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Earl Van Dorn, 1820-1863
A Confederate General whose career was cut short by his murder in 1863 (American Civil War). Van Dorn’s father had moved from New Jersey, to Virginia and finally to Mississippi. Earl attended West Point from 1838 to 1842, graduating 52nd out of 56 in his class (Amongst his classmates were John Pope, William Rosecrans, D. H. Hill and James Longstreet, who graduated 54th!).
From West Point, Van Dorn went into the Infantry. Over the next few years he rose steadily through the ranks, being promoted to captain of the 2nd Cavalry in 1855, reaching major in 1860. During that time he fought in the Mexican War and the Seminole War of 1849-50.
He resigned from the army on 31 January 1861. His was initially appointed brigadier-general of Mississippi state troops. The major-general was Jefferson Davis, and when he was appointed as the first President of the Confederate States of America, Van Dorn was promoted to fill his place. He soon transferred to the regular army, as a Colonel of cavalry. His first posting was to Texas, where he had his first success when David Twiggs, the Federal commander in the state, surrendered his troops before the war had even started.
Promotion soon followed, first to brigadier-general in June, and then to Major General in September. In January 1862 he was appointed to command a new military district of the Trans-Mississippi. His first problem was a Union invasion of northern Arkansas. An army 11,000 strong under Samuel Curtis had forced a smaller Confederate army under Stirling Price out of south west Missouri. Price had united with an Arkansas army under Ben McCulloch, but the two men loathed each other. Van Dorn decided to take command in person, and lead a counterattack.
Curtis took up a defensive position at Pea Ridge, just inside Arkansas. Van Dorn decided to attempt an ambitious outflanking manoeuvre. He would split his army into two. He would lead his section on a long march to the rear of the Union army, while McCulloch would led a smaller flanking manoeuvre against Curtis’s right wing. His hope was that Curtis would be so distracted by McCulloch that he would fail to notice Van Dorn’s own march. After defeating Curtis, Van Dorn hoped to march through Missouri, capture St. Louis, and destroy U.S. Grant’s armies from the rear.
The plan failed. On 7 March McCulloch’s attack was fought off after six hours of intense combat. McCulloch himself was killed in the fighting. Meanwhile, Van Dorn’s main attacking force had been discovered. Curtis turned one division against him, even launching his own counterattack. Van Dorn had a massive numerical advantage at this point, but failed to take advantage of it, allowing Curtis to pull back into a stronger position. The second day of the battle saw Van Dorn launch an attack that was repulsed by Union artillery fire. Curtis then launched a counterattack that drove Van Dorn from the field.
Van Dorn’s defeat was just one of many that faced the Confederates in the west during 1862. Across the Mississippi U.S. Grant had captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, breaking the Confederate defensive line in Tennessee. Now a massive Union concentration threatened Corinth, Mississippi, seen as a crucial position. Van Dorn and his men were summoned east to join the army being created at Corinth. However, before they could arrive, that army had marched east to defeat at Shiloh. Van Dorn arrived at Corinth only in time to take part in the evacuation.
Van Dorn was never to return to the trans-Mississippi. The fall of Corinth and then Memphis, and the earlier loss of New Orleans had transformed the Mississippi from a Confederate highway to a Union barrier. Only Vicksburg, Mississippi, remained in southern hands. At the end of June even that was threatened by a junction of the Union fleets from Memphis and New Orleans. Van Dorn was appointed to command at this critical location, and his ten thousand men were more than enough to see off this first Union attack on the city.
This attack was not called off until the end of July. Before that the Union navy had been somewhat embarrassed by the appearance of the C.S.S. Arkansas, an ironclad that had been built on the Yazoo River. On her first appearance she had crippled the U.S.S. Carondelet, disabled another Union ship and then with her engines failing made it to safety at Vicksburg. There she was safe from Union counterattack. On 26 July the Union fleet departed. Van Dorn had his first success of the war.
In the aftermath Van Dorn decided to attempt the recapture of Baton Rouge. Just as before Pea Ridge, he expected great things to follow from this victory, perhaps even the recapture of New Orleans, but was defeated at the first barrier. The C.S.S. Arkansas was not well made. Her engines proved to be incapable of getting her to Baton Rouge in time, and Van Dorn’s assault was repulsed on 5 August.
The autumn of 1862 saw a brief Confederate recovery in the west. The vast Union army at Corinth was dispersed by its commander, General Halleck and a large part of it sent east towards Chattanooga. While General Braxton Bragg led the main army east then into Kentucky, Stirling Price and Van Dorn were left to launch their own counterattack towards Corinth. Their two armies were to unit in the vicinity of Corinth before launching their attack. This gave U.S. Grant time to organise an attack against Price (Battle of Iuka), before the two armies had even met, but the two armies were still able to unite, giving Van Dorn 22,000 men to attack Rosecrans, who had 23,000 at Corinth.
Van Dorn commanded the united Confederate army during the two days of fighting at Corinth (3-4 October). Despite some successes on 3 October the attack eventually had to be abandoned when it became obvious that more troops were on their way. After another skirmish at Hatchie Bridge (5 October), Van Dorn and his army were able to escape back towards Vicksburg. Van Dorn’s conduct at Corinth was the subject of a court of inquiry, at which he was cleared of all charges.
In the meantime he had been superseded at Vicksburg by General Pemberton. Despite his poor performance as a battlefield commander, Van Dorn was still respected as an able man, and was given command of Pemberton’s cavalry. In this role he carried out his most successful attack of the war. Late in 1862 U.S. Grant launched his first major attempt to capture Vicksburg, combining an advance down the Mississippi under General Sherman with an overland march through Mississippi under his own command. However, he had very long and vulnerable supply lines. On 20 December a cavalry force under Van Dorn charged into Grant’s supply base at Holly Springs, Mississippi, capturing the base and its supplies and forcing Grant to end his expedition.
This was Van Dorn’s last contribution to the Confederate war effort. On 8 May 1863 he was murdered by a personal enemy, a doctor who later claimed that Van Dorn had been having an affair with his wife. Southern sympathies tended toward the doctor, and Van Dorn’s reputation suffered as a result. Having lost both of the battles he commanded, his military reputation does not stand too high either. However, as a cavalry commander he was more successful and it is perfectly possible that if he had survived, then Van Dorn may have made himself a new reputation as one of the Confederacy’s many cavalry heroes.
Notable Scumbags Of The Civil War I: Earl Van Dorn
1. I originally planned to call this “Notable Poltroons,” but poltroon actually means a despicable coward, not just a contemptible person in general. Hence the current, admittedly vulgar, but more accurate title. Much has been written about Civil War heroes, including excessive hagiography about the likes of Lee and Jackson, but little attention has been paid to the conflict’s worthless figures, those far more notable (or notorious) for glaring flaws than noble traits in their characters. Who better to start with than Earl Van Dorn (or “Damn Born” as he was known to his West Point alumni).
2. A large part of this feature has been “novelized.” That is, I’ve dramatized a good deal of Van Dorn’s affair with Jessie Peters, mixing in speculation and rumor with the few known facts. Note too that most of this account has been freely adapted from my most recent novel, The Confessions Of Septimus P. Nasby, soon to appear on bookracks in airports internationally.
He was a study in contrasts. Unquestionably brave and a superb horseman, Van Dorn would gladly undertake a forlorn hope that would make any sane man blanch, happily lead his men from the front head on into a galling fire. He distinguished himself by long service with much combat in the Mexican-American War, Seminole War, and campaigns against the Comanche in Texas. Educated and cultured, Van Dorn painted and wrote poetry and was accounted passable in both fields.
Then there were the bad qualities. Ego comes uppermost to mind. In the Confederate army, whose officers wore red velvet lined cloaks and dueled on the eve of battle, as far as he was concerned, no more dashing, brilliant cavalier rode in the ranks than Earl Van Dorn. The unshakable conviction in his own undeniable superiority grated on both superiors and subordinates alike. The fool almost dueled with Nathan Forrest, a particularly savage backwoods hick turned slave trader, made General by the fortunes of war. The quarrel was successfully mediated, a good thing for Van Dorn too since Forrest would have made mincemeat of him. He loved a show as well with himself as the star attraction. With the exception of a bloody battle, nothing stirred him like a grand military review, an all day affair where thousands of men passed by for inspection while he sat a magnificent bay mare, in short, nothing any sensible, adult man should take an interest in, much less enjoy.
There is no dispute, however, about what constituted Van Dorn’s worst flaw, the real stain: his eternal, ceaseless womanizing. The sight of a slick piece of calico utterly distracted him, blew all thought from his head more effectively than a gunshot. He made no effort to conceal his passion either and openly flirted with any passably attractive woman he saw. While stationed in Texas, he had three illegitimate children by a woman named Martha Goodbread (she was the fort laundress, the horny dog!) while his legitimate wife pined for him in Mississippi.
Van Dorn yearned for military glory to compare with Stuart and Jackson, but badly blundered twice after showing promise at the war’s beginning, the first when he mishandled his men at Pea Ridge and basically handed a victory to the badly outnumbered Yankees. The second was the Battle of Corinth. He made his soldiers charge heavily fortified and defended positions in waves of bloody frontal assaults. For this last wrong step, Van Dorn stood before a military court of inquiry. Although exonerated, the accusation of military incompetence still stung. Relieved of command of an army and relegated back to cavalry service, Van Dorn lusted for glory the way a spurned lover aches for his inamorata.
As commander of the Army of Tennessee’s cavalry corps, Van Dorn hoped to defeat the Yankees in a significant battle and thereby gain undying military glory. He set up headquarters in Spring Hill, Tennessee. While small, the town had its local aristocracy, gentry with mansions, slaves, and pretty wives and daughters. The daughters were thrilled to have officers quartered in their homes and there was a steady round of teas, luncheons, and dances. Of all the young women who swarmed about the gold braid, the most attractive and vivacious was Jessie Peters. She was bright eyed with a fine figure, thick brunette hair, and half Van Dorn’s age, the way he liked them. It took no time for him to scratch up an acquaintance. She was smitten by the pint sized, red haired Lochinvar. They were spotted riding together in a carriage (easy enough in a flyspeck like Spring Hill). Even if Jessie were single, an unrelated man and woman on a buggy ride without an escort was scandalous enough. Yet Jessie was married to her cousin, George Peters, a retired doctor, local politician, and principal landowner. This set every tongue to wagging. This was reckless even for someone as impulsive as Van Dorn when it came to female pheromones.
It wasn’t just the outrage of the thing in and of itself. Van Dorn was thick as thieves with Peters. He frequently came by Van Dorn’s headquarters to request a pass to cross the lines. People said he owned property in Nashville, now Union territory. Or rather, owned until the Federal government seized it. That was supposed to be why he crossed the lines so frequently, to plead for its return. Despite wealth, status, a fine home, and a pretty young wife, Peters was an old, cold fish. His property’s loss only aggravated his miserable disposition. You really couldn’t much blame Jessie for straying.
Stray she did one afternoon. Jessie sashayed up to the house Van Dorn had requisitioned as his quarters dressed in a tight black riding outfit and matching bonnet with an ostrich plume. Peters was away on another trip up north. Rather than request he come down to the parlor as a respectable woman would, the impudent baggage asked the lady of the house if she could speak with Van Dorn alone. When Madam showed understandable reticence, the brazen thing announced she’d ask him herself, brushed past, and went upstairs to Van Dorn’s room where she stayed alone with him for over an hour. This was more than enough for Madam who informed her husband of her outraged feelings upon his return home. Patriotism considerably diminished, she further told him he must inform Van Dorn that the house was no longer available. The husband dutifully if fearfully complied, pleading his family needed the room. Van Dorn graciously acceded, understandably since the next house he requisitioned was close to Jessie’s with only a field between them.
Van Dorn sent a messenger to the Peters’s house with a billet-doux to Jessie, but Peters caught him and read the message. Irate to the point of blowing a vein, Peters screamed, “Tell your whiskey headed master if either he or any servant of his sets foot on my lawn, I’ll blow his brains out where he stands. Now get out.”
The messenger hurried back to Van Dorn’s quarters. Like the vagina-stricken sap he was, Van Dorn ignored his warning. A few days later, Peters was seen in the morning riding out of town on the Shelbyville road. Word spread he’d left on business and would be gone several days. Like opium before an addict, Van Dorn couldn’t resist. Around midnight, Van Dorn skulked out of the back door, wrapped in a black cloak and headed for the Peters house. He went inside.
An hour later, Peters rode up softly, horse held to a walk. He dismounted, and tied the reins to a hitching post. Peters reached into a saddlebag, pulled out a heavy dragoon revolver, and tiptoed up the stairs. Tried to, that is, since Peters was old and clumsy. Even with the noise he made, Van Dorn and Jessie were apparently oblivious, locked in passion or insensible from it. He opened the door and went inside.
The crash of a door kicked open, masculine shouts mingled with feminine screams, a cat’s yowls, and a chamber pot’s crash. Van Dorn ran outside stark naked, caught in flagrante. Rather than flee, the nitwit hid under the porch. Peters burst out of the house. He only searched briefly to find Van Dorn. With surprising activity and strength for an older man, Peters dragged Van Dorn out by the hair from under the porch. He put his pistol to Van Dorn’s temple.
“Now I’ve caught you, sir. You can’t deny your guilt, can you?”
“No. I’ve wronged you, George, Wronged you terribly. Please let me go.”
The fearless Van Dorn, the dauntless cavalier, trapped, naked and ashamed, made to eat crow by a fat old civilian. Maybe I should call him a poltroon after all.
“Will you admit your guilt? Write a letter and confess how you wronged me and beg my pardon so I can print it and show the world what a scoundrel you are? Come now, Van Dorn, tell me plain. I need to know if I have to shoot you.”
“Yes, anything you say. I can’t afford any scandal.”
The rank idiot. Why didn’t he think of that sooner?
Peters lowered his pistol. Jessie came out and went to the men. She handed Van Dorn his nightshirt and cloak which he hurriedly donned. She was the calmest and most self possessed.
“You made your point, George. Let Earl go home and let’s go to bed. It’s late.”
“As if I’d share a bed with such a disgraceful hussy. I’ll divorce you, never mind the scandal.”
Jessie laughed long and loud.
“You’d never dare. You want to keep the property that came with me. We both know how much you love land, George.”
She sure had nerve, laughed in Peters’s face, bid him defiance, while he held a loaded gun and the proof of her treachery stood nude before him. Jessie had him buffaloed too. Van Dorn took the opportunity to skedaddle. Peters shook his fist at him.
“I’ll come for that letter tomorrow, Van Dorn. By God, don’t you dare disappoint me.”
Van Dorn was halfway across the field. Peters tried to argue with Jessie, but she neatly deflected him and soon had him inside the house. The lights went out again and they went to bed together after all. Each marriage is its own peculiar arrangement.
No guard was posted outside Van Dorn’s quarters the next day. Several staff officers were outside, diverted from duty by idle chitchat and a smoke. Peters came down the road on his horse, headed toward the house. He dismounted, went into the house and strode down the hall.
“Dr. Peters. I suppose you want another pass. That should be no problem.”
“You know damn well what I want, Van Dorn. The written confession of your guilt you promised me last night. That’s the only reason you’re still alive right now. Now do you have the letter ready or not?”
Van Dorn fixed Peters with his patented disdainful glare. Last night was one thing. Caught in the act, naked, and drunk, Van Dorn had given way to shame and fear and cravenly promised to eat crow. Now he was in uniform, in his headquarters, with thousands of soldiers around, ready to obey his commands. There was no way Van Dorn would crawfish to Peters now.
“I’ve given that matter some thought. For an officer of field rank to make such admissions, well, it would be injurious to my own personal reputation. More importantly, it would bring dishonor to our Sacred Cause. I can’t be asked to take that step when our young nation is still in so much peril.”
Van Dorn swiveled in his chair to his desk, intent on paperwork, his back to Peters.
“So you won’t write the letter?”
“Yes, that’s the short of it, Peters. Now take the door, you damn puppy, or I’ll-”
A gunshot cut Van Dorn off. A sharp clatter of heels and Peters was out the door, on his horse, and galloping toward the Yankee lines. Van Dorn sat slumped onto his field desk, the back of his head a bloody mess. Peters had taken advantage of his foolhardy arrogance to take a coward’s revenge and shoot Van Dorn from behind.
This was the ignominious end of Van Dorn, the only Confederate general to die in the war of causes other than battle, namely shot dead by the man whose head he put horns on, the last in a long line of ugly, cuckolded husbands. In short, a disgrace to the uniform that he wore and his commission as an officer and a gentleman. Let us all raise a glass in a drunken toast to Earl Van Dorn, first and possibly the finest of our Civil scumbags!
Van Dorn was born near Port Gibson in Claiborne County, Mississippi, to Sophia Donelson Caffery, a niece of Andrew Jackson, and Peter Aaron Van Dorn, who worked as a lawyer and judge. He had eight siblings among whom were two sisters, Emily Van Dorn Miller and Octavia Van Dorn (Ross) Sulivane. His sister Octavia, had a son, Clement Sulivane, who was a captain in the CSA forces and served on Earls staff he later became a Lt. Colonel. In December 1843 Earl married Caroline Godbold, and they had a son named Earl Van Dorn, Jr. and a daughter named Olivia. Α]
In 1838 Van Dorn attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, and graduated four years later, standing 52nd out of 56 cadets. Β] His family relations to Andrew Jackson had secured him an appointment there. Γ] He was appointed a brevet second lieutenant in the 7th U.S. Infantry Regiment on July 1, 1842, and began his Army service in the Southern United States. Δ] Van Dorn and the 7th were on garrison duty at Fort Pike, Louisiana, in 1842 to 1843, and were stationed at Fort Morgan, Alabama, briefly in 1843. He did garrison duty at the Mount Vernon Arsenal in Alabama from 1843 into 1844, and he was ordered to Pensacola harbor in Florida from 1844 to 1845, during which Van Dorn was promoted to second lieutenant on November 30, 1844. Δ]
War with Mexico [ edit | edit source ]
Van Dorn was part of the 7th U.S. Infantry when Texas was occupied by the U.S. Army from 1845 into 1846, and spent the early stages of the Mexican-American War on garrison duty defending Fort Texas (Fort Brown) in Brownsville, the southernmost town in Texas. Ε]
Van Dorn saw action at the Battle of Monterrey on September 21, 1846, and during the Siege of Vera Cruz from March 9, 1847. Δ] He was then transferred to Gen. Winfield Scott's command in early 1847 and promoted to first lieutenant on March 3. Β] Van Dorn fought well in the rest of his engagements in Mexico, earning himself two brevet promotions for conduct He was appointed a brevet captain on April 18 for his participation at the Battle of Cerro Gordo, and to major on August 20 for his actions near Mexico City, including the Battle of Contreras, the Battle of Churubusco, and at the Belén Gate. Van Dorn was wounded in the foot near Mexico City on September 3, Β] and wounded again during the storming of the Belén Gate on September 13. Ε]
After the war with Mexico, Van Dorn served as aide-de-camp to Brev. Maj. Gen P. F. Smith from April 3, 1847, to May 20, 1848. He and the 7th were in garrison at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, from 1848 into 1849, and then at Jefferson Barracks in Lemay, Missouri, in 1849. He saw action in Florida against the Seminoles from 1849 to 1850, and was on recruiting service in 1850 and 1851. Δ]
From 1852 to 1855 Van Dorn was stationed at the East Pascagoula Branch Military Asylum in Mississippi, serving as secretary then treasurer of the post. Ε] He spent the remainder of 1855 stationed at New Orleans, Louisiana, briefly on recruiting service again, and then in garrison back at Jefferson Barracks. Δ] He was promoted to captain in the 2nd Cavalry on March 3, 1855. Β] Van Dorn and the 2nd were on frontier duty at Fort Belknap and Camp Cooper, Texas, in 1855 and 1856, scouting in northern Texas in 1856, and fought a minor skirmish with Comanche on July 1, 1856. He was then assigned to Camp Colorado, Texas, in 1856 to 1857, scouting duty again in 1857, returned to Camp Colorado in 1857 to 1858, and finally stationed at Fort Chadbourne located in Coke County, Texas, in 1858. Δ]
Van Dorn saw further action against the Seminoles and also the Comanches in the Indian Territory. He was wounded four separate times there, Δ] including seriously when he commanded an expedition against Comanches and took two arrows (one in his left arm and another in his right side, damaging his stomach and lung) at the Battle of Rush Spring on October 1, 1858. Β] Not expected to live, Van Dorn recovered in five weeks. Van Dorn led six companies of cavalry and a company of scouts recruited from the Brazos Reservation in a spring campaign against the Comanche in 1859. He located the camp of Buffalo Hump in Kansas in a valley he erroneously identified as the Nescutunga (or Nessentunga), and defeated them on Crooked Creek on May 13, 1859, killing 49, wounding five and capturing 32 women. He served at Fort Mason, Texas, in 1859 and 1860. Δ] While at Fort Mason, Van Dorn was promoted to the rank of major on June 28, 1860. Β] He then was on a leave of absence from the U.S. Army for the rest of 1860 and into 1861. Δ]
Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, (CSA)
Born 20 September 1820 at Port Gibson, MS. Educated in Baltimore. Appointed to West Point class of 1842 by President Andrew Jackson ("Uncle Andrew") Earl finished 52nd in a class of 56 men he was to fight with and against in the Civil War a personal friend of fellow officers Zachary Taylor, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis. Stationed in Alabama, he married Carolina (Carrie) Godbold and had three children.
Earl fought in the Mexican War, then in the Indian Wars. Commanded Confederate armies in AS, MS, and TN. Fatally shot by Dr. George Peters on 7 May 1863 at Spring Hill, TN, near Nashville, re misbehavior with the young Mrs. (Jessie) Peters. Buried in the city cemetery at Port Gibson, marked still today with a simple stone, "Earl Van Dorn". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earl_Van_Dorn
Earl Van Dorn (September 17, 1820 – May 7, 1863) was a career United States Army officer, fighting with distinction during the Mexican-American War and against several tribes of Native Americans. He also served as a Confederate general during the American Civil War, noted for his defeats at Pea Ridge and Corinth in 1862, and his murder by a civilian in the spring of 1863.
Known to be short, impulsive, and highly emotional, Van Dorn was also a noted painter, writer of poetry, was respected for his skill at riding a horse, and also known for his love of women. This last trait would lead to his death in 1863, when his alleged womanizing became public knowledge. A reporter at the time dubbed him "the terror of ugly husbands" shortly before Van Dorn's murder.
Van Dorn was born near Port Gibson in Claiborne County, Mississippi, to Sophia Donelson Caffery, a niece of Andrew Jackson, and Peter Aaron Van Dorn, who worked as a lawyer and judge. He also had a sister named Emily Van Dorn Miller. In December 1843 he married Caroline Godbold, and they had a son named Earl Van Dorn, Jr. and a daughter named Olivia.
In 1838 Van Dorn attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, and graduated four years later, standing 52nd out of 56 cadets. His family relations to Andrew Jackson had secured him an appointment there. He was appointed a brevet second lieutenant in the 7th U.S. Infantry Regiment on July 1, 1842, and began his Army service in the Southern United States.
Van Dorn and the 7th were on garrison duty at Fort Pike, Louisiana, in 1842 to 1843, and were stationed at Fort Morgan, Alabama, briefly in 1843. He did garrison duty at the Mount Vernon Arsenal in Alabama from 1843 into 1844, and the was ordered to Pensacola harbor in Florida from 1844 to 1845, during which Van Dorn was promoted to second lieutenant on November 30, 1844.
Van Dorn was part of the 7th U.S. Infantry when Texas was occupied by the U.S. Army from 1845 into 1846, and spent the early stages of the Mexican-American War on garrison duty defending Fort Texas (Fort Brown) in Brownsville, the southernmost town in Texas.
Van Dorn saw action at the Battle of Monterrey on September 21, 1846, and during the Siege of Vera Cruz from March 9, 1847. He was then transferred to Gen. Winfield Scott's command in early 1847 and promoted to first lieutenant on March 3. Van Dorn fought well in the rest of his engagements in Mexico, earning himself two brevet promotions for conduct He was appointed a brevet captain on April 18 for his participation at the Battle of Cerro Gordo, and to major on August 20 for his actions near Mexico City, including the Battle of Contreras, the Battle of Churubusco, and at the Belén Gate. Van Dorn was wounded in the foot near Mexico City on September 3, and wounded again during the storming of the Belén Gate on September 13.
After the war with Mexico, Van Dorn served as aide-de-camp to Brev. Maj. Gen P. F. Smith from April 3, 1847, to May 20, 1848. He and the 7th were in garrison at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, from 1848 into 1849, and then at Jefferson Barracks in Lemay, Missouri, in 1849. He saw action in Florida against the Seminoles from 1849 to 1850, and was on recruiting service in 1850 and 1851.
From 1852 to 1855 Van Dorn was stationed at the East Pascagoula Branch Military Asylum in Mississippi, serving as secretary then treasurer of the post. He spend the remainder of 1855 stationed at New Orleans, Louisiana, briefly on recruiting service again, and then in garrison back at Jefferson Barracks. He was promoted to captain in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry on March 3, 1855. Van Dorn and the 2nd were on frontier duty at Camp Cooper, Texas, in 1855 and 1856, scouting in northern Texas in 1856, and fought a minor skirmish with Comanche on July 1, 1856. He was then assigned to Camp Colorado, Texas, in 1856 to 1857, scouting duty again in 1857, returned to Camp Colorado in 1857 to 1858, and finally stationed at Fort Chadbourne located in Coke County, Texas, in 1858.
Van Dorn saw further action against the Seminoles and also the Comanches in the Indian Territory. He was wounded four separate times there, including seriously when commanded an expedition against Comanches and took two arrows (one in his left arm and another in his right side, damaging his stomach and lung) near the village of Wichita on October 1, 1858. Without a surgeon near enough to treat Van Dorn, he pushed the arrow completely through his side. Van Dorn and the 2nd were stationed at Camp Radziminski in the Indian Territory from 1858 to 1859, and at Camp Colorado, Texas, in 1859. Van Dorn was in command of scouting party against the Comanche in 1859, fought in the Valley of Nessentunga on May 13, 1859, and served at Fort Mason, Texas, in 1859 and 1860. While at Fort Mason, Van Dorn was promoted to the rank of major on June 28, 1860. He then was on a leave of absence from the U.S. Army for the rest of 1860 and into 1861.
Van Dorn chose to follow his home state and the Confederate cause, and he resigned his U.S. Army commission, which was accepted effective January 31, 1861. He was appointed a brigadier general in the Mississippi Militia on January 23, and replaced Jefferson Davis as major general and commander of Mississippi's state forces in February when Davis was selected as the Confederacy's President.
After resigning from the Mississippi Militia on March 16, 1861, Van Dorn entered the Regular Confederate Army as a colonel of infantry on that same date. He was sent west to raise and lead a volunteer brigade within the new Confederate Department of Texas. On April 11 he was given command of Confederate forces in Texas, and was also ordered to arrest and detain any U.S. troops in the state who refused to join the Confederacy.
Leaving New Orleans on April 14 and arriving at Galveston, Texas, he and his men succeeded in capturing three Union ships in the town's harbor, on April 17 and then headed for the last remaining regular U.S. Army soldiers in Texas at Indianola, forcing their surrender on April 23. While at Indianola, Van Dorn attempted to recruit the captured U.S. soldiers into the forces of the Confederacy, but was largely unsuccessful.
Van Dorn was summoned to Richmond, Virginia, and appointed a colonel in the 1st C.S. Regular Cavalry on April 25, leading all of Virginia's cavalry forces, and then quickly promoted to brigadier general on June 5. After being promoted to major general on September 19, 1861, Van Dorn was given divisional command in the Confederate Army of the Potomac five days later, leading the 1st Division until January 10, 1862. Around this time Confederate President Davis needed a commander the new Trans-Mississippi District, as two of the leading Confederate generals there, bitter rivals Sterling Price and Benjamin McCulloch, required a leader to subdue their strong personalities and organize an effective fighting force. Both Henry Heth and Braxton Bragg had turned down the post, and Davis selected Van Dorn. He headed west beginning on September 19 to concentrate his separated commands, and set up his headquarters at Pocahontas, Arkansas. He assumed command of the district on January 29, 1862.
By late 1861 and early 1862, Federal forces in Missouri had pushed nearly all Confederate forces out of the state. When Van Dorn took command of the department, he had to react with his roughly 17,000 man, 60 gun Army of the West to events already underway. Van Dorn wanted to attack and destroy the Union forces, make his way into Missouri, and capture St. Louis, turning over control of this important state to the Confederacy. He met his now-concentrated force near Boston Mountains on March 3, and the army began moving north the next day.
In the spring of 1862, Union Brig. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis entered Arkansas and pursued the Confederates with his 10,500 strong Army of the Southwest. Curtis collected his four divisions and 50 artillery guns and moved into Benton County, Arkansas, following a stream called Sugar Creek. Along it on the northern side he found an excellent defensive position and began to fortify it, expecting an assault from the south. Van Dorn chose not to attack Curtis's entrenched position head on. Instead he split his force into two, one division led by Price and the other by McCulloch, and ordered them to march north, hoping to reunite in Curtis' rear. Van Dorn decided to leave behind his supply wagons in order to increase their moving speed, a decision that would prove critical. Several other factors caused the proposed junction to be delayed, such as the lack of proper gear for the Confederates (some said to lack even shoes) for a forced march, felled trees placed across their path, their exhausted and hungry condition, and the late arrival of McCulloch's men. These delays allowed the Union commander to repositioned part of his army throughout March 6 and meet the unexpected attack from his rear, placing Curtis' forces between the two wings of the Confederate army. Plus when Van Dorns' advance guard accidentally ran into Union patrols near Elm Springs, the Federals were alerted to his approach.
The Battle of Pea Ridge would be one of the few instances in the American Civil War where the Confederate forces outnumbered the Union forces. Just prior to taking command of the district, Van Dorn wrote to his wife Caroline, saying "I am now in for it, to make a reputation and serve my country conspicuously or fail. I must not, shall not, do the latter. I must have St. Louis -- then Huzza!"
After waiting for McCulloch to join him, Van Dorn grew frustrated and decided to act with what he had on March 7. Around 9 a.m. he ordered Price to attack the Union position close to Elkhorn Tavern, and despite Price being wounded they had succeeded in pushing the Union forces back by nightfall, cutting Curtis' lines of communication. Meanwhile McCulloch, under orders from Van Dorn to take a different route and hurry his march, had engaged part of Curtis' defenses. Early on in the fighting McCulloch and Brig, Gen. James M. McIntosh were killed, leaving no commander there to organize an effective attack. When Van Dorn learned of the problems with his right wing, he renewed Price's attacks, saying "Then we must press them the harder." and the Confederates pushed Curtis back. That night the junction of Price and what remained of McCulloch's men was made, and Van Dorn pondered his next move. With his supplies and ammunition 15 miles (24 km) away and the Union force between them, Van Dorn maintained his position.
The following day, March 8, showed Curtis and his command in an even stronger position, about a mile back from where they were on March 7. Van Dorn had his men arranged defensively in front of Pea Ridge Mountain, and when it was light enough he ordered the last of his artillery's ammunition fired at the Union position, to see what the Federals would do. The Union artillery answered back and knocked out most of Van Dorn's guns. Curtis then counterattacked and routed the Confederates, mostly without actual contact between the opposing infantries. Van Dorn decided to withdraw south, retreating through sparse country for a week and his men living off what little they got from the few inhabitants of the region. The Army of the West finally reunited with their supplies south of the Boston Mountains. In his official report Van Dorn described his summary of the events at Pea Ridge:
I attempted first to beat the enemy at Elkhorn, but a series of accidents entirely unforeseen and not under my control and a badly-disciplined army defeated my intentions. The death of McCulloch and Mcintosh and the capture of Hebert left me without an officer to command the right wing, which was thrown into utter confusion, and the strong position of the enemy the second day left me no alternative but to retire from the contest.
Casualties from this battle have never been fully agreed upon. The figures given by most military historians are about 1,000 to 1,200 total Federal soldiers and around 2,000 Confederate. However Van Dorn estimated slightly different numbers in his official reports. He gives losses of about 800 killed with 1,000 to 1,200 wounded and 300 prisoners (about 2,300 total) for the Union, and only 800 to 1,000 killed and wounded and between 200 and 300 prisoners (about 1,300 total) from his army.
The Confederate defeat at this battle, coupled with Van Dorn's army being ordered across the Mississippi River to bolster the Army of Tennessee, enabled the Union to control the entire state of Missouri and threaten the heart of Arkansas, left virtually defenseless without Van Dorn's forces. Despite the loss at Pea Ridge, the Confederate Congress would vote its thanks "for their valor, skill, and good conduct in the battle of Elkhorn in the states of Arkansas" to Van Dorn and his men on April 21. In his report on March 18 to Judah P. Benjamin, then the Confederate Secretary of War, Van Dorn refuted suffering a loss, saying "I was not defeated, but only foiled in my intentions. I am yet sanguine of success, and will not cease to repeat my blows whenever the opportunity is offered."
The performance of Van Dorn at the Second Battle of Corinth that fall led to another Union Army victory. As at Pea Ridge, Van Dorn did well in the early stages of the battle on October 1𠄲, 1862, combining with the Price's men and prudently placing his force that now was roughly equal in size to the Federals at about 22,000 soldiers. However, Van Dorn failed to reconnoiter the Union defenses, and his attack on Brig. Gen. William S. Rosecrans' strong defensive position at Corinth, Mississippi, on October 3 was bloodily repulsed.
On October 4𠄵 his command was "roughly handled" along the Hatchie River by Union soldiers led by Brig. Gens. Stephen A. Hurlbut and Edward Ord. However Rosecrans' lack of an aggressive pursuit allowed what was left of Van Dorn's men to escape. Total casualties for the Second Battle of Corinth totaled 2,520 (355 killed, 1,841 wounded, 324 missing) for the Union, and 4,233 (473 killed, 1,997 wounded, 1,763 captured/missing) for the Confederates.
After the battle Van Dorn ordered a retreat, falling back through Oxford and then Coffeeville, and finally reaching Abbeville, constantly skirmishing with Federal cavalry. Along the way Van Dorn and his staff were nearly captured at Water Valley on December 4. Two days later Van Dorn halted the retreat at Grenada. Following the defeat at Corinth, Van Dorn was sent before a court of inquiry to answer for his performance there. Though he was acquitted of the charges against him, Van Dorn would never be trusted with the command of an army again, and he was subsequently relieved of his district command.
Return to cavalry service
Van Dorn proved to be more effective as a cavalry commander his action in a raid at Holly Springs, Mississippi on December 20, 1862, seriously disrupted Ulysses S. Grant's first Vicksburg Campaign plans, capturing 1,500 soldiers and destroying at least $1,500,000 USD worth of Union supplies. Van Dorn and his men then followed the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, fought unsuccessfully at Davis's Mills, skirmished near Middleburg, Tennessee, passed around Bolivar, and returned to their Grenada base by December 28.
Earl Van Dorn in his Confederate general officer's uniformOn January 13, 1863, Van Dorn was appointed to command all cavalry in the Department of Mississippi & East Louisiana, and then was ordered by Gen. Joseph E. Johnston to join the Army of Tennessee, operating in Middle Tennessee. Van Dorn and his force left Tupelo, Mississippi, went through Florence, and reached the army on February 20 at Columbia, Tennessee. Van Dorn set up his headquarters at Spring Hill, and assumed command of all of the surrounding cavalry from there. He was ordered by the army commander, Gen. Braxton Bragg, to protect and scout the left of the army, screening against Union cavalry.
Van Dorn was also successful at Battle of Thompson's Station, on March 5, 1863. There a Union brigade, under Col. John Coburn, left Franklin to reconnoiter to the south. About four miles short of Spring Hill Coburn attacked a Confederate force composed of two regiments and was repulsed. Van Dorn then sent Brig. Gen. W. H. Jackson's dismounted soldiers to make a direct frontal assault, while Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest's troopers went around Coburn's left and into the Federal rear. After three charges were beaten back, Jackson finally carried the Union position as Forrest captured Coburn's wagon train, blocking the road to Columbia and the only Union escape route. Nearly out of ammunition as well as surrounded, Coburn surrendered.
On March 16, 1863, Van Dorn was given command on the cavalry corps of Army of Tennessee and fought his last fight April 10 at the First Battle of Franklin, skirmishing with the cavalry of Gordon Granger and losing 137 men to Granger's 100 or so. This minor action caused Van Dorn to halt his movement and rethink his plans, and subsequently he returned in the Spring Hill area.
It was Van Dorn's reputation as a womanizer, not a Union bullet, that led to his death. In May 1863 he was shot in his headquarters at Spring Hill in Maury County, Tennessee, by Dr. James Bodie Peters, who claimed that Van Dorn had carried on an affair with his wife Jessie McKissack Peters. Alone in his office at the home of Martin Cheairs (now known as Ferguson Hall) Van Dorn was writing at his desk, and Peters entered and shot him once in the back of the head, killing him instantly. Peters was later arrested by Confederate authorities, but was never brought to trial for the killing. In defense of his actions, Dr. Peters stated that Van Dorn had "violated the sanctity of his home."
General Van Dorn is one of the three major generals in the American Civil War who died violently but from private problems. The others were Union Major General William "Bull" Nelson, shot as the result of a feud with then Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis in September 1862 and Confederate Major General John A. Wharton, shot as the result of an argument with Colonel George Wythe Baylor in April 1865.
Van Dorn's body was brought back to Mississippi and buried at Wintergreen Cemetery in Port Gibson. His father Peter had also been buried there, and Earl Van Dorn was laid to rest beside him.
Controversial throughout his life, Van Dorn as a military commander was an able leader of small to medium groups of soldiers, particularly cavalry, but was out of his depth with larger commands. Military historian David L. Bongard described him as "aggressive, brave, and energetic but lacked the spark of genius necessary for successful high command in combat." Military historian Richard P. Weinert summarized Van Dorn "A brilliant cavalry officer, he was a disappointment in command of large combined forces."
Military historian and biographer John C. Fredriksen described him as "a brave and capable soldier, but he proved somewhat lacking in administrative ability." Fredriksen goes on to say that Van Dorn belonged in cavalry command, stating him to be "back in his element" and "demonstrated flashed of brilliance" with that branch of the service. Fredriksen also believed Van Dorn's successes at Holly Springs and Thompson's Station in the spring of 1863 made him one of the leading cavalry leaders in the Confederacy, and notes that his death cost the service a "useful leader at a critical juncture of the Vicksburg campaign" and also states that Van Dorn was the senior major general in the Confederate States Army at the time of his murder.
Earl Van Dorn
Earl Van Dorn began his military career after graduating 52nd out of 56 from the United States Military Academy in the class of 1842. He first served in several posts throughout the Southern United States, before being sent to Texas and then Mexico during the Mexican-American War. He saw combat during the battles of Monterrey and Vera Cruz, and received brevet promotions up to major for his participation in the battles of Cerro Gordo, Mexico City, Contreras, and Churubusco. After the war, he was once again sent to outposts in the South, and took part in action against the Seminole Indians from 1849 to 1850. He also fought several engagements in the West against Comanche Indians from 1858 to 1859.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, he resigned from the United States military and was appointed a brigadier general of the Mississippi Militia on January 23, 1861. He resigned this commission however, and was made a brigadier general in the regular Confederate army on June 5, 1861. He was first sent west to Texas, where men under his command helped capture U.S. Army soldiers in the state before they could make it North. He was promoted to major general on September 19, 1861, and was briefly transferred to Virginia, where he was made commander of the Army in the West in the Trans-Mississippi Theatre. His first major action of the war came at the battle of Pea Ridge, where Union forces under General Samuel R. Curtis defeated Van Dorn’s large Confederate force. After his defeat, Van Dorn was transferred to the Army of the Mississippi, and commanded his troops during the battle of Corinth. Van Dorn again did well during the initial stages of the battle, but misjudged the Union defensive position and was repulsed, forcing his men to retreat. After this battle, Van Dorn was taken out of command of the army, and placed instead in command of the cavalry under General John C. Pemberton.
Van Dorn’s most impressive achievement came while in command of Pemberton’s cavalry. He led his troopers in action in December of 1862 against the supply depots of Union general Ulysses S. Grant located at Holly Springs, Mississippi. Van Dorn’s forces destroyed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of supplies, and disrupted Grant’s operations against Vicksburg. After the battle, Van Dorn took part in several minor cavalry skirmishes until his death in May of 1863. On May 7, 1863, George B. Peters shot and killed Earl Van Dorn after Van Dorn had allegedly committed adultery with Peters’ wife.
Rambling: Death of a ‘‘Frat Boy’’
Looks that got him killed: Major General Earl Van Dorn’s blue eyes, long wavy blond hair, and bushy moustache helped make him a ladies man.
(American Civil War Museum Collection, Courtesy of the Virginia Museum of History and Culture)
Confederate general Earl Van Dorn would hardly recognize the neighborhood central to the story of the end of his life
A skate park, pool supply store, and a rusty chain-link fence that commands little respect surround White Hall, the mansion in Spring Hill, Tenn., where Major General Earl Van Dorn, Army of Mississippi cavalry commander, made his headquarters beginning in March 1863. Although the Civil War-era home of physician and planter Aaron White retains most of its old charm, it clearly needs fresh coats of white paint. Large maples and a massive, ancient oak tree nearly obscure the view of the 1844 mansion from busy Duplex Road. “Private Property, No Trespassing,” warns a small sign near the front door.
A half-mile away, another mansion where Van Dorn also made his headquarters stands atop a slope overlooking Columbia Pike. Built in 1853, it is bordered by a ranch house, a carport, and the rest of the campus of the Tennessee Children’s Home, which owns the nearly two-acre property. Known
as Ferguson Hall, the Civil War-era home of Martin Cheairs boasts of nearly 8,000 square feet, four large bedrooms, a magnificent, freestanding spiral staircase, eight fireplaces, and 12-foot ceilings. But it, too, could use a dose of TLC.
An angry husband and father shot Van Dorn dead in Ferguson Hall. (John Banks)
Each mansion is for sale, with asking prices well north of $1 million. And each has a dark, ugly past: 155 years ago, White Hall was site of the beginning of a scandalous affair between the 42-year-old Van Dorn and a married woman 17 years his junior. Cheairs’ stately home was the site of the general’s murder.
Perhaps no one knows more about Earl Van Dorn than Bridget Smith, author of Where Elephants Fought, a historical novel about the twists and turns of his sordid life and death. A 53-year-old Tennessee native, Smith has devoted more than 20 years researching the man she calls a “typical 1860s frat boy.”
A Mississippian who graduated 52nd of 56 in the West Point Class of 1842, Van Dorn was one of the war’s most flamboyant and compelling personalities. He enjoyed poetry and was an accomplished painter and horseman. A Mexican War veteran, Van Dorn was the grand-nephew of President Andrew Jackson, who helped secure an appointment for him at the academy. During the Civil War, he quickly rose from army brigadier general to major general before becoming a cavalry commander. His battlefield results, mostly in the Western Theater, were mixed. In his greatest triumph, Van Dorn’s cavalry forces destroyed more than $1 million of Union supplies on December 20, 1862, at Holly Springs, Miss., disrupting Ulysses Grant’s operations against Vicksburg, Miss. “He was,” says Smith, “always looking for fame and glory.”
Although Van Dorn and his wife, Caroline—“a girlish-looking little woman” whom he married in 1843 when she was 16—had two children together, the general was far from a devoted partner. He worked overtime to earn one of the all-time great nicknames, the “terror of ugly husbands and nervous papas.”
The general’s blood may still stain the mansion’s wood floors. (John Banks)
Smith—who is writing a nonfiction companion to Where Elephants Fought and working on a movie about the general—has documented Van Dorn’s dalliances. There was the 18-year-old in Vicksburg. And a woman in Texas—a “laundress” probably of, ahem, low social standing—with whom he had three children. For Van Dorn, Smith says, there was “a constant flow of women.”
A reporter traveling with him in 1863 also took notice of Van Dorn’s obsession with the opposite sex, writing of the general’s conversation with a “buxom widow of twenty” in Spring Hill: “After the lively little creature had congratulated him upon his recent success, she closed by saying: ‘General, you are older than I am, but let me give you a little advice—let the women alone until the war is over.’
‘My God, madam! replied he, ‘I cannot do that, for it is all I am fighting for. I hate all men and were it not for the women, I should not fight at all besides, if I adopted your generous advice, I would not now be speaking to you.’”
Van Dorn’s constant flow of women ended in Tennessee, 35 miles south of Nashville. The beginning of the end came at White Hall.
After Joe Ed and Jean Gaddes purchased White Hall in 1992, the couple labored on the antebellum house, saving almost all the original structure. “We’ve worked on this all we could,” says Jean, 76. “We sure would like to see someone buy it who appreciates its history.”
Surprisingly, the couple have never lived in White Hall, instead holding weddings, club meetings, high school reunions, and holiday events in the mansion by appointment only. They relish entertaining visitors with tales of its remarkable past. On the mansion lawn in late November 1864, Nathan Bedford Forest’s cavalrymen were served fried chicken by the White family, and the house was a Confederate hospital after the Battle of Franklin. But it’s a visit in the spring of 1863 that drives this story.
Eager to meet Earl Van Dorn, 25-year-old Jessie Peters brushed by Mrs. White and headed for the general’s room on the second floor of White Hall. Peters was the beautiful third wife of George Peters, a 51-year-old doctor, farmer, and politician. Jessie’s visit to White Hall led to gossip of an affair and incensed the Whites, who suggested the general move his headquarters elsewhere. Van Dorn complied, taking his troopers to Cheairs’ mansion nearby. Soon, Dr. Peters got word of the “distressing affair.”
At White Hall the Confederate general reportedly began his affair with Peters’ wife, but some accounts claim the cavalry commander was romancing the doctor’s daughter. Either way, it was Van Dorn’s last fling. (John Banks)
Although facts of Van Dorn’s murder remain in dispute, this we know for sure: On the morning of May 7, 1863, in a first-floor room in Cheairs’ mansion, Dr. Peters shot the general in the head with a single-shot pocket pistol, killing him. The gunshot apparently was muffled, so Van Dorn’s staff outside was unaware the general had been shot until well after the fact. With aid of a pass signed by Van Dorn, Peters escaped, riding a horse through Confederate lines to Union-held Nashville, where he surrendered. The doctor readily admitted his guilt, giving Federal authorities a detailed account of the shooting.
Peters said he told Van Dorn, “If you don’t comply with my demands I will instantly blow your brains out.” The general, according to Peters, then replied, “You d—d cowardly dog, take that door, or I will kick you out of it.” Peters then drew his pistol and fired, recalling that Van Dorn “received the shot in the left side of his head just above the ear, killing him instantly.” Peters was never convicted of the killing.
If you believe Van Dorn’s staff, the general was “entirely unconscious of any meditated hostility on the part of Dr. Peters.” The general’s rumored involvement with Jessie? Rubbish, they said. Author Smith believes Van Dorn’s affair with a member of the Peters family indeed was the catalyst for the dastardly deed. But her research points to the general’s seduction of 15-year-old Clara Peters—the doctor’s daughter from his second marriage—as Peters’ motivation to commit murder. In another twist to this ugly tale, Smith has evidence suggesting Van Dorn impregnated Clara, whom the family later had stashed away in a Missouri convent, where she became a nun.
Final Dalliance: Dr. George Peters took matters into his own hands and shot Van Dorn dead on May 7, 1863. (Courtesy of Bridget Smith)
Coverage of Van Dorn’s death was mostly slanted toward the allegiance of the publication. “The murder of Gen. Van Dorn,” the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser wrote, “will strike a thrill of horror through the whole South…” But Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Weekly Herald had the most biting critique of the dead general: “This man was a conspicuous traitor. He had not a particle of moral principle, deceiving alike, friend and foe. He was false to his country, his God, and his fellow men. A violent death was the natural consequence of a life stained all over with violence.”
Laura Wayman, a 64-year-old Michigan native, has an intimate knowledge of the room where Van Dorn was killed. From 2003-2005, she lived alone in Ferguson Hall, steps from her job as an administrator for the Tennessee Children’s Home. “No,” she says unprompted, “I never saw any ghosts.” Over the years, the mansion has served as a military academy, housing for the children’s home and a residence for the president of the home. Most recently, it has been used as a venue for special events.
In the murder room, a desk like the one Van Dorn sat at when a one-ounce piece of lead was fired into his brain stands against the far, back wall. In a gold frame, a large painting of the general hangs above a fireplace, on a robin egg-blue-painted wall.
“There’s a lot of me in this house,” says Wayman, who has filed for funding grants for the mansion and even painted walls of its many large rooms. There may be something of Van Dorn in the house, too. Splotches on the wood floorboards a foot or so from the commander’s replica desk appear to be blood. A sliver that was cut from the floor was tested in Nashville. The result: Confirmation of the presence of blood of an unknown male. Perhaps that’s only fitting. After all, “Van Dorn,” Bridget Smith says, “is quite the mystery.” ✯
Legends of America
Confederate General Earl Van Dorn
Earl Van Dorn was a West Point graduate and career U.S. Army officer, who fought with distinction in the Mexican-American War, but, resigned his commission in 1861 to join with his native state of Mississippi, in the Confederate cause. He would make the ultimate sacrifice for his beliefs.
Earl was born in Claiborne County, Mississippi on September 17, 1820, to Peter Aaron Van Dorn, a lawyer and judge and Sophia Donelson Caffery, a niece of Andrew Jackson.
When he grew up his family relations to Andrew Jackson secured him an appointment at the United States Military Academy at West Point and he enrolled in 1838. In July 1842 he was appointed a brevet second lieutenant in the 7th U.S. Infantry Regiment and began his army service in the Southern United States.
In December 1843, Van Dorn married Caroline Godbold, and the couple would eventually have two children. After fighting in the Mexican-American War, he saw action in Indian Wars with the Seminole in Florida and the Comanche in Texas. However, when the Civil War erupted, he resigned his commission in 1861 to join the Confederacy. After serving briefly as commander of the Mississippi Militia, Van Dorn received a commission in the regular Confederate army as a colonel of infantry in March 1861.
Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, by Kurz & Allison
In January 1862, Van Dorn, now a major general, was given command of the newly-formed Trans-Mississippi Military District. Van Dorn immediately faced a Union invasion of Arkansas. He personally took charge of his two Confederate armies and devised a complex flanking maneuver designed not only to defeat the smaller Union force but also to advance north through Missouri, capture St. Louis and threaten Ulysses S. Grant’s armies. Despite his numerical advantage, Van Dorn’s two-pronged attack on entrenched Federal positions at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, failed due to delays, lack of supplies, and the loss of his top two army commanders. The Union forces counterattacked and drove Van Dorn’s armies from the field.
Van Dorn suffered a similar fate at the Second Battle of Corinth, Mississippi. Again failing to properly reconnoiter the defensive position of his opponent, Van Dorn’s attack on General Rosecran’s Federal troops fell short and was eventually repulsed, forcing the Confederates to retreat. Following the battle, Van Dorn was relieved of his army command and reassigned to command General John C. Pemberton’s cavalry. As a cavalry commander Van Dorn would achieve his greatest success in a raid on Grant’s supply depot at Holly Springs, Mississippi, on December 20, 1862. Van Dorn’s raid thwarted Grant’s initial plan to attack Vicksburg and cut the Confederacy in half. On May 7, 1863, Van Dorn was shot dead at his headquarters by a husband jealous of the attentions Van Dorn paid his wife. He was buried at the Wintergreen Cemetery in Port Gibson, Mississippi.
The struggle over Corinth and its railroad crossroads would go on for some six months.
CONFEDERATE ARMY OF THE TRANS-MISSISSIPPI Part I
The Army of the Trans-Mississippi was the army of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department (originally District). The department encompassed approximately a third of the territory of the Confederate States of America and included Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Indian Territory (mostly modern Oklahoma), and the portion of Louisiana west of the Mississippi River. After the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi, to Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863, a Union victory that put the Mississippi River under USA control and split the Confederacy along its north-south axis, both the Trans-Mississippi Department and its army operated almost independently from the rest of the CSA. Indeed, the commander of the army, General Kirby Smith, acted with such autonomy that the Trans-Mississippi Department was universally referred to as “Kirby Smithdom.” The general and his force had the distinction of being the last Confederate army to surrender, on May 26, 1865. Terms were concluded at Galveston, Texas, on June 2, but the 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles, a part of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi, under the command of Brigadier General Stand Watie, himself a Cherokee, remained in the field until June 23, 1865. Watie thus became the last Confederate general to surrender.
The Department of the Trans-Mississippi was formed with the separation of the District of the Trans-Mississippi from the Western Department of the Confederacy on May 26, 1862. Its army was called the Army of the Southwest until February 9, 1863, when it was renamed the Army of the Trans-Mississippi. The only principal Confederate army west of the Mississippi River, it mustered between 40,000 and 50,000 soldiers in units of varying permanence that were widely broadcast across the vast territory of the department. The enormous area covered promoted the development of cavalry however, with most manpower and supplies concentrated in the Eastern Theater of the Civil War, the Army of the Trans-Mississippi was chronically undermanned, underfed, and underequipped.
The District of the Trans-Mississippi was commanded by Earl Van Dorn from January 10 to May 23, 1862, when it was part of the Western Department (Department No. 2) of the CSA. A great-nephew of Andrew Jackson, Van Dorn was born in Mississippi, educated at West Point (graduating fifty-second out of the fifty-six members of the Class of 1842) and saw peacetime duty in the South before participating in the US-Mexican War (1846–48). Van Dorn fought with distinction, earning two brevets and sustaining two wounds, near Mexico City on September 3, 1847, and little more than a week later, on September 13, during the storming of Belén Gate. After the war he saw action against the Seminoles and, in Texas, against the Comanches. At the Battle of Wichita Village (October 1, 1858) in Indian Territory, he was severely wounded. Given up for dead, the resilient Van Dorn surprised all by recovering and returning to action. Promoted to major on June 28, 1860, Van Dorn took a leave of absence from the USA until he resigned his commission on January 21, 1861, and became a brigadier general in the Mississippi Militia later that month. In February, promoted to major general, he replaced Jefferson Davis, who was now the Confederate president, as commander of all Mississippi state forces.
THOMPSON’S STATION Tennessee, March 5, 1863
Van Dorn fought at the Battle of Pea Ridge (March 6–8, 1862, Arkansas defeated), the Second Battle of Corinth (October 3–4, 1862, Mississippi defeated), Thompson’s Station (March 5, 1863, Tennessee victorious), and the (first) Battle of Franklin (April 10, 1863, Tennessee defeated). A brave and vigorous commander of cavalry units, Van Dorn was out of his depth commanding larger forces.
From May 26 to June 20, 1862, the District of the Trans-Mississippi was commanded by Brigadier General Paul Octave Hébert, who graduated from West Point at the top of the Class of 1840, resigned from the USA in 1845 to become Louisiana state engineer, but resigned that post to accept a USA commission as lieutenant colonel and commanded the 14th Infantry Regiment in the US-Mexican War (1846–48). He fought at Contreras, Churubusco, Molino del Rey, Chapultepec, and Mexico City, receiving a brevet to colonel for his gallantry. In 1853 he was elected governor of Louisiana and served until 1856.
In the run-up to the Civil War, Hébert was instrumental in reorganizing the Louisiana militia and preparing the defenses of New Orleans. After his state seceded on April 1, 1861, he was commissioned as a brigadier general, but was not activated until 1862, when he was sent to Texas and briefly assumed command of the District of the Trans-Mississippi.
After Hébert, what was now the Department of the Trans-Mississippi was briefly commanded by Major General Thomas C. Hindman (June 20–July 16, 1862) and then by Major General Theophilus H. Holmes (July 30, 1862–February 9, 1863). A North Carolinian, Holmes graduated from West Point in 1829, second from the bottom of his class, and fought in the Second Seminole War (1835–42) and the US-Mexican War. He was effectively exiled to command of the Department of the Trans-Mississippi after his undistinguished performance at the Battle of Malvern Hill (July 1, 1862, Virginia Confederate defeat). While commanding the Trans-Mississippi Department, Holmes refused to send troops to the aid of Vicksburg, which was under siege by Ulysses S. Grant. This prompted Jefferson Davis to remove Holmes from command of the department.
Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith took over the department and the Army of the Trans-Mississippi on March 7, 1863, and held command of both throughout the rest of the war.
The Army of the Trans-Mississippi varied in strength from about 40,000 to 50,000 soldiers. At the very end of the war, desertion reduced its rolls considerably below 40,000. The army was organized into three numbered corps in addition to a cavalry corps and a reserve corps. Because of the large area assigned to the army, the corps were headquartered in widely dispersed locations.
Headquartered at Shreveport, Department of Louisiana, I Corps was organized under Simon Bolivar Buckner. Headquartered variously in locations within the Department of Arkansas and Missouri, II Corps was organized on August 4, 1864, under the command of John B. Magruder. Headquartered at Galveston, Department of Texas, III Corps was organized on August 4, 1864, under John George Walker. The Cavalry Corps was organized on August 4, 1864, under Sterling Price, and the Reserve Corps was created on September 10, 1864.
SIMON BOLIVAR BUCKNER, I CORPS
Buckner was born in 1823 at Glen Lily, near Munfordville, Kentucky, and was named in honor of Simón Bolívar, the “Great Liberator” of Spanish South America. An 1844 graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, Buckner was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the 2nd US Infantry Regiment and served in a Lake Ontario fortress garrison until he was appointed assistant professor of geography, history, and ethics at his alma mater.
In May 1846 Buckner joined the 6th US Infantry, initially as a recruiter during the US-Mexican War (1846–48) and then in the field, at Vera Cruz and nearby Amazoque. While serving as quartermaster of the 6th Infantry, Buckner fought at San Antonio and Churubusco, receiving a minor wound at the latter battle. Brevetted to first lieutenant for gallantry at Churubusco and Contreras, Buckner declined the honor because reports of his having participated at Contreras were mistaken he had not fought at that battle. When subsequently offered the brevet for Churubusco, he accepted—and then was again brevetted, this time to captain, for gallantry at Molino del Rey. Buckner fought in the culminating battles of the war: Chapultepec, Belen Gate, and the storming of Mexico City.
Following the war, Buckner returned to West Point, this time as an instructor of infantry tactics. In protest of West Point’s policy of compulsory chapel attendance, Buckner resigned in 1849 and was assigned as a recruiter at Fort Columbus, Ohio. After serving in the West and as captain of the commissary department of the 6th US Infantry in New York City, Buckner resigned his commission to join his father-in-law’s real estate firm in Chicago. He joined the Illinois State Militia and, in 1857, was appointed adjutant general of Illinois by the state’s governor. Resigning that post shortly after his appointment, he was promoted to colonel and assigned to lead an Illinois volunteer regiment during the so-called Utah (or Mormon) War of 1857–58. The conflict was settled before he marched, and Buckner moved his family to Louisville, where he became captain of the local militia. When his unit was mustered into the 2nd Regiment of the Kentucky State Guard, Buckner was appointed inspector general of Kentucky in 1860. The following year, Kentucky governor Beriah Magoffin appointed him adjutant general and promoted him to major general. When Kentucky declared itself neutral at the outbreak of the Civil War, Buckner mustered sixty-one companies to defend its neutrality.
After state officials condemned the militia as pro-secessionist, Buckner resigned on July 20, 1861. He twice declined the offer of a brigadier general’s commission in the Union army and, following the Confederate occupation of Columbus, Kentucky, accepted a commission as a brigadier general in the Confederate States Army on September 14, 1861. He was assigned command of a division in the Army of Central Kentucky under Brigadier General William J. Hardee.
Buckner fought at the Battle of Fort Donelson (February 11–16, 1862 Confederate defeat) on the Cumberland River. Buckner’s delay in supporting an attack in defense of the fort contributed to its capture by Union forces. To Buckner fell the unwelcome assignment of surrendering to General Grant. Held as a POW at Fort Warren in Boston, he was exchanged after five months for Union brigadier general George A. McCall. On his release Buckner was promoted to major general and ordered to join the Army of Mississippi (under General Braxton Bragg) at Chattanooga.
On October 8, 1862, Buckner fought at Perryville, Kentucky, a battle that ended in strategic defeat. After serving in the District of the Gulf, building up the defenses of Mobile, Alabama, he was assigned (on May 11, 1863) to command the Army of East Tennessee. Soon, his army became III Corps in the Army of Tennessee. He led his corps against Ulysses S. Grant at Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863, Tennessee narrow Confederate victory). Disgusted by Bragg’s leadership, Buckner collaborated with other generals in writing an anti-Bragg protest to President Davis, who retaliated for what he deemed disloyalty and insubordination by reducing Buckner to division command. On April 28, 1864, however, Buckner was assigned to the Army of the Trans-Mississippi as commander of I Corps. He did not arrive until August 4 and was promoted the following month to lieutenant general, on September 20.
Following Lee’s surrender to Grant on April 9, 1865, the Army of the Trans-Mississippi rapidly disintegrated as soldiers simply walked away. Ten days after Appomattox, the Confederate District of Arkansas was consolidated with the District of West Louisiana, and Buckner assumed command of the combined district. On May 9 Kirby Smith appointed him his chief of staff. It was rumored that Smith and Buckner intended to lead Confederate loyalists into Mexico however, Buckner surrendered at New Orleans on May 26.
Buckner entered politics after the war and was elected governor of Kentucky in 1887. His term ended in 1891, and he continued to be politically active, living to the age of ninety.
Earl Van Dorn
Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn was murdered May 7, 1863, in his Spring Hill headquarters by Dr. George Peters, who charged that the short, dapper general had carried on an affair with his wife while he was out of town. Van Dorn was unattended and sitting at a desk in the Matt Cheairs’ home, later known as Ferguson Hall, when shot once in the back of the head, apparently while writing a pass for Peters. Confederate authorities arrested Peters, but he was released and never tried for shooting Van Dorn.
Van Dorn is buried in Port Gibson, Mississippi, near the plantation where he was born, September 17, 1820. He graduated from West Point in 1842, ranking fifty-second in a class of fifty-six. His record for bravery and daring in the Mexican War and in fighting the Seminoles and Comanches led to high expectations when Van Dorn entered Confederate service as a colonel in March 1861 and then advanced to brigadier general in June and to major general in September. But Van Dorn’s incompetence as an army commander turned the battles of Elkhorn Tavern (Pea Ridge), Arkansas, in March 1862, and Corinth, Mississippi, in October 1862, into important Union victories. Later, as commander of mounted infantry, Van Dorn was more effective. His destruction of the Union supply center at Holly Springs, Mississippi, along with Nathan Bedford Forrest’s raid through West Tennessee in December 1862, hindered U. S. Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg. Van Dorn’s only notable Civil War action in Tennessee was a minor victory at the battle of Thompson’s Station on March 4 and 5, 1863.
Confederate Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn had a glaring flaw. Although the Mississippi-born general had a son and daughter from his marriage to Caroline Godbold, he committed adultery on multiple occasions. “Let the women alone until after the war is over,” a Southern woman warned him. “I cannot do that for it is all I am fighting for,” he replied. The Southern cavalier was an amateur poet, an incorrigible romantic, and considered one of finest horsemen in the prewar U.S. Army.
Earl Van Dorn was born near Port Gibson, Mississippi, on September 17, 1820. He was the son of Peter A. Van Dorn, who served as a judge in the Claiborne County Probate Court. Van Dorn had the good fortune to be a great nephew of U.S. President Andrew Jackson. Jackson assisted the young Van Dorn in his quest to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Van Dorn, who graduated number 52 in the class of 1842, was only four rungs from the bottom of his class. During his troubled education at West Point, he was nearly dismissed for excessive demerits.
After his graduation, brevet Second Lieutenant Van Dorn served in the 7th U.S. Cavalry stationed at Fort Pike, Louisiana. While serving at the federal arsenal at Fort Morgan, Alabama, he wed Godbold in 1843. He eventually was transferred with his regiment to the star-shaped Fort Texas on the north bank of the Rio Grande in what is now Brownsville, Texas. The fort was situated in contested territory that the Mexicans claimed belonged to them. He was one of the soldiers who defended the fort against an attack in May 1846 by General Mariano Arista’s Mexican Army.
Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn.
He tramped with General Zachary Taylor’s army into northern Mexico in September 1846 and fought with the victorious American forces in the Battle of Monterey. The 7th U.S. Cavalry was transferred to General Winfield Scott’s army for the pending expedition to the Mexican Gulf port of Veracruz in early 1847. Having received a promotion to first lieutenant, Van Dorn served as an aide-de-camp on the staff of General Persifor F. Smith, who commanded the 1st Brigade of the 2nd Division in Scott’s army. He would be in the thick of the fighting as the moved war into the Valley of Mexico.
Although he had been an unruly student, he appeared to be establishing himself as a fine soldier. He was brevetted captain for gallantry at Cerro Gordo, and again brevetted major for his bravery at Contreras and Churubusco. “No young officer came out of the Mexican War with a more enviable reputation, earning commendations for his actions at Fort Texas, Cerro Gordo, and Mexico City,” wrote Maj. Gen. Dabney H. Maury of Van Dorn’s performance during the war.
Following the war, he was transferred to various posts, winding up at one point fighting in the Third Seminole War. In March 1855, Van Dorn was promoted to captain in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry and sent to serve with his unit on the Western frontier. His company was sent to Camp Cooper, Texas, which was situated on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River about 40 miles north of present-day Abilene.
In autumn 1858, Brevet Major Van Dorn led a strike by four companies of U.S. Cavalry against a Comanche village on the Washita River in Indian Territory. The cavalrymen rode north on September 30. Although they had Indian guides, they failed to reach their objective that day. On October 1, they approached the Comanche camp shortly after sunrise. The engagement became known afterward as the Battle of Wichita Village. He divided his troops into four columns and ordered the men to approach with stealth, riding in pairs with 100 yards separating each pair. When the cavalry struck the camp, the Indians organized a hasty defense. Although they were taking heavy casualties, the Comanches fought with great frenzy to protect their women and children. Eventually, the Indians withdrew. The cavalry burned the camp to the ground and rounded up 300 horses.
Late in the battle, Van Dorn engaged two Indians riding double on a horse in an effort to escape. He shot and killed their horse, but they fired on him with their bows from a kneeling position. He was struck in the wrist by an arrow that ran up through his forearm. The second was a near fatal wound that struck him in the ribs. He was so badly hurt that some of the soldiers remained at the site with him for five days and on the sixth day dragged him out on a litter. He was sent home to Mississippi where he convalesced for five weeks. “I had faced death often, but never so palpably before,” he wrote.
Van Dorn withdrew his commission from the U.S. Army on January 31, 1861. At the outset of the war, he commanded Mississippi troops. On March 16, 1861, he received a commission as a colonel in the Confederate army. He was immediately given command of the garrisons of the two forts below New Orleans on the Mississippi River. The following month, he was entrusted with the Department of Texas where he directed forces in capturing and securing various resources of the U.S. Army. For example, he supervised the capture of the Star of the West in Galveston Harbor on April 20.
The Confederate high command thought well enough of Van Dorn to order him to report for duty in Richmond, Virginia. He arrived in the capital of the Confederacy in September. In October, he was given command of the First Di vision in General Joseph Johnston’s short- lived Army of the Potomac, which eventually became the Army of Northern Virginia. Johnston commanded the division for slightly more than three months during a period of inactivity as the Federals contemplated their next step following the disaster at First Bull Run.
A Confederate corpse lies in Battery Robinette following the Second Battle of Corinth in autumn 1862. The clash showed that Van Dorn had little skill as a commander of infantry forces in large battles.
In mid-January 1862, Johnston was reassigned to the Trans-Mississippi Department. He took command of the department at a point in which the Confederates had withdrawn to Arkansas following their defeat at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. It fell to Van Dorn when he arrived to settle an ongoing dispute between rival Maj. Gen. Sterling Price and Brig. Gen. Ben McCulloch, who commanded the Missouri State Guard and Army of the West, respectively. The two had clashed repeatedly over who should direct the forces, but when Van Dorn arrived he outranked both. It was an important occasion for Van Dorn because it marked the first time he would lead a Confederate army on a campaign.
Van Dorn’s first objective was to drive the army of Union Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis out of northwestern Arkansas. On March 4, Van Dorn’s 17,000-strong army advanced toward Curtis’s 10,500-man Army of the Southwest deployed on the high ground overlooking Little Sugar Creek. The two sides made contact two days later when the Confederate army attacked the Federal rear guard. Van Dorn had the misfortune of falling seriously ill during the battle. For that reason, he was forced to ride in an ambulance and issue orders from it.
Under cover of darkness on the night of March 6, Van Dorn split his army into two columns for a forced march to outflank the Union position on the bluffs along Little Sugar Creek. The Confederate plan called for McCulloch and Brig. Gen. Albert Pike to engage the Union right and center, while Price attacked the Union left at Elkhorn Tavern.
Price’s attack was slow in developing. His troops did not attack until late morning. The Federals repulsed two Confederate charges. The third charge, delivered with the full fury of Price’s column, drove the Union forces south past the tavern. At the opposite end of the line, the Confederates broke through the Union line but were soon pushed back.
On the morning of March 8, Curtis correctly surmised that the Confederates were running low on ammunition. He ordered two Union divisions at Elkhorn Tavern to launch a counterattack. The Federals forced back the Confederate left, which prompted Van Dorn to order a general retreat.
The Battle of Pea Ridge showed the danger of a cooperative attack. If Van Dorn had struck the Union rear with the force of his entire army, it was possible he would have achieved victory. A lack of coordination among Confederate units cobbled together from several commands contributed substantially to the Confederate defeat.
The loss of huge swaths of territory in Kentucky and Tennessee to the Union Army in the wake of the Confederate defeat at Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862, created a crisis situation for the Confederacy. As a result, Van Dorn received orders to march his army from Arkansas to Mississippi. Van Dorn’s troops arrived in Corinth on April 23, and he reported to his superior, General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the commander of the Army of Mississippi.
For obvious reasons, Van Dorn was anxious to restore his reputation, which had been badly damaged at Pea Ridge. As the Federals under Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans advanced on Corinth, Beauregard ordered Van Dorn to hold the Confederate line east of the city. In the monthlong siege, which lasted from April 29 to May 30, Van Dorn received orders to attack Maj. Gen. John Pope’s army at Farmington, Mississippi, which lay seven miles east of Corinth. Two attempts to engage Pope failed when he withdrew. On Van Dorn’s third attempt against Pope on May 22, the general got lost. Van Dorn’s attack that day was intended as the first step in a major Confederate counterattack, but when Van Dorn failed to execute his attack properly, Beauregard called off the entire counterattack.
Van Dorn was still eager to restore his reputation, which plummeted even farther downward after the debacle in the First Battle of Corinth. On June 28, he was appointed to command the Department of Southern Mississippi and East Louisiana. At the time, Union riverine forces were converging on Vicksburg from above and below the city. He rushed to Vicksburg to direct the defenses, seeking to keep control of a three-mile stretch of the river directly under the Confederate guns on the Vicksburg bluffs.
Van Dorn arrived in Vicksburg and set about raising the morale of the city’s 4,000 garrison troops and improving the Confederate defenses. He strengthened artillery positions, ordered the construction of new fieldworks, and established strong cavalry patrols to guard the approaches to the city. The arrival of Maj. Gen. John Breckinridge’s 5,000-man division greatly strengthened the garrison. But just when everything seemed to be looking up for him, he made the
mistake of declaring martial law in some of the Mississippi counties and Lousiana parishes. Confederate citizens protested, and this brought the wrath of Richmond upon him. In October 1862, Van Dorn was replacednas department commander by Lt. Gen. John Pemberton.
Still in search of a way to redeem himself as an army commander, Van Dorn set his sights on Corinth, which was occupied by Rosecrans’s Army of the Mississippi. Van Dorn led his Amy of West Tennessee against Corinth in early October. In the two-day Second Battle of Corinth, which was fought October 3-4, the Confederates repeatedly made frontal assaults against strong Union fieldworks. On the first day, the Confederates made considerable progress. The Rebels carried some of the outer works, which forced the Yankees to fall back to their inner fortifications. The Confederates attacked these tough positions by assaulting them in small groups. But the Confederates exhausted them- selves in the hard fighting.
During the night Van Dorn issued orders for a fresh assault in the morning. Both sides fought desperately to maintain their positions. At one point, the Confederates penetrated to the streets of Corinth, but the Federals counterattacked and drove them out. The Confederates launched a heavy assault on Battery Robinette, west of Corinth. Here the Confederates desperately tried to overwhelm the Federals holding a key artillery position. The troops fought hand to hand with bayonets, clubbed muskets, and fists. Despite the desperate fighting, Van Dorn ultimately ordered a retreat. Some of the officers who served under Van Dorn during the battle blamed him for the defeat. One of them, Brig. Gen. John Bowen, brought charges against Van Dorn, but a court of inquiry dismissed them.
On December 12, 1862, Pemberton assigned Van Dorn to serve as his cavalry commander. Five days later, Van Dorn embarked on a cavalry raid against the Union depot at Holly Springs, Mississippi. Van Dorn’s raiders destroyed a number of large caches of Union supplies and also disrupted the Federal overland advance against Vicksburg. The Holly Springs Raid was one of the great cavalry raids of the Civil War, and it proved beyond a doubt that Van Dorn was suited for cavalry command.
In early 1863, Van Dorn and his cavalry command were transferred to Middle Tennessee. Van Dorn established his headquarters at Spring Hill. His job was to protect the left flank of Bragg’s Army of the Tennessee and operate against the Federal line of communications stretching north to Nashville. The Federal forces in the area were surprised at Van Dorn’s constant attacks and repeatedly sallied forth from their strongholds in captured towns in an attempt to bring him to bay.
Van Dorn’s finest hour came at Holly Springs, Tennessee, in December 1862 when he conducted one of the most daring mounted raids of the Civil War. Less than six months later he was murdered by a wealthy landowner angered over Van Dorn’s affair with his wife.
At Thompson’s Station on March 5, Van Dorn defeated Union Colonel John Coburn’s 2,800 troops. On March 25, Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who served under Van Dorn at the time, smashed a Union column at Brentwood, Tennessee, capturing men and matérial. Out of this affair came a heated altercation between Van Dorn and Forrest. At one point, the two hotheads drew their swords against each other.
Van Dorn’s demise began shortly after his arrival in Spring Hill, when he met Mrs. Jessie McKissack Peters. Mrs. Peters was the much younger third wife of a wealthy landowner and retired doctor, George Peters. While her husband was away at the Tennessee State Legislature, his wife could be seen at Van Dorn’s headquarters, which left little doubt about the nature of her visits. These unsupervised visits and their carriage rides were soon the talk of the town.
It did not take long before Peters became aware of what was occurring. He was determined to catch Van Dorn in the act. The doctor left on one of his routine trips, but he doubled back in an effort to observe his wife and her lover. On the morning of May 7, 1863, Peters arrived at Van Dorn’s headquarters.
“I came upon the creature at about 2:30 AM, where I expected to find him,” Peters told the Nashville police. Peters said that Van Dorn begged for his life. A number of officers noticed Peter’s arrival at the general’s headquarters but thought nothing of it. The officers would later find Van Dorn slumped over his writing desk, a bullet in the back of his head. Peters was never prosecuted for the crime.
A great deal of mystery surrounded the murder of Van Dorn. Peters contended that Van Dorn had violated the sanctity of his marriage however, there were others who said that the doctor had political reasons involving his support of the Federal forces in Tennessee. The mystery was further compounded by conflicting reports concerning the circumstances of Van Dorn’s murder and the activities of the doctor and his wife after the murder. The couple soon divorced but later reunited in Arkansas where Peters had mysteriously received a land grant. Van Dorn’s sister, in her personal memoir published in 1902, offered a strong argument that the doctor had more sinister reasons. She asserted that Peters was disloyal to the Confederate cause he had originally supported.