When I was in Little Rock as a speaker for the Arkansas Reading Association, the story of David O. Dodd was on my mind. I had intended to visit the school named after him, but my schedule prevented me. For today’s post, I wanted to share an excerpt from my story, “The Hanging of David O. Dodd” that is in my collection of short historical fiction–Stories of the Confederate South. I’ve read everything I could find about Dodd, and constructed my story on the basis of the facts I found. I hope to write a song about him some day.
The Hanging of David O. Dodd
Stand fast, good Fate, to his hanging! Make the rope of his destiny our cable . . .—The Tempest I.1.16
January 8, 1864 Little Rock, Arkansas
The Arkansas River had frozen as hard as a miser’s heart. Mary, along with her mother and father, joined the stream of Little Rock citizens crossing the ice-bridge to the grounds of St. John’s academy. The snow crunched beneath brogan and boot-clad feet, and the ice-face of the river moaned and creaked beneath the load of melancholy Southerners who trudged toward the Tyburn tree nightmare.
With children in arms and in tow, the Arkansas pilgrims converged onto the grounds of St. John’s College. Outside the stone building, a line of cadets, former classmates of the boy they have come to honor, stand at attention, wordless and weaponless in their white and gray uniforms. The Federal officers had heard rumors of trouble, so, near the gallows, lines of Federal soldiers stood stiffly at shoulder arms, their bayonets fixed. Mary hoped there would be trouble—a riot, an insurrection, something to bring grief to Steele and the 15,000 Federals troops who had invaded Little Rock.
Directly ahead, she saw Minerva, a girlfriend, waving her hand. Mary returned the greeting and walked to her. Minerva wore a heavy woolen black, hooded cape, and with her head bowed and hands stuffed inside a fur muff, Mary thought Minerva looked like a monk. The two girls, both sixteen, walked together to the line of large oaks that bordered the academy. They huddled together like the women who once gathered at the foot of the cross in the Gospels—another execution carried out by another brutal and powerful government. They spoke of David, of the holiday dances of recent weeks, of secret kisses, and walks. The north wind carried away their whispered words.
A woman’s voice called out, “Minerva! You need to join us now.”
Minerva coughed and touched her teary eyes with a white handkerchief embroidered along its edges with tiny red roses. “I must return to my mother. She is most upset by David’s troubles. She says it’s a sign of the end of the world.”
“Of our world perhaps.”
“How could this happen, Mary? How could they accuse David of being a spy?”
“I don’t know, Minerva. I don’t know.”
“I know you took a fancy to him too, Mary, but it breaks my heart to think of the Yankees hanging David. You don’t think he was a spy, do you, Mary?”
“No, of course not.”
“Mother says you must go to Vermont.”
“Yes. It seems I’ve been exiled from Little Rock. General Steele practically accused me of being David’s accomplice. Father and I will leave the day after tomorrow.”
Minerva embraced her and said, “I will miss you, Mary.”
When Minerva left, Mary circled the tree until she saw David’s initials carved on the tree next to her own. She removed a glove and placed her bare fingers on the letters and she shivered as if she had touched magical runes. “Oh, David,” she whispered. “If only you hadn’t been such a showoff, writing down everything you saw and thought in that strange Morse code. If only you hadn’t copied down what we heard those Yankees saying in my house . . . .” Mary looked again at the gibbet that the Yankees had built that morning. It was constructed of two tall timbers joined at the top by a rough crossbeam. Beneath the crossbeam dangled a thick hangman’s noose.
Near the crude gallows, Alderman Henry seemed to be engaged in somber conference with a group of Little Rock citizens. With him stood Mr. Walker and Mr. Fishback, the attorneys Henry had hired to represent David. Mary’s father now conversed with two Federal officers who billeted at their house. His eyes met Mary’s, then turned away. Mary could sense the hurt, disappointment, disgust, and anxiety that he felt. “Daddy,” she sobbed, and she leaned against the tree and buried her face in her arm.
A hand touched her shoulder. “Don’t you dare cry, Mary,” her mother whispered. Her voice was bitter, with an edge sharp enough to cut a Yankee’s throat. “David needs you to be strong.”
“Daddy betrayed David to the Yankees,” Mary said. “And he as much as admitted to General Steele that I was guilty too.”
“No, your father’s just making sure they don’t hang you as a spy’s accomplice or send you to Rock Island. The Yankees would just as soon hang a woman as man. You’ve heard what they’ve done to women in Alabama and Georgia.” Her mother handed her a handkerchief. “Now, wipe your face.”
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*I hope you enjoyed this excerpt. If you have any questions about David O. Dodd, please send them my way. firstname.lastname@example.org.