The Grave of Ephraim Shelby Dodd
“Slow and fiendish murder,” wrote Chaplain Robert F. Bunting. “He met his fate like a hero: there was not a muscle moved, nor an indication of fear.” What the chaplain was referring to was the hanging of a Texas cavalryman. More unfortunate than the tragic execution itself, were the events leading up to it.
Ephraim Shelby Dodd was born in Kentucky and moved to Texas in 1857. Like many young Texans, he dreamed of a better life, but got caught up in the secession fever sweeping the state. His sense of duty led him to enlist in a Confederate cavalry regiment, the famed 8th Texas Cavalry or Terry’s Texas Rangers. Dodd served with the Rangers in all of their campaigns from September, 1861 until December, 1863. During his service, he kept a diary – one of the few firsthand accounts of Ranger daily life. Unlike his rowdy comrades, Dodd didn’t indulge in drinking and cards. Instead, he flirted with every single woman in Northern Georgia. “I made the acquaintance of Miss Maggie Ezzell, Miss Mattie Sommers, Miss Fannie Summers and Miss Mollie Robert and enjoyed myself with them finely,” he wrote. Details of the enjoyment were not provided.
Among their many duties, the Rangers most often served as scouts and pickets. Sometimes the scouting took place behind enemy lines or in areas where pro-Union citizens resided. In East Tennessee, many of the residents were subsistence farmers with little use for slaves and Confederate authority. Many joined the Union Army or became guerrillas, more commonly referred to as Bushwhackers. Supply columns were ambushed, telegraph lines cut and bridges burned to hamper the Confederate war effort. Confederate authorities responded with arrests and executions of suspected Bushwhackers. In one instance, several accused Bushwhackers were hanged and left dangling along a railroad track, a clear warning for any would be saboteur. Feelings grew harder among Secessionists and Unionists as the war progressed.
A cavalryman was only as good as the horse he rode. Finding a trusty steed in a war-ravaged region could take days, if not weeks. Some had to become infantrymen or travel away from their units to purchase new mounts. After losing his horse to a broken leg, Dodd sought a replacement in Sevier County near Knoxville, an area teeming with Union sentiment. After Confederate General James Longstreet lifted his siege of Knoxville, his army corps left the area. Union forces moved in and left Dodd trapped behind enemy lines. He sought refuge among local residents, but few would take him in. The few that did, however, had taken Union loyalty oaths. They could be arrested for treason and have their property seized for aiding the enemy. Therefore, Dodd couldn’t stick around for very long. With the help of local citizens, Union Home Guard units closed in. He was arrested and taken to Knoxville.
Christmas was spent in a frigid jail cell. Dodd wrote, “Receiving one-quarter pound bread a day and about one pound beef, no wood hardly-freezing and starving by inches.” Too make matters worse, he was wearing a captured Union jacket and pants, tell tale signs that he might be a Bushwhacker. A common tactic, among Bushwhackers, was to don captured uniforms then infiltrate enemy lines. In the process, pickets were killed and outposts were overrun. As a result, Union General John G. Foster, Commander of the Ohio, ordered all captured Confederate soldiers shot if they were wearing Union uniforms. Further damning evidence came from an unlikely source – his diary. Amidst all the petty dalliances, Union picket locations were noted. It was all the evidence a Union tribunal needed; Dodd was sentenced to be hanged for espionage. Being a Mason, he sought the help of both fellow members and Union chaplains to secure his release. In addition, he was wearing a wide brimmed Texas hat (adorned with a Ranger badge) and a Mexican serape, common attire among Texas troopers and proof that he wasn’t in disguise when captured. All to no avail, Dodd was to be the unfortunate victim of a vicious internecine struggle in the remote hills of East Tennessee; a struggle where burned out farms, destitute refuges and tit-for-tat executions were commonplace. He was clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The execution took place on January 8, 1864. Dodd’s last words were “I die innocent of the charge against me.” In a farcical twist, the rope broke after Dodd was dropped. Upon regaining consciousness and a somewhat upright composure, he was hanged again. His diary was appropriated by the lieutenant of a New Hampshire regiment. Fifty years later, the diary was purchased for the Texas State Archives from a New York resident who came into its possession when the officer died.
Chaplain Bunting’s account of the Dodd hanging was printed in the “Houston Telegraph.” No doubt fueled by the account, Terry’s Texas Rangers would battle on with renewed fury.