Confederate general Earl Van Dorn was born on 17 September 1820 in Port Gibson, Mississippi, the son of Peter Van Dorn and Sophia Caffery Van Dorn. Peter Van Dorn, a prominent attorney and judge, sent Earl and his younger brother to Baltimore to be educated shortly after the death of their mother in 1830. When Judge Van Dorn passed away in early 1837, Earl decided to pursue a career as a professional soldier. He won an appointment to the US Military Academy and graduated fifty-second among the fifty-six cadets in the Class of 1842, amassing 183 demerits along the way. Van Dorn excelled as a horseman at West Point and was commissioned a second lieutenant of infantry. While serving in Alabama he met sixteen-year-old Martha Caroline Godbold, whom he married in late 1843 after a whirlwind courtship.
Van Dorn first saw extensive combat during the Mexican War, where he fought in major battles under both Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott and was breveted captain and major for gallantry and earned recognition from superior officers. After returning to the United States, Van Dorn served in a number of posts before spending the better part of three years in Pascagoula, where he was assigned as secretary-treasurer to a hospital for disabled veterans. Promoted to captain in the 2nd Cavalry in May 1855, Van Dorn went to Texas, where he fought in several engagements against Comanches. During one battle he was struck by two arrows and seriously wounded. In 1860 he resigned his commission and returned to Mississippi.
Van Dorn entered Confederate ranks as a colonel in March 1861 and returned to Texas to recruit Federal troops into the Confederate Army. While there, he also captured an unarmed steamer, Star of the West, near Galveston and negotiated the surrender of several hundred Union troops. He won promotion to brigadier in June 1861 and to major general three months later.
His star seemingly ascendant, Van Dorn was dispatched to the Trans-Mississippi in early 1862 to command Confederate forces led by two squabbling officers, Sterling Price and Benjamin McCullough. Van Dorn’s first battle as army commander was an unmitigated disaster. Despite the fact that many of his men were ill and poorly trained, Van Dorn marched them into northwestern Arkansas, where they encountered Union forces under Samuel Curtis near Pea Ridge. Van Dorn was ill and confined to an ambulance for a portion of the time, while poor weather hampered movements and added to the lengthening sick list. In a two-day battle that commenced on 7 March 1862, Van Dorn unwisely split his force and failed to coordinate the movements of his dispersed units. McCullough was killed on the first day, as was his second in command. On the second day, Van Dorn’s men, fatigued and hungry, faced another obstacle when their ammunition began to run out. Van Dorn reluctantly retreated, defeated as a consequence of poor reconnaissance and intelligence, an army ill-prepared for the rigors of such a campaign, and his difficulties in managing the battle, which helped secure Missouri for the Union. Ordered to bring his army across the Mississippi River, Van Dorn was excoriated by Arkansans, who charged that he left the state defenseless and vulnerable.
He was soon ordered to command a department, with his main priority the defense of Vicksburg. He acquitted himself well in this endeavor but triggered a furor when he declared martial law in eleven Mississippi counties plus those in Louisiana east of the Mississippi River. Van Dorn did so in part to stem a growing trade in cotton between the lines, but aroused citizens complained vociferously to Richmond that Van Dorn was a tyrant. Confederate authorities instructed Van Dorn to revoke his order, which he did three months after issuing it. The situation did not improve for Van Dorn: an assault on Baton Rouge ended in defeat in mid-August, while a boldly conceived attack on Corinth in early October failed to dislodge defenders under Union general William S. Rosecrans. The Corinth Campaign found Van Dorn repeating many of the same errors he had committed at Pea Ridge: poor intelligence, expecting too much of his troops, and ordering frontal assaults that winnowed his ranks. Stung by criticism after the failure at Corinth, Van Dorn appeared before a court of inquiry in November 1862. Although the court cleared him of the charges, many Mississippians were thoroughly disenchanted with Van Dorn. Authorities in Richmond relieved him of command of his department, perhaps influenced by reports of Van Dorn’s reputed propensity for drinking and womanizing.
Van Dorn received a cavalry command and achieved his greatest wartime triumph when he led thirty-five hundred troopers from Grenada to Holly Springs, where he captured and destroyed an immense Union supply depot on 20 December 1862, thwarting Ulysses S. Grant’s intended overland drive to Vicksburg. The next year Van Dorn again drove into Tennessee, helping Confederates score a victory at Thompson’s Station in early March. These two successful raids suggest that Van Dorn had found his niche as a cavalryman, but Thompson’s Station proved to be his last engagement.
On 7 May 1863 he was murdered by Dr. George Peters, who claimed that Van Dorn had “violated the sanctity of [Peters’s] home” and engaged in an affair with his wife, Jessie Helen Peters. Others maintained that Peters assassinated the general for political purposes. Whatever Peters’s motives, Van Dorn’s death ended the life of a general who never lived up to the potential many saw in him at the outset of the war.
- Arthur B. Carter, The Tarnished Cavalier: Major General Earl Van Dorn, C.S.A. (1999)
- Robert G. Hartje, Van Dorn: The Life and Times of a Confederate General (1967)
- Ezra Warner, Generals in Gray: Lives of the Confederate Commanders (1959)