Should a Texas Ranger Expect Justice or Death From His Union Captors?
BY DANIEL E. SUTHERLAND
Ephraim Shelby Dodd sat in his Knoxville jail cell and scribbled a note to a local volunteer who was taking care of him and some other Rebel prisoners. He made a modest request–“a piece of soap, towel, needles, thread”–a curious order for a convicted spy awaiting execution. Later that day Ellen House packed up the items and had them delivered the next morning. She wrote in her diary: “I was very much afraid he would be gone before I sent them.”
A native Kentuckian, Dodd moved to Texas in 1857, at age 18, and started a new life brimming with enthusiasm fueled by the lofty dreams and untainted optimism of youth. Then came the Civil War. Dodd, like his family back in Kentucky, opposed secession, but when his adopted Texas joined the Confederacy, he followed.
He enlisted in the 8th Texas Cavalry, a regiment raised in August and September 1861 by Kentucky-born sugar planter Benjamin Franklin Terry and South Carolina-born merchant Thomas S. Lubbock. The unit, nicknamed Terry’s Texas Rangers, quickly gained a reputation as a crack mounted regiment. Whether, as one general thought, they were “the equal of the Old Guard of Napoleon,” or, as another maintained, they constituted “a damned armed mob” (they were probably a bit of each), Terry’s Rangers became one of the most storied units in the Confederate army.
Leaving Houston, where the regiment was mustered in, the Rangers joined General Albert Sidney Johnston’s command at Bowling Green, Kentucky. Johnston, himself a naturalized Texan, knew and respected Terry. So he made the Rangers an offer they could not pass up: come to Kentucky and receive the best mounts in the state and answer to no one but him.
Bound for Virginia, Terry’s men changed plans and headed to Kentucky in October. There they saw their first real action in mid-December, when in their maiden charge their beloved namesake colonel was killed. They went on to serve valiantly at Shiloh a few months later, but when Johnston died on the first day of fighting, the Rangers lost their brief career as an independent command. The unit was combined with the 4th Tennessee Cavalry and the 1st and 2d Georgia Cavalry in July 1862 to form a new brigade under the command of Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Dodd witnessed all of it, and in December 1862, he began keeping a diary of events and adventures–a diary that even today reveals a literate, observant, and devout young man. He apparently spurned liquor and gambling, favorite pastimes for many rowdy cavalrymen. On one occasion, while part of a procurement detail in Lewisburg, Tennessee, Dodd visited a prayer meeting, attended a worship service, and purchased four religious books: Mormon’s at Home, Pilgrim’s Progress, Bayard Taylor’s Travels, and The Bible Union Dictionary.
He did, however, have an eye for the ladies. “Came out on a reconnoitering expedition,” he recorded on January 11, 1863. “I stopped on return and saw Misses Mollie and Alice.” In Lewisburg, Dodd met several young ladies, among them Lou Hill, whom “I prize highest,” he said. When he was about to leave town, he spied “a couple of young lady equestrians” riding along. “I jumped on E. Emnoff’s horse and overtook them, rode out a mile with them and turned off pike,” he wrote. “If I should ever get back to L[ewisburg] I intend seeking them and make their acquaintance.” When the regiment moved to Rome, Georgia, in July 1863, Dodd sparked some Georgia girls. “I made the acquaintance of Miss Maggie Ezzell, Miss Mattie Sommers, Miss Fannie Summers, and Miss Mollie Roberts and enjoyed myself with them finely,” he reported.
When the time for military action came, no one responded more swiftly than Dodd. “Met the Yankees and skirmished with them all day, falling back gradually,” he recorded near the end of December 1862. “Their cavalry charged us once but paid dear for it.” On March 21, 1863, he noted, “Brigade went out on scout. Our Company supported battery, drove the Yanks back to their main camp and returned.” Ten days later, he saw action again: “Went on a scout out to Eaglesville. Met a Yankee scout just this side of E. We charged them and run them one and a half miles, capturing six and wounding several.”
At other times, when assigned to picket duty or reconnaissance in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia, Dodd’s objective was not to fight but to avoid capture or detection by the Federals. Even so, he remained in the thick of the action. “Bushwhackers attacked us, killed my horse, stampeded all,” Dodd reported while on a scout in Allen County, Kentucky. Back in Tennessee, he reported, “Came up near Epperson Springs, found the Yanks were there and at Scottsville too strong for us.”
Dodd’s undoing came a few months after the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia, in September 1863. With Union Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland held at bay inside Chattanooga by General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, and with Union Major General Ambrose Burnside strengthening his hold on Knoxville, the Rangers returned to eastern Tennessee in November to join Major General William T. Martin’s cavalry division. Their mission, as part of General James Longstreet’s Corps, was to help invest Knoxville and recapture it from Burnside. Although they spent most of their time on picket, shielding Longstreet’s infantry and disrupting Union supply lines, they did join in some real fighting near Dandridge and Mossey Creek. One Ranger recalled engaging in a half-dozen skirmishes during November and December.
Dodd missed all this action, for he did not accompany the Rangers immediately to eastern Tennessee. His horse had stumbled and broken a leg during a retreat the previous summer, and he had been unable to find a replacement. He spent the late summer and autumn on detached duty in Georgia, searching for a dependable mount. He finally found one in December, while traveling south of Knoxville with a horse requisition party. He bought it for $200.00. As he and his companions tried to rejoin the army, they found themselves cut off by Federal troops heading north from Chattanooga to relieve Burnside. The Rebels’ problems were compounded in mid-December when Longstreet abandoned his siege of Knoxville and withdrew his corps.
The 10-man detail, eager to rejoin the army, tried to dodge the Yankees by taking a circuitous route southeast of Knoxville. They had easy going at first, but things took a nasty turn. Dodd and two other men, named Alexander and Smith, became separated from the main detachment on the rainy night of December 13. The next day Dodd’s group encountered a Yankee patrol at Maryville. The outnumbered Rangers ran for it, but Dodd’s saddle turned and he lost his horse. Alexander’s mount was shot from under him, and Smith, unwilling to abandon his comrades, released his horse. The three men escaped into the woods.
The horseless Rangers finally came to the home of a Mr. McClaine. McClaine had stood by the Union when Tennessee seceded and wanted nothing to do with the desperate Rebels. So the Rangers hid in some timber until dark. The next day they reached the house of Hiram Bogle. Bogle gave them something to eat, but he had taken the Union loyalty oath and did not want to jeopardize his property by helping the fugitives. He did, however, point them in the direction of the home of Timothy Chandler, a Southern sympathizer in Sevier. Traveling by night on December 16, the Rangers passed within sight of some pro-Union home guards patrolling along their route, but they safely reached Chandler’s house at 1:00 a.m. on December 17, exhausted and soaked by rain. Like the other citizens, Chandler hesitated to give the men any information that would help them escape, but he did feed them and let them sleep in his barn.
The manhunt ended that day. “This morning the Home Guards got on our tracks and by the aid of Citizens found us,” Dodd recorded later. The next day a military guard escorted the three men to Knoxville, where the Rangers joined dozens of other Confederate prisoners, mostly Georgians and Texans. Alexander, apparently having had enough of the war, took the loyalty oath and was released.
Dodd never considered taking the oath. Instead he decided to rely on the intervention of his fellow Masons. “I sent out a summons to the Lodge for assistance,” he revealed on his second day in the Knoxville jail. “Two members call on me and promise to attend to my case.” He was confident they would secure his release. As the days passed, however, it became clear the Masons could not help him.
Christmas Day passed uneventfully–“dull” was how Dodd described it. Conditions in the prison were harsh, Dodd wrote, “no wood hardly–freezing and starving by inches.” Fortunately there was hope for the Rebel captives. They had been told they would soon be transferred to Northern prison camps, most likely to Camp Chase in Ohio. As late as New Year’s Day, Dodd thought he would be among the prisoners sent north the next day.
Suddenly the unusual clothing he had been wearing when taken captive became an issue. Like many Confederate soldiers, Dodd wore a captured Yankee overcoat. He also wore blue pants, which he claimed were part of his regular uniform. Completing the outfit were a Mexican serape, which he donned throughout the war, and a broad-brimmed Ranger hat, which prominently displayed the star of Terry’s Texas Rangers. Curiously, no one mentioned Dodd’s eclectic outfit during the first fortnight of his captivity. Perhaps that was because the Rangers were famous for their colorful dress, as one Ranger observed, “Some in Red, some in Blue–Brown, Green, yellow.”
The odd attire gained new meaning after Federals found his diary. They discovered that many entries referred to the placement of Union pickets (natural enough comments for a scout to record) and, more importantly, to an occasion earlier that month on which Dodd had passed himself off as a Yankee when traveling through Loudon County. Dodd probably wrote the remark with a gleeful touch, delighted to have outwitted a pro-Union civilian and ensured safe passage. His comments were made in reference to securing his escape, not to acquiring military information. However, when Federal authorities read the entries with his blue pants and coat in mind, the words took on new meaning. It probably did not help Dodd’s cause to have mentioned that before his detachment broke up, it had stolen horses and weapons and released slaves from households.
Convinced a spy was in their midst, the Yankees moved swiftly. Official records show that Dodd was tried “on or before January 5th.” In fact, the charges, findings, and sentence of his court-martial were not announced until January 5, 1864. But new evidence shows clearly that Dodd was rushed before a tribunal on New Year’s Day, the date of the diary’s last entry and the day Federal authorities discovered and confiscated the pocket volume. Word spread through Knoxville of Dodd’s January 1 trial, but the verdict attached to the spreading gossip was acquittal. Dodd himself wrote to his father, “I was tried by the court-martial as a spy, but the charge and specifications could not be sustained.”
Not until 11:00 a.m. on January 6 did Dodd learn he was to be hanged. Up to that time, he still thought that he was destined for Camp Chase. Ellen House, a young pro-Confederate woman who had been supplying clothing to Dodd and other prisoners, received Dodd’s request for toiletries and assorted small items on January 5. “It was after dark when I got [the letter],” House recorded in her diary. “So I will have to wait till tomorrow morning.”
The next morning snow fell on Knoxville. House sent the requested items before breakfast. By the time the toiletries reached Dodd, he probably had been given the grim news: he would be hanged on Friday, January 8. “Oh it is terrible, terrible, so totally unexpected,” House wrote. “If I only could do something for him. Were he a spy, badly as I would feel about it, I know it would be perfectly useless to do anything. But for an innocent man to die such a death is awful beyond conception.” House concluded her daily diary entry still in shock, but on a hopeful note: “Oh! I cannot, cannot believe that they will hang him. Something must stop it.”
Other Knoxville Confederates shared House’s sentiments. Many immediately mobilized to save Dodd. The Reverend Joseph H. Martin, pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church, visited Dodd regularly, as did three Federal chaplains. All four ministers believed Dodd’s steadfast claim of innocence, as did his prison guards. The Masons, having failed Dodd once, renewed their campaign for his release. Prominent citizens, including some Unionists, petitioned Brigadier General Samuel P. Carter, a native Tennessean who served as provost marshal in Knoxville, to intercede. As late as Thursday night, January 7, people saw hope of saving Dodd.
Through it all, Dodd remained serene. He spent much of his time on January 6 and 7 writing letters to relatives and friends to inform them of his misfortune. He maintained his innocence. “I feel prepared to meet my fate as a soldier and firmly rely on God’s promises to save the penitent,” he told his father and stepmother in Richmond, Kentucky. “Do not grieve for me, my dear parents, for I am leaving a world full of crime and sin for one of perfect bliss.” Dodd sent notes also to people in Knoxville who had worked on his behalf and tried to ease his suffering. Several local Masons spent two hours conferring with him on Thursday evening, and they continued to petition Federal authorities through that night. Masons among the Federal officers in Knoxville, themselves thoroughly convinced of Dodd’s innocence, sought clemency for him.
By Friday morning, a blanket of snow covered the city. It soon became clear that Dodd’s execution would proceed on schedule. Pastor Martin left the prison with Dodd at 10:15 a.m. A detachment of the 100th Ohio and 74th Illinois Infantry greeted the two men and ushered Dodd onto a waiting wagon. The cavalcade moved “with slow and measured tread” along Gay Street, the city’s principal thoroughfare. Armed soldiers flanked the wagon, and an accompanying fife and drum detail played the “Death March.” A growing crowd joined the procession as it moved toward the gallows erected near the north end of Gay Street and the railroad tracks. Some people, including Federal soldiers, turned away from the passing wagon, teary-eyed and unable to watch. Dodd, seated on his coffin, occasionally surveyed the crowd, but, reported one witness, he “generally preserved a downward look, as if in deep meditation.” Underneath the Mexican serape he wore to ward off the cold, Dodd was dressed in Rebel gray and butternut. He also wore his sombrero with the Texas star.
With General Carter viewing the scene from across the tracks, Dodd ascended the gallows. While the condemned man’s hands were being tied behind his back and the rope was being placed around his neck, a Union officer who had visited the prison the previous night approached. Like everyone who spoke with Dodd, the officer had been deeply impressed by his apparent calmness and his continued professions of innocence. So now, in Dodd’s final moment, he looked him in the eye and asked again if he was a spy. Dodd returned his gaze and replied, “I die innocent of the charge against me.”
A tragic farce followed. At 11:00 a.m., the drop fell, Dodd plummeted, the rope snapped tight–and broke. Dodd sprawled on the ground, severely shaken but conscious. A gasp, followed by mingled murmurs of pity, horror, and disgust, ran through the crowd. “Release me quick,” Dodd groaned as soldiers rushed to assist him. Fifteen minutes passed before he was fully revived. His head bobbed in agony from the effects of an injured neck, but he had recovered sufficiently to mount, with assistance, the gallows steps once more. The hangman placed a new rope, with a double noose, around his neck. This time it held. An army surgeon pronounced Dodd dead at 11:30.
“At eleven o’clock I heard a gun fire,” House reported. “At the sound my blood seemed to freeze in my veins. A short time after I heard another.” Hearing the signal guns is how most of Knoxville learned of Dodd’s execution. A few people followed the body as it was carried to a local burying ground. At one citizen’s insistence, a head board was left to mark the grave site. Someone else retrieved Dodd’s hat and sent it to a friend at Camp Chase. A Yankee soldier had already stolen its Texas star.
Some Confederates vowed vengeance. “Oh! my God it was terrible, an innocent man to die such a death,” House anguished. “It will not bring him back to life, but the Yankees must suffer for it.” Even after six weeks had elapsed, when House read an article about the execution in a Louisville newspaper, she fumed, “They murder a man and then cry over him. It has made me feel so miserably. I try not to think of him and his cruel fate. It makes me most unhappy, but I feel perfectly fiendish. I believe I would kill a Yankee and not a muscle quiver.”
Robert F. Bunting, chaplain of the Rangers, voiced similar anger. Bunting kept Texans informed about the regiment’s activities by sending regular reports to the Houston Telegraph. On March 4, writing from Rome, Georgia, Bunting aroused the entire state with a highly charged account of Dodd’s “fiendish murder.” The execution, insisted Bunting, as he spoke on behalf of the Rangers, “brings to the heart more bitterness than any calamity which has overtaken us.” Even some Northern newspapers, including the New York Tribune, expressed outrage.
Why did the Federals execute Dodd? Bunting thought he knew the answer. He insisted some rabid eastern Tennessee Unionists, notable among them William G. “Parson” Brownlow, were seeking revenge for the hanging deaths of several “bridge-burners” early in the war. The bridge burners were Unionists who had attempted to disrupt Confederate communication and supply lines by destroying railroad bridges in eastern Tennessee. The gallows where one or more of them died was supposedly the one used to execute Dodd. “Here was a Texas Ranger in their power,” reasoned Bunting, “and it would be double gratification of fiendish delight to execute him.” Perhaps, but House noted in her diary on January 1 that Brownlow, for one, had been keeping “very quiet” at the time of Dodd’s arrest and trial–“have not seen or heard anything of him.”
Of course, there are other possibilities. It seems that when Longstreet aborted his siege of Knoxville, he left in his abandoned lines two Yankee spies dangling at the ends of hanging ropes. “It never ought to have been done,” House wrote. “They ought to have been quietly buried and not left hanging to taunt the Yankees.” House also thought the Federals in Knoxville were anxious because of Longstreet’s continued presence northwest of the city, especially in light of his ongoing raids against Federal patrols and supply trains. “They are frightened here,” House reported. “I think they are expecting him [Longstreet] in here and that is one reason that Mr. Dodd’s sentence is to be carried into execution so soon. They are afraid of his being rescued.”
Finally, addressing House’s last observation, and touching on a point suggested by Bunting, Major General John G. Foster, commanding the Department of the Ohio and the Union garrison at Knoxville, believed it was time to crack down on Rebel spies in eastern Tennessee. On January 8, the day of Dodd’s execution, Foster complained about the large number of Union pickets and outposts recently “overpowered and captured by the enemy’s troops, disguised as Federal soldiers.” He ordered all corps commanders “to cause to be shot dead all the rebel officers and soldiers (wearing the uniform of the U.S. Army) captured within our lines.” Furthermore, on January 17, Foster took the extraordinary step of forwarding a copy of the proceedings and findings of Dodd’s trial to Longstreet. He clearly intended this as a warning to the Rebels.
Dodd seems to have been a classic victim of circumstance, a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was sacrificed to make a point: the new, tough Federal policy in eastern Tennessee was for real. His misfortune made him one of just 19 Confederates to be hanged legally as spies during the war. Whatever the reasoning of Federal commanders, Dodd’s execution, save for the death of Benjamin Terry, himself, lives as perhaps the saddest moment in Texas Ranger history–and one of the more poignant personal tragedies of the war.
Daniel E. Sutherland, a history professor at the University of Arkansas, is the author of several books about the Civil War. His most recent work is Seasons of War: The Ordeal of a Confederate Community, 1861-1865.