Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

David O. Dodd, the "Boy Martyr of Arkansas": The Growth and Use of a Legend

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

David O. Dodd, the "Boy Martyr of Arkansas": The Growth and Use of a Legend

Article excerpt

David O. Dodd has long been one of the icons of Arkansas history. At least until recently, probably every schoolchild in the state knew the story of this teenager executed as a Confederate spy by Union forces in Little Rock in 1864. Scholars, however, have long realized that much of the Dodd story as commonly told has no factual basis. Edward L. Linebarger, who considered writing a biography of Dodd in 1970, was convinced that "the real and complete Dodd story has yet to be written." At the end of his 1978 study of Dodd, Leroy H. Fischer raised questions about the accuracy of the generally accepted story. Another biographer, Jim Lair, who attempted the first book-length biography, observed that "much that is in the public domain . . . has existed for an extended period of time, and is now accepted as fact despite the substantial lack of supporting documentation." Phillip H. McMath, the most recent biographer, also recognized the discrepancy and asked whether Dodd was "a true martyr for the South? Or was he merely the post-war creation of Southern legend surrounding the Lost Cause?"1 Dodd's story was undoubtedly a postwar creation to a considerable degree, and this study shows how it was elaborated over time. As particular groups in Arkansas needed Dodd to serve different purposes, they added to the story, distorting it into the unverifiable legend that exists today.

While little contemporary evidence exists, what does provides a not particularly complicated but nevertheless compelling story of Dodd's cap ture, trial, and execution. The testimony given before the military commission that tried Dodd provides the heart of the story, detailing his activities prior to his arrest and then his trial. A few firsthand accounts by men who observed his execution supply the little we can verify about his death and the events that followed. These reports include the detailed account of the execution that appeared in the National Democrat, a unionist newspaper in Little Rock, and letters from several Union soldiers who witnessed the hanging. Petitions to the Federal commander, Gen. Frederick Steele, urging clemency for Dodd and the general's replies, found in the Steele papers at Stanford University, offer some insight into the general's rationale for upholding the court's sentence of death. At least one civilian diary describes events in Little Rock in the wake of the execution.

David O. Dodd's life before his trip to Little Rock in December 1863 is the one aspect of his story that has not been altered through time. He was born in Victoria, Texas, on November 10, 1846. He and his family moved to Benton, Arkansas, in 1858 and then to Little Rock at some point after the Civil War began. Dodd attended St. Johns' Masonic College for a time but left school to work in the Little Rock telegraph office. In the summer of 1862, he and his father, Andrew, left the city. David began working at a telegraph office in Monroe, Louisiana, then joined his father, who was working as a trader in Jackson, Mississippi. He returned to Little Rock in the fall of 1863, when his father decided to move the rest of the family to Mississippi after the Arkansas capital fell to Union forces. When the family's departure was delayed, David took jobs in several stores in Little Rock that provided supplies for Union troops. Andrew Dodd finally came to Little Rock on December 1, 1863, and removed the family to Camden, Arkansas.2

The events leading to Dodd's arrest, trial, and execution began when his father sent the young man back to Little Rock to secure funds from potential investors in a tobacco speculation scheme. On December 22, 1863, David obtained a pass from Col. William A. Crawford, a cavalry commander in charge of Confederate pickets at Princeton, Arkansas. He also carried with him a note from his father that provided evidence that at age seventeen he was not liable to conscription. In Little Rock, he delivered his father's proposal to several men, dropped off letters from his sisters to various girls, and attended dances on December 26 and 28. …

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