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Death of an Arkansas hero: History or legend?

by Ron Wolfe | January 8, 2017 at 5:45 a.m.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette David O. Dodd Illustration

A 17-year-old boy died, and an Arkansas hero was born on this day, Jan. 8, 1864, an icy cold day in Little Rock.

The Arkansas River is said to have frozen solid. But a crowd of 6,000 came out, anyway, to watch the hanging of young David Owen Dodd. If so, the boy's execution attracted a spectator turn-out equal to half the population of Pulaski County at the time.

It was near the fourth grinding year of the Civil War, this day when the Union Army hanged Dodd as a Confederate spy. If people had come to see a spectacle, it didn't last long: eight minutes for the actual hanging. At the time, such a small moment in the great scope of a tragic war might have seemed hardly worth remembering.

But not even Abraham Lincoln guessed right about which memories of the war would last. "The world will little note, nor long remember," he said of his own Gettysburg Address.

Dodd's name endures in Little Rock's David O. Dodd Elementary School and David O. Dodd Road, and in the David O. Dodd rose. He is buried among many of the state's historic figures in Little Rock's Mount Holly Cemetery, where he is memorialized each year by members of David O. Dodd Camp 619 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

The Weekend Theater's stage production of author Phillip H. McMath's The Hanging of David O. Dodd was filmed for showing on public television. And the Royal Players in Benton staged author Nancy Hendricks' Boy Hero: The Story of David O. Dodd to mark Dodd's 170th birthday. He was born Nov. 10, 1846.

McMath, historian Carl Moneyhon and museum executive director Stephan McAteer will join in a free panel discussion, David O. Dodd: The Life & Legend at 2 p.m. today at the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History, Little Rock. More information is available at, or by calling (501) 376-4602.

History aside, Dodd lives on as a figure of Southern folklore, thanks to the increasingly heroic tales and poems he inspired for years after -- hymns to the boy of such honor that he would not betray a friend. In legend, he stood up to his executioner as courageously as did the Revolutionary War patriot Nathan Hale.

"A mixture of fact and legend is woven around him," LeRoy H. Fischer wrote in "David O. Dodd: Folk Hero of Confederate Arkansas," in Arkansas Historical Quarterly, 1978. Fischer's essay recounts the probable facts and likely fictions regarding "the boy martyr of the Confederacy," as Dodd came to be known.

This much is generally recorded as the facts of what happened on this grim day 153 years ago:

An open wagon with guards carried Dodd to the gallows. He rode in the back, seated on his own coffin. He supplied his own blindfold. He had written to his parents and sisters that, "I will be better off in heaven." And he died "with a perfect coolness," as Fischer quotes one eyewitness account.

Dodd was a handsome "favorite among young ladies," Fischer writes -- and loved his family, liked to learn, had plans for college. He claimed to be innocent of spying, hoping to the end of his six-day trial that he would go free.

By this description, he no more meant to be a martyr than James Dean meant to crash his sports car. But the nature of a legend is that it's never quite explained.

With this story are illustrator Kirk Montgomery's likeness of Dodd, along with notes that tell about the boy and some of the evidence for and against him. It invites today's readers to consider him the same way as did yesterday's defenders and accusers, executioners, mourners and idolizers:

Make of him what you will.

Style on 01/08/2017

Print Headline: David O. Dodd: History or legend?


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