Earl Van Dorn was born near Port Gibson, Mississippi, on September 17, 1820. He was the fifth of nine children and the oldest of three sons born to Peter Aaron Van Dorn and Sophia Donelson Caffery. Van Dorn’s father was a Princeton-educated lawyer and circuit judge in Mississippi. His mother was a niece of President Andrew Jackson.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
In 1838, Jackson secured an appointment for Van Dorn at the United States Military Academy. Among Van Dorn’s classmates were future Civil War luminaries William S. Rosecrans, Abner Doubleday, Richard H. Anderson, Lafayette McLaws, and James Longstreet. Van Dorn was reportedly a poor student, skilled in horsemanship and military science. He graduated in 1842, ranked 52nd in his class of 56 cadets.
U.S. Army Officer
Following his graduation from West Point, the army brevetted Van Dorn as a second lieutenant in the 7th U.S. Infantry. For the next two years, he served at various military posts in Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana. On November 30, 1844, army officials promoted Van Dorn to second lieutenant.
On December 23, 1843, Van Dorn married Caroline Godbold, daughter of a prominent Alabama plantation owner. Their marriage produced one son, Earl Jr., and one daughter, Olivia.
In 1845, the army transferred Van Dorn was to Fort Brown, in Texas because of brewing trouble with Mexico. When the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) began Van Dorn served with Zachary Taylor’s army at the Battle of Monterrey (September 21-23, 1846). In 1847, officials transferred him to Winfield Scott’s invasion force, and he took part in the Siege of Veracruz (March 9-29, 1847), the Battle of Cerro Gordo (April 17‑18, 1847), the Battle of Contreras (August 19‑20, 1847), the Battle of Churubusco (August 20, 1847), and the Battle of Chapultepec (September 13, 1847). During his service in Mexico, army officials promoted Van Dorn to first lieutenant on March 3, 1847, brevetted him to captain on April 18, 1847, (for gallant and meritorious conduct in the Battle of Cerro Gordo), and brevetted him to major on August 20, 1847, (for gallant and meritorious conduct in the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco).
Wounded on the Frontier
Following the Mexican-American War, Van Dorn again served at various posts in the South. On March 3, 1855, the army promoted him to captain in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry. Later that year, his regiment moved west to campaign against Native Americans. Van Dorn was seriously wounded by two arrows during an engagement against the Comanche near Wichita Village in the Kansas Territory on October 1, 1858. After recuperating at Camp Radziminski, in what is now Oklahoma, he returned to campaigning against the Comanche in 1859.
As the secession crisis deepened, Van Dorn was an outspoken defender of states’ rights. Shortly after Mississippi seceded from the Union on January 9, 1861, Van Dorn resigned his army commission to accept an appointment as brigadier general of Mississippi state troops under the command of Jefferson Davis. When voters elected Davis as president of the Confederacy, Van Dorn advanced to major general of Mississippi’s home guard. Shortly thereafter, Van Dorn accepted an appointment as a colonel in the Confederate Army. Officials sent Van Dorn to Texas where he recruited soldiers for the Southern cause and oversaw the surrender of Union property to the Confederacy.
Ascension in Rank
In June 1861, Van Dorn Confederate officials promoted Van Dorn to brigadier general and placed him in command of Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip near New Orleans. Three months later, on September 19, the Confederate government promoted Van Dorn to major general and transferred him to Virginia, where he commanded the 1st Division of the Confederate Army of the Potomac. On January 10, 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis placed Van Dorn in charge of the newly created Trans-Mississippi District of Department No. 2, which included parts of Louisiana, Missouri, the Indian Territory, and all of Arkansas.
Battle of Pea Ridge
By the time Van Dorn took command of his new post on January 29, Union forces had taken control of Missouri and were heading south. In February, Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis led the Union Army of the Southwest into northern Arkansas, but he soon had to halt his invasion because his supply lines could not support any farther advance. Not wanting to retreat, he established a base along Little Sugar Creek, just south of a hostelry named Elkhorn Tavern, and began foraging operations.
Meanwhile, Van Dorn developed ambitious plans to sweep through Missouri, to capture St. Louis, and to threaten Union operations in Kentucky. His first order of business was to drive Curtis out of Arkansas. On March 4, 1862, Van Dorn started north with approximately 16,000 troops. His plan was to advance north as quickly as possible and to surprise Curtis’s scattered army before it had time to concentrate. After three days of forced marching through harsh winter weather, the Confederates approached Curtis’s position. The Rebel soldiers were cold, hungry and exhausted, but Van Dorn pressed the attack.
Learning of Van Dorn’s advance, Curtis concentrated the 10,500 soldiers under his command and established a strong defensive position on Pea Ridge, which runs in an east-west direction just north of Sugar Creek. Seeing that a head-on attack would be senseless, Van Dorn marched his entire army around Pea Ridge at Curtis’s rear on the evening of March 6. He then split his force into two columns. Van Dorn ordered one column, commanded by Brigadier General Ben McCulloch to circle around the west end of the ridge. Meanwhile, Van Dorn led the other column around the east end to trap the Federals in between. Attacking from the rear on each flank, Van Dorn’s plan called for forcing the Yankees off Pea Ridge and defeating them as they retreated toward Sugar Creek.
The assault on March 7 got off to a bad start for the Rebels. Delays slowed both Confederate columns and by dawn, Union scouts had detected both threats. Curtis used the time to turn his army around to face the Rebel attackers. Federal forces killed McCulloch soon after the action got underway. Brigadier General James McIntosh assumed command of the column, but enemy soldiers shot and killed a short time later. The death of the two generals shattered the Confederate command structure, and the remaining senior officers could not organize an effective attack in the resulting chaos.
Van Dorn’s column fared much better, pushing the Union forces back throughout the day. Still, the Federals did not break, and by nightfall, the Rebels were running out of ammunition. During the night, Curtis shifted the bulk of his army to deal with Van Dorn’s column. The next day (March 8), Curtis used his superior artillery to drive the Confederates from the field. By noon, the Federals had won the battle forcing Van Dorn to retreat deeper into Arkansas.
Department and District Commander
Following the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Van Dorn moved the remnants of his tattered Army of the West across the Mississippi River to support Confederate forces concentrating to stop General Ulysses S. Grant’s advance on Vicksburg. After taking part in General P. G. T. Beauregard’s evacuation of Corinth, Mississippi in May, Confederate officials appointed Van Dorn as the commander of the Department of Southern Mississippi and East Louisiana on June 20, 1862. On July 2, they named him as the commander of the District of the Mississippi, Department #2, where he improved the defenses around Vicksburg. In August, Van Dorn ordered an ill-fated expedition to recapture Baton Rouge, losing the Confederate ironclad Arkansas during the encounter.
Army of West Tennessee Commander
After the setback at Baton Rouge, on September 11, 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered Van Dorn to march troops east from Vicksburg and rejoin the Army of the West then commanded by General Sterling Price. Davis instructed Van Dorn to assume command of the combined force, renamed Army of West Tennessee. The two forces united at Ripley, Mississippi on September 28, 1862, and Van Dorn hatched a plan to recapture Corinth, Mississippi, which the Confederates had evacuated in May.
Second Battle of Corinth
As Van Dorn moved his army toward Corinth, Union General Ulysses S. Grant telegraphed General William S. Rosecrans, who was in charge of the forces around the city to brace for an attack. On the morning of October 3, Rosecrans dispatched three divisions to old Confederate rifle pits northwest of town to prepare for the expected assault.
Early on the morning of October 3, Van Dorn moved his army into line and attacked the outer Federal fortifications. Despite Rosecrans’ preparations, the Rebel attack was successful. They steadily pushed the Yankees backward and opened a gap in the Union line, driving their adversaries back to their inner line of defense. As nightfall approached, Van Dorn called off the assault, confident that he could finish the job in the morning.
Overnight, Rosecrans regrouped his soldiers. When the second day’s fighting began, Union artillery swept the field, inflicting severe casualties on the Rebels. Still, the Confederates continued to advance, capturing two federal batteries. A few Rebels entered Corinth itself, but Union soldiers quickly drove them back. By the afternoon, after suffering substantial losses, the Confederate assault played out. Rosecrans’ soldiers began pushing the Rebels back, driving the Confederates from the field. Rosecrans chose not to pursue the retreating Rebels until the next day, allowing Van Dorn’s beaten army to escape.
Relieved of Command
Following the Second Battle of Corinth, a court of inquiry investigated Van Dorn’s performance. The judges acquitted him of all charges, but officials relieved him of his district command. In October 1862, President Davis placed Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton in charge of the Army of Mississippi and the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana. Pemberton reorganized his army and placed Van Dorn in charge of his cavalry forces.
Raid on Holly Springs
On December 20, 1862, Van Dorn achieved his greatest military success, leading a raid on Ulysses S. Grant’s supply depot at Holly Springs, Mississippi. Van Dorn’s troopers surprised the Federal soldiers in an early morning attack taking 1,500 prisoners and destroying over $1.5 million worth of Union supplies. In January 1863, after the stunning success at Holly Springs, Confederate officials promoted Van Dorn to the corps commander of the cavalry in the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana.
Army of Tennessee
On February 25, 1863, Rebel officials sent Van Dorn and his cavalry to Middle Tennessee. He joined General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, and Bragg assigned him to protect the army’s left-wing. On March 5, Van Dorn’s 300 troopers defeated nearly 2,000 Union soldiers commanded by Colonel John Colburn at the Battle of Thompson’s Station in Williamson County, Tennessee. Two weeks later, on March 16, Bragg appointed Van Dorn to the command of the cavalry corps of the Army of Tennessee.
Throughout his army career, Van Dorn developed a reputation as a womanizer. Allegedly among Van Dorn’s many conquests was Martha Goodbread, with whom he fathered three children during his years in Texas. On May 7, 1863, Van Dorn’s dalliances caught up with him. Dr. James Bodie Peters believed that Van Dorn was carrying on with his wife. The aggrieved husband visited Van Dorn at his headquarters in Spring Hill, Tennessee. As the general sat writing at his desk, Peters shot him in the back of the head. Some accounts say that Van Dorn died instantly; others claim that he lingered for several hours before passing. Whatever the details, Van Dorn died that day at the hands of a jealous husband rather than on the battlefield where he sought fame and glory.
Van Dorn’s body was temporarily buried on the property of his wife’s family at Mount Vernon, Alabama, because his hometown of Port Gibson, Mississippi was in Federal hands. In November 1899, Van Dorn’s sister, Emily Miller, had her brother’s body disinterred and reburied at Wintergreen Cemetery in Port Gibson, where it now rests.