The Strange Career of Earl Van Dorn


General Earl Van DornIn an army of strange officers, Earl Van Dorn was one of the strangest. Although relatively unknown today, he was quite controversial in the Western Theater. Here’s a brief history of his very short career in the Confederate Army.

Earl Van Dorn was a native of Claiborne County, Mississippi and a nephew of President Andrew Jackson. He graduated from West Point in 1842 near the bottom of his class. But Van Dorn’s aptitude was not in the classroom but on the battlefield. He was brevetted twice for bravery during the Mexican War where he was wounded twice. He also fought in the Seminole Wars.

In the decade of the 1850s Van Dorn served on garrison duty and in staff positions. Van Dorn saw action against the Seminoles and also the Comanches in the Indian Territory. He was wounded four separate times there, 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.

When Mississippi seceded Van Dorn resigned his commission on January 31, 1861 and was appointed a brigadier general of the Mississippi Militia. When Jefferson Davis was elected President of the Confederacy in February, Van Dorn replaced him. Promoted to major general, he commanded the Mississippi Militia until March 16th. He then took command of a volunteer brigade in Texas with the rank of colonel in the Confederate States Army.

By late April 1861 Van Dorn was summoned to Richmond to lead the Virginia cavalry forces. In June he was promoted to brigadier general and by September he was a major general in the Confederate Army. In January 1862, Van Dorn was sent to the Trans-Mississippi Department in order to ride herd over Sterling Price and Ben McCulloch, who were bitter rivals.

In early March, Van Dorn led his larger Army of the West against the smaller Union Army of the Southwest at Pea Ridge in Benton County, Arkansas. Union forces led by Brig. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis moved south from central Missouri, driving Confederate forces into northwestern Arkansas. Van Dorn reorganized the Confederate army and launched a counter-offensive, hoping that a victory would enable the Confederates to recapture northern Arkansas and Missouri.

In a two–day battle, Curtis held off the Confederate attack on the first day and drove Van Dorn’s force off the field on the second day. The outcome of the battle essentially cemented Union control of Missouri and northern Arkansas. The battle was one of the few during the war in which a Confederate army outnumbered its Union opponent 16,500 to 10,500.

In explaining his defeat at the hands of the smaller Union force, 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.

Van Dorn’s force was ordered across the Mississippi River to reinforce the Army of Tennessee after the defeat at Pea Ridge. In October 1862, Van Dorn led a force of 22,000, roughly equal to his Union adversary, against the key rail hub of Corinth, Mississippi. Attacking strong defensive positions that he had failed to reconnoiter adequately, Van Dorn’s force was repulsed on the first day of fighting.

His command was roughly handled as he attempted to extricate them across the Hatchie River. 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.

Van Dorn proved to be a better cavalry commander than an army commander. In December 1862 he led a daring raid behind enemy lines with a force of 2,500 cavalry troopers. Their objective was to attack and capture the Ulysses Grant’s supply depot at Holly Springs, Mississippi. The raid was a spectacular success with 1,500 enemy soldiers captured and the destruction of at least $1,500,000 worth of Union supplies. It caused a serious disruption of Grant’s Vicksburg campaign.

Van Dorn was given command all cavalry in the Department of Mississippi & East Louisiana. General Joseph E. Johnston, the overall Western Theater commander, ordered him into Tennessee where he set up his headquarters at Spring Hill. It was here that the events that led to his death transpired.

Earl Van Dorn was a notorious womanizer. In May 1863 he was shot in his headquarters at Spring Hill, 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 Van Dorn was writing at his desk. 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.”

Thus ended the life of one of the Confederacy’s finest cavalry commanders, brought to an ignominious end not by Union bullet but by a jealous husband. Military historian Richard P. Weinert summarized Van Dorn: “A brilliant cavalry officer, he was a disappointment in command of large combined forces.”

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