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Road To Dishonor: Earl Van Dorn

It was an early Spring morning, May 7, 1863, and on the wide front lawn of the fine brick mansion, a Confederate officer stood talking and smoking with fellow officers. He barely noted the arrival of a local citizen on horseback. As the rider dismounted and tied his horse to the north gate, he mumbled "Mornin' " to the doctor before returning to his conversation. There was nothing unusual about the visit, as the doctor was a frequent visitor, often stopping at headquarters to obtain a pass. It wasn't long before the doctor returned to his horse, mounted and rode off eastward at a leisurely pace towards his home. 

Not more than two minutes had passed before the amiable conversation of the officers was abruptly halted by the loud sobs of an approaching female. It was the daughter of the mansion's owner, Martin Cheairs, crying out: "The doctor has shot the General!"

The officers found their commander slumped over at his writing desk, a bullet wound in the back of his head. Upon closer inspection it was found that the small-caliber ball had lodged itself behind the general's forehead but hadn't killed him instantly. For four and one half hours, the general lay in a comatose state, unable to utter a word before he died. And with his last laborious breath, so died Major General Earl Van Dorn's most desired quest in life --to walk the path of glory and fame. Though he was destined for fame in the end, his would be one of dishonor and shame. 

What better opportunity exists for one who dreams of renown proclamation as a hero than when the trumpets of war are sounded? So must Earl Van Dorn have pondered this question, for he knew he wanted to be a soldier from a very early age. 

Earl "Buck" Van Dorn was born in Port Gibson, Mississippi, on September 20, 1820. He wrote to a distant cousin at the age of sixteen, stating his military ambition. That cousin was President Andrew Jackson, who in return obtained an appointment to West Point for Van Dorn. Generally a poor student and often cited for misconduct, he showed skills in horsemanship, field soldiering, and drawing. He graduated 52d out of a class of 56 in 1842, along with classmates that included James Longstreet and William S. Rosecrans. A year later, Van Dorn married Caroline Godbold, the daughter of a prominent Alabama planter. From this union, he would father a son and a daughter. 

During the Mexican War, Van Dorn distinguished himself for raising a flag under heavy fire, and was one of the first to storm the walls of Chapultepec and the Belen Gate at Mexico City. He was rewarded for his bravery by being breveted a first lieutenant. Returning from the war, Van Dorn was fully convinced, "I never could be happy out of the Army. I have no other home -- could make none that would be congenial to my feelings." 

In the 1850's Van Dorn was serving as a captain in Texas with the celebrated 2d U.S. Cavalry, which boasted Albert Sidney Johnston as colonel and Robert E. Lee as lieutenant colonel. As a result of a bold attack on a Comanche camp in 1858 where he was wounded three times, Van Dorn won a promotion to the rank of major. He was enjoying a life he felt perfectly suited for when war broke out between the states at home. An ardent defender of states' rights, Van Dorn resigned his army commission and hurried back to Mississippi to rally to the Confederate cause. 

Van Dorn proved to be a Southern cavalier incarnate, with his slim-waisted, broad-shouldered physique. His handsome face, light chestnut hair and mustache were much admired by the ladies. Added to his physical characteristics, he was also an accomplished painter, amateur poet, a dedicated romantic and considered one of "the finest horseman in the cavalry of the old United States Army." 

Van Dorn entered the Confederate army as a colonel. President Davis immediately sent him to Texas, where his capture of three Union troop ships won him a promotion to brigadier general. In August of 1861 he was transferred to Virginia and promoted to major general. His was a star quickly on the rise, and in January of 1862 it burned yet brighter when Davis gave him command of the Trans-Mississippi District Department 2. 

"I am now in for it," Van Dorn wrote his wife, "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!" 

When General Albert S. Johnston called upon Van Dorn to join the Army of Tennessee in Corinth to keep the Union army from advancing, Van Dorn elected to first attempt to defend Arkansas from a Union invasion led by Brig. Gen. Samuel Curtis. On March 7, 1862, on a high peak near Elk Horn Tavern, Van Dorn and Gen. Sterling Price clashed with Union forces at Pea Ridge. Although Van Dorn's 16,000 troopers had the numerical superiority of their enemy, bungled tactics, poor communication and divided forces caused Van Dorn to lose his ammunition train and retreat with heavy losses. Van Dorn himself was suffering from chills and fever during the battle, due to his boat capsizing while crossing an icy river. Before he could atone for his defeat at Pea Ridge, he received orders to bring his army to Corinth, which he promptly obeyed but arrived too late to participate in the Battle of Shiloh. 

Painting which depicts the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern, 
also referred to as the Battle of Pea Ridge


In June, Van Dorn left the Army of the West to take charge of the defense of Vicksburg. Here, by repelling a full-scale naval attack, it looked as if Van Dorn would remove the tarnish of Pea Ridge on his record. Feeling confident, he then sent the war vessel, the "Arkansas" and 5,000 troops under Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge to capture Baton Rouge. Although the attack failed, Davis was still impressed with Van Dorn and sent him back to Mississippi to work with General Price as commander of the Army of the West. But by the fall of 1862 Van Dorn was again headed for disaster on the battlefield. 

"Decision At the Crossroads" by Keith Rocco, depicting the Battle of Corinth 

Actual photograph of Tishomingo Hotel and rail station at Corinth as painted above 


Attacking his old West Point classmate, Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans, in October at Corinth proved disastrous for his career as well as his army. His failed frontal assaults against the fortifications he himself had built when previously at Corinth resulted in a court of inquiry which questioned Van Dorn's conduct of the battle, charging him negligence. In his opening statement, Van Dorn declared: "I have accumulated nothing of the world's wealth, having devoted my whole time and energies to the service of my country; therefore my reputation is all that belongs to me, without which life to me were as valueless as the crisp and faded leaf of autumn." The court acquitted him of the charges, but he was now under the close supervision of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton, who placed him in charge of his cavalry forces at Vicksburg. 

Van Dorn's aggressive, sometimes reckless nature seemed well suited for the cavalry. Along with Nathan Bedford Forrest, John H. Morgan and Joe Wheeler, he seemed to have found his niche at last. His successful raid on Grant's supply depots at Holly Springs, Mississippi, played a vital factor in Grant delaying his Vicksburg Campaign and once again, he was the hero of the day. 

As a result of the Holly Springs raid, Van Dorn was assigned a cavalry corps to operate in Middle Tennessee. His smashing victory at Thompson's Station on March 5, 1863 appeared to prove him capable of military brilliance. However, late in April, his honor was questioned by his outspoken brigade commander, Nathan B. Forrest. This led to a heated quarrel in which swords were drawn. It was by the good sense of Forrest that a duel which most likely would have proved fatal for one was avoided. Possibly, if Earl Van Dorn could have seen into his future during this altercation, he may have chosen to meet his demise by defending his honor, rather than the end he seemed destined for. 

Settling into his headquarters at the home of Dr. Aaron White in Spring Hill, Tennessee, Van Dorn's reputation as a ladies' man had preceded him. Cautioned once by a young widow to "let the women alone until the war is over," Van Dorn had replied: "I cannot do that, for it is all I am fighting for." His company was well sought after among the ladies of the town, one more ardently than the others -- Jessie Helen McKissack Peters. 

Jessie was the third wife of Dr. George B. Peters, a wealthy man who owned property in Tennessee and Arkansas, and she was twenty-four years younger than her husband. Described as "an incredibly beautiful woman" and a "beguiling temptress," her unsupervised visits to the General's office at the Dr. White home caused such a stir that the Van Dorn was asked to relocate his headquarters. This he promptly did, moving into the Martin Cheairs mansion at the end of April. 

Dr. Peters, no longer a practicing physician, was serving as a member of the state legislature and had been away from Spring Hill for nearly a year. During this year, some local citizens describe the vivacious Jessie as being "just plain lonesome." Nonetheless, they were less forgiving of Van Dorn's late night visits to the Peters' home and unchaperoned long carriage rides. It was inevitable that the general's ungentlemanly conduct would be found out by the man whose wife he was enjoying a dalliance with. 

According to Dr. Peters' own testimony, he had finally decided to take the oath of allegiance to the United States while in Memphis. Claiming he had obtained protection for his Arkansas property, he received a pass on April 4, 1863 to pass through the Federal lines and to return home. In his own words, Peters stated: "I arrived at home on the 12th of April and was alarmed at the distressing rumors which prevailed in the neighborhood in relation to the attentions paid by General Van Dorn to my wife," and to Van Dorn's servant, who was caught delivering a note to Jessie: "...tell his whiskey-headed master, General Van Dorn, that I would blow his brains out, or any of his staff that stepped their foot inside of the lawn..." 

Determined to catch the general in the act, Peters pretended a trip to Shelbyville, Tennessee but never left the area, doubling back to Spring Hill instead. Peters claims he: "came upon the creature, about half-past two o'clock at night, where I expected to find him..." According to Peters' later statement to the Nashville police, when he threatened to kill the general, Van Dorn begged for his life and then promised to write out a public statement exonerating Mrs. Peters from any guilt if the doctor would spare his life. This was the doctor's explanation for Van Dorn's placement at his writing desk when shot from behind. 

Much mystery still surrounds the murder. Dr. Peters contended that Van Dorn had violated the sanctity of his marriage. Others said that the doctor had political reasons involving his support of the Federal forces in Tennessee. The mystery is further compounded by conflicting reports concerning the circumstances of the murder and the activities of Dr. and Mrs. Peters after the incident. The couple soon divorced but later reunited in Arkansas, where Dr. Peters had mysteriously received a grant of land. Van Dorn's sister, in a personal memoir entitled: A Soldier's Honor (1902), presented strong arguments that the doctor had more sinister reasons that entailed disloyalty to the Confederate cause he had originally supported. 

Regardless of the validity of Peters' statement, he paid a visit to Van Dorn's headquarters on that fateful morning of March 7th, and so robbed the cavalry general of his own testimony in defense of his honor and reputation. How ironic were his words to his wife at the beginning of the war; "Who knows, but that yet out of the storms of revolution--the dark clouds of war--I may not be able to catch a spark of lightning and shine through all time to come, a burning name! I feel greatness in my soul--and if I can make it take a shape and walk forth, it may be seen and felt." And even more ironic that his death should be summed up by the words of a fellow Confederate major general, St. John R. Liddell, who expressed what he referred to as the "common opinion" of the army, "clearly expressive of condemnation, mingled with little or no regret for a man whose willful violation of social rights led him to such an inglorious end."

( Article Credits & Reference Sources )

"The Generals Tour" David Roth, Blue & Gray Magazine, Oct.-Nov.1984
"Earl Van Dorn," by Albert Castel, Civil War Times Illustrated, April 1967


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