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Who was Mary Dodge?

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  • Cambria Bailey
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I think if you asked 100 people in Little Rock who Mary Dodge was, you may at best get a “Who?”

This is not a knock on the people of Little Rock and their knowledge about little-known historical figures; I’m from Little Rock. I admit not to knowing who Mary Dodge was and why she’s important.

A better lead-in question would be, “Who is David O. Dodd?

And, now, we’re talking. Instead of blank stares, there would be many answers:

An elementary school. A Confederate spy and traitor. A city street. A war hero. 

All these answers are correct. You find markers of Dodd’s name and legacy littered around Little Rock. The site of his arrest is marked by a stone and an elementary school bearing his name. The path he took, the one raising Union soldiers’ attention, too bears his name. The site of his hanging, located near the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law, is marked with a stone monument and brief summary of Dodd's crime and punishment. In one of the most illustrious gravesites in town, Mount Holly Cemetery, his grave is marked with an eight-foot tall marble obelisk.

I feel like I’ve just given some budding local history buff a local tour schedule. That’s how embedded the story and life of David O. Dodd is in the local historical lore of Central Arkansas.

We remember Dodd as a hero and know him as the Boy Hero of the Confederacy, largely in part because of his young age and unwillingness to name his informant. Yet, despite his refusal to supply names, why is Mary Dodge thought to be his spymaster?

At 16, Mary Dodge was younger than Dodd and was the daughter of a Vermont farmer and merchant, R. L. Dodge. Although her father was friendly enough with Union forces to open his house up as lodging, his daughter was a known supporter of the Confederacy, enough to earn the title of “ardent little rebel.” Sources are mixed on who gave her the nickname, either Federal authorities or family members, but Mary was clearly pro-Southern.

While some historians and poets paint Dodge and Dodd as sweethearts, Dodd was seen with two other girls, Mary Swindle and Minerva Cogburn. It was Christmas-time during Dodd’s ill-fated trip, and I imagine handsome young men were a scarce resource during the war. So several young women inviting a good-looking boy from a well-known family out to a dance makes sense.

Despite Dodd’s appearance with others, most sources credit Mary Dodge as the leader of this teenage Civil War spy ring. Unlike Swindle or Cogburn after Dodd’s capture and arrest, Maj. Gen. Fredrick Steele personally ordered Dodge and her father escorted back to Vermont by an armed Union guard. If Steele was unenthusiastic to hang a 17-year-old boy, I imagine Steele was extremely reluctant to also sentence the 16-year-old Dodge.

Like any good spy, Dodd never revealed his sources, and yet Dodge was still sent away. How could Steele have known about Mary Dodge? Dodd was seen daily at the Dodge residence, which housed both the Southern supporter Dodge and Union officers. Presumably, it becomes simple math for Gen. Steele:

    Dodd’s knowledge of Morse code
+ Dodge and Dodd’s Southern sympathies
- Union soldiers’ discretion
× Dodd’s daily visits to Dodge’s home
= a teenage Confederate spy ring in Little Rock

Gen. Steele could not let either himself or the Union appear as weak, but he also had multiple teenagers involved with the serious crime of spying. If both David O. Dodd and Mary Dodge were hanged, Steele risked losing the uneasy peace between the Union forces and people of Little Rock. Thus, Steele picked the lesser of two evils. He sent Dodge away to Vermont with her father and carried out the tribunal’s sentencing of Dodd, despite the populace’s appeals.

While David Owen Dodd received many medals and acclaim for his bravery and death, the true fates and lives of Dodge, Swindle and Cogburn, there are some details we can only imagine. My trail runs cold after Dodge’s escort to Vermont. However, I did find that R. L. Dodge, Mary’s father, was also buried in Mount Holly Cemetery.

Hungry for more information on David O. Dodd and the teen spies of Little Rock? Tune in for the premiere of “The Hanging of David O. Dodd” on AETN Monday, Sept. 19, at 9 p.m.


Monday, Sept. 19, 2016

“The Hanging of David O. Dodd,” 9 p.m.


“Encyclopedia of Arkansas: David Owen Dodd”

Cambria Bailey, AETN Marketing and Outreach department intern, is a graduate of the University of Arkansas with a Bachelor of Arts in communications. She currently serves as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer relations manager and social media marketing coordinator.