On a bright cold Jan. 8, 1864, in Little Rock, several thousand spit-and-polish Union soldiers of Major General Frederick Steele's army formed up in three squares fronting St. John's College. In their center stood an improvised gallows of two posts and a crossbeam with its hangman's noose dangling ominously down.
Civilians herded around the edges of the soldiers. Gawkers perched in trees and peered out of windows. Then, drawn by two horses, a large wagon appeared. In it a 17-year-old boy dressed in his Sunday best sat on a coffin. The wagon passed through a lane of troops and halted. A teamster guided its back gate under the gibbet and stopped.
When the wagon and boy had come into view, there had arisen a busy buzzing sound, but now it hushed into an eerie stone-dead silence. A lieutenant lowered the wagon's tailboard halfway and tied it with a cord, then climbed awkwardly into the wagon, followed by a preacher.
The boy stood up. The crowd gasped and seemed to jerk back. The officer was surprised but recovered and proceeded to read quickly the execution order that sounded the end with "Death by hanging." He folded it away and rummaged through his pockets, then said, "I can't find the blindfold."
The boy said quietly, "You will find a handkerchief in my coat, sir." He calmly removed his coat and handed it to the lieutenant, who retrieved the white cloth from a pocket, knotted the blindfold around the lad's eyes, tied his hands, nudged him over the open gate, lifted the noose, and cinched it around his neck.
The preacher knelt and recited an unintelligible prayer. As he rose, a hush intruded into an awkward pause.
The officer cut the cord and the gate fell, dropping the boy nearly to the earth. He toed along the ground in a macabre dance like a puppet on a string, choking and running as if to escape. This time the crowd screamed. Rifles clattered down. Some men were sick, a few fainted, and others turned and fled.
A soldier jumped into the wagon, grabbed the rope and hauled the boy up, holding it tight till he stopped kicking, jerking and was at last still, hanging limply from the gallows. David Owen Dodd was finally dead.
. . .
David O. Dodd was born Nov. 10, 1846 in Lavaca County, Texas, son of Andrew and Lydia Owen Dodd. Andrew was a sutler, a seller of goods to soldiers.
In 1861 they moved to Little Rock, and "Davie" attended St. John's. He was popular, but contracted malaria and left school to work in a telegraph office.
In August 1862, Andrew and David went to Louisiana and Mississippi. In September 1863, General Steele's army occupied Little Rock. David returned in November until Andrew reunited the family and moved to Camden, under Confederate authority.
Andrew wanted David back in Little Rock to raise capital for the purchase of tobacco requiring a transit pass through Confederate lines. Confederate General James F. Fagan gave it but in return extracted a promise from David to provide information about Union forces.
So on Christmas Eve 1863, David entered Little Rock riding a mule. He stayed with an aunt, socialized and conducted his father's business. Presumably he paid no attention to the ongoing Copperhead convention (Copperheads being Peace Democrats opposed to the war and resistant to abolition). Nor did David heed the coming Unionist gathering set for Jan. 4 that was about to conceive the so-called Reconstruction "Fishback Constitution."
Meantime, not to disappoint Fagan, he acquired some generally available facts about Union forces that he disguised in his Morse code book.
On Jan. 29 he left for Camden, but was arrested by cavalry and the information found. He was delivered to Union cavalry commander General John W. Davidson, a hard-case martinet. Davidson, who one of his men wrote, was "cursed continually," charged Dodd with being a Rebel spy to be tried before a military tribunal beginning on Jan. 31.
A bitter rivalry had arisen between Steele and Davidson. The latter was a Radical Unionist who supported immediate abolition, a retributive policy toward the South, and was vehemently opposed to Steele's attempts at reconciliation.
Steele, a War Democrat, was enthusiastic about saving the Union but less so about abolition, and had been criticized for favoring the slaveholders. While in Helena, Steele returned runaway slaves to their owners and halted the formation of Black units.
Ensconced in Little Rock's Ashley Mansion, Steele was described by another as living "like an Eastern prince with his ... wine, dogs, horses, equipages, and everything in a grand style."
Under occupation, Little Rock had become a supply depot, and Steele encouraged a "middle man" trade between merchants like Andrew Dodd that inured to the benefit of Confederates. Always struggling for supplies, this was a burr under the saddle of Davidson and his troopers.
These venomous tensions were manifest throughout Arkansas, but nowhere more acutely than in Steele's army. A newspaper war had arisen between Steele and Davidson and his supporters, among them Isaac Murphy, a leading Unionist and candidate for governor, allied with two former Confederates, William M. Fishback and T.D.W. Yonley, politically supple lawyers anxious to prove their bona fides as born-again Radical Unionists.
Davidson, Fishback and Murphy have been characterized as the Radical Union Triumvirate. Through their paper the Unconditional Union they attacked Steele's conciliatory policies, supported the Unionist constitutional convention, advocated class war against the planters and called for immediate abolition without compensation.
Steele, for his part, reluctant to dismiss Davidson, counter-attacked via the National Democrat run by his surrogate, Dr. Cincinnatus V. Meador, who attacked Yonley as a "chuckle headed fool" and Fishback as "Fishy." They opposed the Unionist convention, the retributive policy and had their own gubernatorial candidate: A.C. Rogers, a Pine Bluff planter and slave owner.
David O. Dodd found himself a sacrificial pawn trapped in a deadly political chess game being played out between two Union generals. His case was made to order for the Triumvirate. They could embarrass Steele into hanging a popular local boy, thus undermining his appeasement policy while making an example of the hated middle man. Or alternatively, Steele could pardon Dodd and prove his implicit collaboration with Rebels.
Incredibly, Fishback and Yonley were appointed to defend Dodd. Obviously they had no interest in acquitting a Rebel spy, requested no delay and made only a half-hearted attempt at the oath of allegiance. They made no motions, interposed no objections, asked only one meaningless question on cross-examination, made no record, undertook no argument, concocted a statement for Dodd that was tantamount to an admission of guilt, and offered no post-trial relief.
The trial ended Jan. 5 and they were important delegates to the Unionist convention, just underway, so things had to be concluded with dispatch.
Fishback and Yonley also knew about War Department General Order 100. It mandated that under martial law a military tribunal's death sentence absent a finding of "urgency" (not done in this case) required Lincoln's approval. The president, notorious for his clemency, made it clear he would never execute anyone under 18.
Had Fishback and Yonley filed a petition with Steele invoking General Order 100, copy to the Judge Advocate and Lincoln, they almost certainly would have saved their client's life. Yet while a group of Little Rock ladies prayerfully attempted to intercede, his lawyers did nothing. No doubt they were busy at the convention.
The trial and strangling of this boy was illegal, shameful and a dishonor to all those involved but the victim. David O. Dodd faced the gallows with such gracefully quiet courage that even the unsympathetic were inspired. In this sense, he achieved perhaps the only victory worth the name.
His tragedy is our own. It was at the very vortex of that ruinous conflict. We could learn from it. One simply cannot understand our country without coming to terms with our Civil War in all its complexity.
Recently the City of Little Rock, without notice or soliciting public comment, surreptitiously removed a historical marker in MacArthur Park noting Dodd's hanging. If we can take down such a marker, we can close a museum, a battlefield, ban a book, play, poem, film or debate. Historical amnesia makes for confusion; confusion begets chaos.
If Liberty must shout in the streets, she will never be heard above the noise.
Phillip H. McMath is a lawyer, Vietnam Veteran and writer who lives in Little Rock.