In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Southern artists, writers, politicians and leaders worked diligently to influence popular memory and understanding of the Civil War by creating monuments and art that immortalized Southern heroes.
In Arkansas, one of the most celebrated heroes was David O. Dodd, who was accused of spying and executed for espionage in 1864. He was largely forgotten after his death until his story was revived as the “Boy Martyr of the Confederacy” in the 1900s.
David O. Dodd was 17 years old when he was captured by Federal troops while visiting Little Rock. The soldiers discovered information about Federal troop strength in his possession. A court martial convicted Dodd of being a spy and sentenced him to death. In January 1864, he was hanged. To honor his memory, Arkansans wrote poetry books, had daylong celebrations and, in 1915, decided to memorialize him through a new medium – the motion picture.
The drive to erect memorials to Dodd began in 1914 as Arkansans marked the 50th anniversary of Dodd’s execution. Social clubs and schools held programs about the young man complete with songs and poems written in his honor.
But, large memorials were expensive, so a group of Arkansans organized the David O. Dodd Memorial Committee to plan and raise money to pay for monuments. The committee decided to explore motion pictures as a fundraising tool. Profits made from exhibiting the film could be used to fund new memorials for the young man.
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Graphic, Pine Bluff,
1915. Photo is
courtesy of the ASA.
Directing the committee’s film was Charles M. Simon, who previously directed “The Call,” a film shot entirely in Arkansas the year before. Simon wanted the film to be historically accurate, down to the furniture and costumes. He called for Civil War veterans in Little Rock to lend the film their uniforms and asked local families to lend period furniture to give the film accuracy. Simon consulted local historians, including Dallas Herndon, who was the director of the Arkansas History Commission, to write the screenplay. The Arkansas History Commission is now the Arkansas State Archives.
For the cast, the committee chose local talent, most of whom had no acting experience. Gen. B.W. Green, a Little Rock businessman and commander of the State Guard, played Gen. James Fagan, commander of the Confederate forces in Little Rock in 1863. John Hinemon, superintendent of the Little Rock School for the Blind, played Gen. Frederick Steele, commander of the Union forces that captured Little Rock. Other local dignitaries made cameo appearances as members of the army. Local stage actor Roger Goodman starred as David O. Dodd.
Filming began in September 1915 with scenes of the Union capture of Little Rock. Simon invited Little Rock residents to take part in the film as extras. Most of the action took place near the Oakland Cemetery. Because most of the cast were amateurs, there was little coordination on stunt work for the big battle scene. In one case, a bomb went off under one of the “dead” soldiers on the battlefield setting his pants on fire. Once he discovered he was on fire, the “corpse” immediately jumped up and started putting out the fire. The scene was edited out of the final product.
The filmmakers also took liberties with the story for dramatic purposes. For instance, they invented the character “Betty South,” who plays Dodd’s love interest. She seduces “Capt. Pulaski,” another fictional character, and steals information about troop strength from his satchel. She passes it to Dodd who then makes his way back toward the Confederate lines. While on his journey through the city, Dodd is captured by Federal troops who find the stolen message. Dodd refuses to name South as the source of the information and is hanged.
In reality, historians don’t know where Dodd got his information or whether he acted alone.
Simon chose to film the execution scene in City Park, which is now MacArthur Park, near the actual site of Dodd’s execution. To shield viewers from seeing the gruesome execution, Simon chose to show the execution in shadow. Simon finished the film and traveled to Chicago to work with a team of editors to get the film ready for viewing.
In all, the film cost $1,200 to make with a cast of 400 appearing in the film for free. In November, Simon distributed copies of the film throughout the South with the proceeds going toward the David O. Dodd memorial fund. The money generated by the film was substantial.
Today, the David O. Dodd film, the title of which remains a mystery, is considered a lost film. Negatives and release prints alike have been destroyed by time and neglect. Despite that, Dodd’s fame has survived — there may be more Arkansas monuments to David O. Dodd than to any other Civil War era figure. Many of those memorials were built with proceeds from this long-forgotten film.
For more information on Arkansas history, visit the Arkansas State Archives at 1 Capitol Mall, Suite 215, call 501-682-6900 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.