Earl Van Dorn, 1820-1863

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A Confederate General whose career was cut short by his murder in 1863 (American Civil War). Van Dorn’s father had moved from New Jersey, to Virginia and finally to Mississippi. Earl attended West Point from 1838 to 1842, graduating 52nd out of 56 in his class (Amongst his classmates were John Pope, William Rosecrans, D. H. Hill and James Longstreet, who graduated 54th!).

From West Point, Van Dorn went into the Infantry. Over the next few years he rose steadily through the ranks, being promoted to captain of the 2nd Cavalry in 1855, reaching major in 1860. During that time he fought in the Mexican War and the Seminole War of 1849-50.

He resigned from the army on 31 January 1861. His was initially appointed brigadier-general of Mississippi state troops. The major-general was Jefferson Davis, and when he was appointed as the first President of the Confederate States of America, Van Dorn was promoted to fill his place. He soon transferred to the regular army, as a Colonel of cavalry. His first posting was to Texas, where he had his first success when David Twiggs, the Federal commander in the state, surrendered his troops before the war had even started.

Promotion soon followed, first to brigadier-general in June, and then to Major General in September. In January 1862 he was appointed to command a new military district of the Trans-Mississippi. His first problem was a Union invasion of northern Arkansas. An army 11,000 strong under Samuel Curtis had forced a smaller Confederate army under Stirling Price out of south west Missouri. Price had united with an Arkansas army under Ben McCulloch, but the two men loathed each other. Van Dorn decided to take command in person, and lead a counterattack.

Curtis took up a defensive position at Pea Ridge, just inside Arkansas. Van Dorn decided to attempt an ambitious outflanking manoeuvre. He would split his army into two. He would lead his section on a long march to the rear of the Union army, while McCulloch would led a smaller flanking manoeuvre against Curtis’s right wing. His hope was that Curtis would be so distracted by McCulloch that he would fail to notice Van Dorn’s own march. After defeating Curtis, Van Dorn hoped to march through Missouri, capture St. Louis, and destroy U.S. Grant’s armies from the rear.

The plan failed. On 7 March McCulloch’s attack was fought off after six hours of intense combat. McCulloch himself was killed in the fighting. Meanwhile, Van Dorn’s main attacking force had been discovered. Curtis turned one division against him, even launching his own counterattack. Van Dorn had a massive numerical advantage at this point, but failed to take advantage of it, allowing Curtis to pull back into a stronger position. The second day of the battle saw Van Dorn launch an attack that was repulsed by Union artillery fire. Curtis then launched a counterattack that drove Van Dorn from the field.

Van Dorn’s defeat was just one of many that faced the Confederates in the west during 1862. Across the Mississippi U.S. Grant had captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, breaking the Confederate defensive line in Tennessee. Now a massive Union concentration threatened Corinth, Mississippi, seen as a crucial position. Van Dorn and his men were summoned east to join the army being created at Corinth. However, before they could arrive, that army had marched east to defeat at Shiloh. Van Dorn arrived at Corinth only in time to take part in the evacuation.  

Van Dorn was never to return to the trans-Mississippi. The fall of Corinth and then Memphis, and the earlier loss of New Orleans had transformed the Mississippi from a Confederate highway to a Union barrier. Only Vicksburg, Mississippi, remained in southern hands. At the end of June even that was threatened by a junction of the Union fleets from Memphis and New Orleans. Van Dorn was appointed to command at this critical location, and his ten thousand men were more than enough to see off this first Union attack on the city.

This attack was not called off until the end of July. Before that the Union navy had been somewhat embarrassed by the appearance of the C.S.S. Arkansas, an ironclad that had been built on the Yazoo River. On her first appearance she had crippled the U.S.S. Carondelet, disabled another Union ship and then with her engines failing made it to safety at Vicksburg. There she was safe from Union counterattack. On 26 July the Union fleet departed. Van Dorn had his first success of the war.

In the aftermath Van Dorn decided to attempt the recapture of Baton Rouge. Just as before Pea Ridge, he expected great things to follow from this victory, perhaps even the recapture of New Orleans, but was defeated at the first barrier. The C.S.S. Arkansas was not well made. Her engines proved to be incapable of getting her to Baton Rouge in time, and Van Dorn’s assault was repulsed on 5 August.

The autumn of 1862 saw a brief Confederate recovery in the west. The vast Union army at Corinth was dispersed by its commander, General Halleck and a large part of it sent east towards Chattanooga. While General Braxton Bragg led the main army east then into Kentucky, Stirling Price and Van Dorn were left to launch their own counterattack towards Corinth. Their two armies were to unit in the vicinity of Corinth before launching their attack. This gave U.S. Grant time to organise an attack against Price (Battle of Iuka), before the two armies had even met, but the two armies were still able to unite, giving Van Dorn 22,000 men to attack Rosecrans, who had 23,000 at Corinth.

Van Dorn commanded the united Confederate army during the two days of fighting at Corinth (3-4 October). Despite some successes on 3 October the attack eventually had to be abandoned when it became obvious that more troops were on their way. After another skirmish at Hatchie Bridge (5 October), Van Dorn and his army were able to escape back towards Vicksburg. Van Dorn’s conduct at Corinth was the subject of a court of inquiry, at which he was cleared of all charges.

In the meantime he had been superseded at Vicksburg by General Pemberton. Despite his poor performance as a battlefield commander, Van Dorn was still respected as an able man, and was given command of Pemberton’s cavalry. In this role he carried out his most successful attack of the war. Late in 1862 U.S. Grant launched his first major attempt to capture Vicksburg, combining an advance down the Mississippi under General Sherman with an overland march through Mississippi under his own command. However, he had very long and vulnerable supply lines. On 20 December a cavalry force under Van Dorn charged into Grant’s supply base at Holly Springs, Mississippi, capturing the base and its supplies and forcing Grant to end his expedition.

This was Van Dorn’s last contribution to the Confederate war effort. On 8 May 1863 he was murdered by a personal enemy, a doctor who later claimed that Van Dorn had been having an affair with his wife. Southern sympathies tended toward the doctor, and Van Dorn’s reputation suffered as a result. Having lost both of the battles he commanded, his military reputation does not stand too high either. However, as a cavalry commander he was more successful and it is perfectly possible that if he had survived, then Van Dorn may have made himself a new reputation as one of the Confederacy’s many cavalry heroes.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (11 May 2007), Earl Van Dorn, 1820-1863, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_van_dorn.html

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