Van Dorn’s Raid at
In a war filled with strange and eccentric personalities, Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn was one of the stranger ones. Van Dorn was short (5’5″), emotional and impulsive individual. 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. A graduate of West Point, class of 1842, he was 52nd out of 56.
His early years in the military gave no indication of his future. He served in a variety of garrisons until the Mexican War. War was his stage and Van Dorn was very good at it. During the war with Mexico he brevetted twice, rising from first lieutenant to captain and then to major in less than a year. He was wounded twice in battle in the space of ten days, near the end of the war.
He returned to garrison duty after a short period as aide-de-camp to Brev. Maj. Gen P. F. Smith from April 3, 1847, to May 20, 1848. After more garrison duty, he served in the Seminole Wars from 1849 to 1850. Following that, he returned to garrison duty in a variety of posts. This was the lot of a peacetime officer in the antebellum U.S. Army.
During the 1850s, Van Dorn sharpened his skills as a fighter against the Comanches. He was wounded four times in fights with the tribe, on once occasion so severely that he wasn’t expected to recover. He did and five weeks later he was back at duty. By June of 1860, he had been promoted to major and was on leave of absence for the balance of 1860 and into early 1861.
Earl Van Dorn resigned from the U.S. Army when his home state of Mississippi seceded in January 1861. He was immediately appointed to the rank of 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.
By the time of the Vicksburg campaign, Van Dorn had served in Texas and then with the Army of the Potomac in Virginia as a division commander of cavalry. Jefferson Davis needed someone to command the Trans-Mississippi Department and appointed Van Dorn in January of 1862.
Almost immediately, his army was engaged at Pea Ridge, Arkansas where they were defeated by Union forces led by Brig. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis and Army of the Southwest. The Confederates were defeated after a two-day battle on March 7-8, 1862.
Transferred across the Mississippi River to reinforce the Army of Tennessee, Van Dorn’s army was defeated at the Second Battle of Corinth, Mississippi on October 3-4, 1862. 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 was returned to duty as a cavalry commander, a position better suited to his talents. When Pemberton decided to follow Lt. Col. John S. Griffith’s suggestion and raid the Union supply depot at Holly Springs, Mississippi, he called upon the commander of his cavalry division, Earl Van Dorn to lead it. Van Dorn had been recommended by the officers of the Texas Brigade in a letter to the commanding general.
The cavalry brigades and regiments of Pemberton’s command had been parceled out to the divisions for limited tasks. Griffith envisioned a combined effort against the Union rear area. Pemberton warmed up to the idea of a raid on the Union supply depot. He had already asked Gen. Braxton Bragg, the commander of the Army of Tennessee, for assistance. Bragg had dispatched Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry to break the railroad near Jackson, Mississippi.
Never was a man better matched to his assignment. On December 17, 1862, Van Dorn led the 3,500 men of his cavalry division across the Yalobusha river and traveled the east of Ulysses Grant’s army. Van Dorn’s command consisted of three cavalry brigades: Lt. Col. Griffith led his Texas Brigade, Colonel William H. Jackson and his Tennessee Brigade and Colonel Robert M. McCullough led a mixed brigade of Missouri, Arkansas and Mississippi cavalry.
Taking back roads north, they were able to avoid Union patrols. They avoided a large Union force at Pontotoc on the 18th. Arriving at the outskirts of the town on evening of the 19th, Van Dorn used information from an informant to create a precise plan of action. Each unit was given specific instructions about their objectives. At dawn of December 20th, the Confederate column charged into Holly Springs and overran the surprised Union garrison.
The Tennessee unit advanced from the north and west, the Missourians dismounted and walked in to take the infantry, the Texans came in from the south and the east.
Col. Robert C. Murphy surrendered his 1,500 man garrison without much of a fight. In fact, Murphy was captured in his pajamas. He was later to be court-martialed and dismissed from the army for cowardly and disgraceful behavior.
At the depot, there were railroads cars loaded and headed south, ready to go to Vicksburg. These cars were loaded with clothing, food, long guns, pistols, ammunition and other supplies. These were all destroyed in a series of spectacular explosions.
The raiders outfitted themselves with uniforms and weapons. They would be the best dressed troops in the south. Supplies were offered to the townspeople before everything else was destroyed. The railroad roundhouse and foundry were among the buildings that were also destroyed.
After paroling the captured Union defenders, Van Dorn’s column collected as much as they could carry. They also captured between 600 to 800 horses and mules. They burned a total of 300 wagon loads of ammunition and destroyed 6,000 to 7,000 stands of small arms. The destruction continued throughout the day and well into the night.
Upon leaving the town, Van Dorn’s column continued north as far as Bolivar, Tennessee before turning south again. Eluding the pursuing Union cavalry, the Confederate column returned safely after a 12-day foray. Each side sustained about 100 casualties, killed and wounded, in addition to the 1,500 Union prisoners.
The two cavalry raids, Van Dorn’s and Forrest’s, seriously damaged the Union Army’s ability to continue their overland march against Vicksburg. Forrest had rampaged in the Union rear for about two weeks, doing considerable damage to the Mobile and Ohio Railroad in Tennessee. Grant ordered his Army of the Tennessee to withdraw across northern Mississippi. He would not resume his offensive for several months.
In May 1863, Earl Van Dorn 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.”