Dodd, David Owen (1847–1864)

By: Laura House

Type: Biography

Published: September 1, 1995

Updated: March 15, 2018

David Owen Dodd, teenage Civil War spy, was born in Victoria, Texas, in 1847, the son of Andrew Marion Dodd. When he was twelve, his family moved to Benton, Arkansas. Dodd spent most of his life in Texas. In 1862 he moved with his parents and two sisters to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he attended St. John's College, then contracted malaria and withdrew from school. Instead of returning to college after his illness, he began working in the Little Rock telegraph office. During the summer of 1862 he and his father moved to Monroe, Louisiana, where Dodd worked in the local telegraph office, in which the lines were controlled by the Confederate Army. He remained there for four or five months, keeping in close contact with Confederate troop movement in Louisiana and Northern Mississippi. In January of 1863 he went to Granada, Mississippi, where for eight months he helped his father, a sutler for the Third Arkansas Regiment. In September of that year he returned to Little Rock to help his mother and two sisters get away and behind the Confederate lines because the federal troops had captured the city. He was not successful. After a few weeks Dodd began working in a sutler's store that aided federal troops. In December 1863 his father unexpectedly arrived in Little Rock to move his wife, son, and daughters to Camden, Arkansas, by wagon. Shortly thereafter, Dodd returned to Little Rock to help with his father's unsettled business.

He received a pass from Gen. James F. Fagan, a family friend, in exchange for information about the Union troops in Little Rock. Dodd was to report his findings to General Fagan when he returned to Camden. On his way to Little Rock, he met Frank Tomlinson of Pine Bluff, who was also a seventeen year-old Confederate spy. Tomlinson, sent on a mission to find military information for Gen. John S. Marmaduke of Mississippi, succeeded in his endeavor. It was later believed that during the Christmas holidays Dodd visited Union headquarters and other military offices in Little Rock to gather strategic military information for General Fagan and wrote his notes in Morse Code. He left Little Rock on December 29 and safely passed by several federal pickets. At dusk he emerged from the woods to find a squad of the federal army and was arrested by Sergeant Miehr of Company B, First Missouri Cavalry, because he did not have his pass, which had been taken by a federal picket, Pvt. Daniel Olderburg. After he was escorted to the picket headquarters, it was confirmed that the pass had been taken. Before Dodd was to be released, he was searched for possession of contraband. He was found worthy of release until a member of one of the troops noticed he was wearing two different shoes. His shoes were inspected, and his small notebook was found in one of the soles. Lieutenant Stopral of the federal troops identified the Morse Code and could read enough to be skeptical. Dodd's papers were taken by Capt. George Hanna, and he was placed in the guardhouse. The next morning, December 30, he was turned over to Capt. John Baird, who took him to Little Rock to stand trial.

The trial, presided over by Brig. Gen. John M. Thayer, began the following day. In its six-day duration witnesses testified that they had seen Dodd at different functions during the holidays and did not notice any evidence of spying. Robert Clowery, assistant superintendent of the United States Military Telegraph and later president of the Western Union Telegraph Company, provided the deciding testimony. Clowery could read Dodd's Morse Code notes, which listed the manpower and weaponry of the Union forces. Dodd maintained his innocence, but on January 5, 1864, was found guilty and sentenced to hang. He then confessed that he had received orders from General Fagan to relay information about the federal troops in Little Rock and stated that he would not have been allowed to visit Little Rock unless he agreed to spy. Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele, who ordered Dodd's trial, believed a federal soldier had assisted Dodd and promised to drop the charges if Dodd would name the traitor. Dodd refused, and his sentence was confirmed. On January 8, 1864, at 3:00 P.M., he was executed by hanging on the grounds of St. John's College, his alma mater, before a crowd of 2,000 citizens and a 4,000-man military escort. Dodd, described by his mother as a "hot-headed Southern boy," may have been the youngest participant in the war who was hanged as a spy.

Dwayne Holman and Henry Keatts, "The Coldest Day: The Activities and Execution of a Confederate Boy Spy, David O. Dodd," Military History of Texas and the Southwest 9 (1971). San Antonio Express, October 24, 1954.

Time Periods:
  • Civil War

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Laura House, “Dodd, David Owen,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 06, 2022,

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September 1, 1995
March 15, 2018

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