he would no longer be needing it. David took a road which led to Hot Springs to spend the night with an uncle. Early the next morning, he left his uncle and took a shortcut back to the road to Benton. Unknown to him, this shortcut curved back into Union occupied land for a short way. Just before making it around a curve which would have placed him back into what was considered Southern controlled territory, a small Yankee patrol seized him for questioning. Now without a Union pass, he was brought back to regimental headquarters to be interrogated. While there, David handed over a small leather book. Upon inspection, the book was found to contain a series of dots and dashes which were quickly identified as Morse code. The deciphered message pinpointed the precise location and strength of Union forces in the Little Rock area. David was immediately arrested.

With questioning, it was apparent David did not know Morse code very well. It also became apparent he was not able to compile so much detailed information in the short time he had been in Little Rock, plus, he was very naive about military jargon, much of which was contained within the message. The authorities knew they had captured the messenger, but the spy was still out there. Within days, he was tried and convicted of being a spy and, as was the custom, sentenced to death. The Union general in charge of Little Rock, Frederick Steele, offered Dodd his freedom in exchange for the names of those who supplied him with the dispositions of Union forces. David responded, “I can give my life for my country but I cannot betray a friend.”

A quick investigation led to the loose-tongued Union officers drinking at the Dodge home. David's affection for Mary was well known, as was her Southern support. It didn't take much to ascertain where David had gotten his information about the Union forces. General Steele, the Union Commander of the forces in Little Rock was reluctant to execute a boy of 17 much less a girl of 16 so the investigation closed almost as quickly as it had opened. Within 3 days, Mr. Dodge and young Mary had left Little Rock under an armed guard, boarded a Union gunboat on the Arkansas River and waited out the rest of the war in Vermont.

There was ice on the ground the morning of January 8th, just ten days after he had first been arrested. David put on the suit in which he was to be buried. He rode in an open wagon under close guard out of the gates of the military prison, straddling his own coffin, passing not far from his own grave. The wagon halted in front of St. John's Masonic College, where David had been a cadet not that long ago. Witnesses reported that he was a bit drawn and pale, but calm and resolute.

The tailgate of the wagon was propped horizontal. David stood on it under a yoke which had been built for the occasion. The hangman (a man with the unfortunate name, given his profession, of DeKay) took David's coat. DeKay noticed he had forgotten to bring a blindfold. David mentioned there was a handkerchief in his coat. The blindfold was fastened. David's hands and feet were tied. The rope was fixed around David's neck and the prop knocked from under the tailgate.

Buried in Little Rock's Mount Holly Cemetery not far from where he was so gruesomely hung, David Dodd is today considered a Southern hero and is referred to as “The Boy Martyr of the Confederacy.” The truth of the code in his little leather book has never been uncovered. Mary Dodge passed from history and nothing more is known of her. The talkative officers who frequented the Dodge house were transferred to distant posts and they too passed from history. That left David, the only other person who knew for sure, and he took it to his grave.