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Earl Van Dorn (1820-1863)

A noted Mexican War veteran and Indian fighter, Earl Van Dorn was the Confederate general defeated at the Battle of Pea Ridge and at Corinth, Mississippi. Following the defeat at Pea Ridge, he stripped Arkansas of badly needed Confederate troops, leaving the state nearly destitute of defenders.

Earl Van Dorn was born near Port Gibson, Mississippi, on September 17, 1820, to Sophia Donelson Caffery, a niece of Andrew Jackson, and Peter Aaron Van Dorn, a lawyer and judge. He married Caroline Godbold in December 1843. They had one son, Earl Jr., and one daughter, Olivia. Some believe that Van Dorn fathered other children through adulterous affairs prior to, and possibly during, the Civil War.

Graduating fifty-second of fifty-six cadets from West Point in 1842, Van Dorn was assigned to an infantry regiment at Fort Brown, Texas, prior to participating in the Mexican War. During the conflict, he was awarded a brevetted captaincy for actions at Cerro Gordo, Mexico, and the rank of major for his actions at Contreras and Churubusco, Mexico, in 1847.

After the war, Van Dorn’s military experience centered on fighting Native Americans. He participated in a campaign against the Seminole in Florida from 1849 to 1850. He was wounded four times in one action against the Comanche near Washita Village in 1858. By 1860, Van Dorn’s actual rank finally matched his brevetted position during the Mexican War with an appointment to major.

When Mississippi seceded from the Union in early January 1861, Van Dorn resigned his commission the same month. He was appointed brigadier general of Mississippi state troops. When Jefferson Davis assumed the presidency of the Confederate States of America (CSA), Van Dorn was elevated to major general of Mississippi state troops prior to transferring to the colonelcy of a regular army cavalry regiment. Sent to Texas, he oversaw the surrender of Union property to the Confederacy. Promoted to brigadier general in June 1861, he commanded Forts Jackson and St. Philip near New Orleans, Louisiana, prior to his promotion to major general in September 1861. As a major general, he was relocated to Virginia, where he commanded the First Division of the Confederate Army of the Potomac prior to being given the command of the Military District of the Trans-Mississippi, Department No. 2, in January 1862.

The greatest military threat to the Confederates in the Trans-Mississippi was the potential loss of Missouri. As the Federals were pushing the Confederates out of Missouri when Van Dorn took command, he quickly moved to northern Arkansas, establishing his headquarters in Pocahontas (Randolph County), hoping to counter this action. He planned to thrust into southeastern Missouri and even boldly confessed that he hoped to seize St. Louis. This plan was derailed when Union general Samuel Ryan Curtis invaded northwestern Arkansas and established camps there.

Rushing to northwestern Arkansas, Van Dorn personally took command of the Confederate forces and rapidly marched them toward Curtis’s position on Little Sugar Creek. Recognizing the tactical advantage of Curtis’s position, Van Dorn chose to avoid direct assault. Instead, he force-marched his exhausted men around the Federal right, dividing the force into two segments. The forces were to merge and attack the Federal rear via Telegraph Road. Poor weather, fatigue, and road obstacles slowed Van Dorn and gave Curtis time to react by attacking the Confederates before they could consolidate their forces. Early in the engagement, Van Dorn’s superior numbers stunted the Federal attack; however, the Federals took advantage of the confusion created by the capture and deaths of several key Confederate leaders, eventually slowing this advance.

During the night of March 7, Curtis reorganized his fatigued army using the Telegraph Road as its rough center. Van Dorn lacked this luxury, as his force was scattered and many key leaders were dead or missing. When Van Dorn opted not to attack the next morning, Union artillery pounded the Confederate positions in what became known as the Battle of Pea Ridge. A powerful assault by the Union infantry toward Elkhorn Tavern finally broke Confederate resistance. Van Dorn now found his position untenable and personally led part of his force toward Huntsville (Madison County) while the remainder continued engaging the Union side. The Confederate defeat at the Battle of Pea Ridge granted Curtis the critical victory needed to prevent further serious threats to Missouri.

After Van Dorn’s defeat at Pea Ridge, he was transferred to the Army of Mississippi. As he left the state, he took the vast majority of troops with him, effectively stripping Arkansas of valuable military resources. This left his replacement, Major General Thomas C. Hindman, with the tremendous task of rebuilding Arkansas defenses with no firm foundation.

Van Dorn led the attack on the important rail center of Corinth, Mississippi, on October 3–4, 1862. Defended by Union general William S. Rosecrans, Van Dorn produced a successful first day of combat; however, exhaustion and a lack of water prevented his men from cracking the Union position on the second day. Due to his poor performance at Corinth, Van Dorn was court-martialed for neglect of duty, but he was not found guilty.

When Confederate general John C. Pemberton arrived in Mississippi, he was promoted over Van Dorn. No longer the senior commander, Van Dorn was placed in command of cavalry in the Army of Mississippi. Using his past experiences with rapid attacks, Van Dorn won a stunning victory at Holly Springs, Mississippi, in December 1862, capturing 1,500 soldiers and destroying at least $1,500,000 worth of supplies. Van Dorn won an additional victory in March 1863 when his forces decimated a Federal brigade at Thompson’s Station, Tennessee.

On May 7, 1863, Dr. George B. Peters brazenly entered Van Dorn’s headquarters in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and shot him, claiming that he “violated the sanctity of his home,” meaning that Peters believed Van Dorn had had an affair with his wife. While rumors had circulated that Van Dorn had engaged in such activities in the past, his friends denied the claims. Van Dorn was buried at Port Gibson, Mississippi.

For additional information:
Carter, Arthur B. The Tarnished Cavalier: Major General Earl Van Dorn, C.S.A. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999.

Hartje, Robert George. Van Dorn: The Life and Times of a Confederate General. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1967.

Shea, William L., and Earl J. Hess. Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Winschel, Terrence J. “Earl Van Dorn: From West Point to Mexico.” Journal of Mississippi History 62 (Fall 2000): 179–197.

Derek Clements
Pocahontas, Arkansas

Related Butler Center Lesson Plans:
Arkansas Civil War Drama (Grades 7-12)

Last Updated 2/10/2014

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