So reflected the official report of Major General Earl Van Dorn following the defeat of his Confederate army at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, March 3, 1862. Van Dorn reported the results of his first clash as commander of Trans-Mississippi District troops…and his last. But apparently what Van Dorn lacked in successfully pursuing victory on the battlefield, or eloquently explaining his defeat, he was more than equal to when it involved conquering the fairer sex. When one southerner admonished him to “let the women alone until after the war,” he responded, “I can’t do that, it’s all I’m fighting for.” A married man with two children, Van Dorn has been described by one historian as a “serial adulterer,” and eventually it cost him his life.
Earl Van Dorn, an 1842 graduate of West Point served with distinction in the Mexican American War of 1845-47. Later, when the Confederacy separated from the Union, Van Dorn, a native of Mississippi, resigned his commission and joined the southern cause. He assumed command of the Trans-Mississippi District in January, 1862. Van Dorn’s objective was to attack and destroy Union forces filtering into Arkansas, then make his way into Missouri and capture St. Louis.
During the previous summer Albert Pike, a Little Rock lawyer and owner of the Arkansas Advocate, negotiated with tribes in Indian Territory to join the Confederacy. By August of that year, the Cherokee tribe was the only nation he had not convinced. The Ross government was attempting to attract some form of alliance with Union officials, but finally because of their lack of interest, agreed to join the Confederacy. Pike was rewarded for his success in persuading the Indian nations with an appointment as Confederate brigadier general, an honor he would soon regret.
Early in 1862 General Van Dorn was planning his attack on the Union forces, they had previously defeated the Confederates at Wilson’s Creek near Springfield, Missouri, and were moving south. He issued orders for his forces to gather in the Boston Mountains south of Fayetteville and included those Indian troops commanded by Pike. Pike protested the decision, according to the agreement with the Indian nations, they were only to fight in Indian Territory, but Van Dorn insisted giving him a significant advantage in troop numbers, 16,500 to 10,500.
Confident in those superior numbers, instead of attacking Union forces head on, Van Dorn split his army into two divisions and, to move faster, ordered the supply wagons remain behind. These decisions ultimately led to his defeat. Unfortunately, during one battle some of the untrained Indian troops reverted to their tradition, scalping and killing several wounded Union soldiers. “Foiled in his intentions,” Van Dorn ordered retreat. Recriminations for the his tactics and the scalping incident quickly followed and just as quickly, Van Dorn placed the blame on Pike for “what his Indian troops had done.” Although it damaged Pike’s reputation, the deflection on that issue was not sufficient, Confederate leadership knew the general had blundered and shortly thereafter he was replaced and transferred to Tennessee, where during the second battle for Corinth, forces under his command were again defeated. Consequently, Van Dorn was ordered to appear before a court of inquiry and reassigned to commanding a cavalry unit. It actually proved to be to his good fortune. He became so successful in that role he was placed in command of all cavalry units in Mississippi and later, the cavalry corps of the Army of Tennessee. Earl Van Dorn had found his niche and soon was being compared with famed Confederate cavalry commanders of the era such as Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jeb Stuart. But his “avocation” would soon cloud his fame…and cost him his life.
Following the first battle of Franklin in 1863 Van Dorn returned to Springhill, Tennessee. It was during this time he was introduced to Mrs. Jessie McKissack Peters, the beautiful young third wife of Dr. George Peters, a retired physician and member of the Tennessee State Legislature. During Dr. Peters’ absence, while involved in legislative duties, Jessie would frequently be seen at Van Dorn’s headquarters and then there were those unchaperoned carriage rides, all of which set local gossips tongues wagging. When Peters became aware of the affair he pretended to leave on legislative business, then doubled back arriving home after midnight catching the pair, as he later stated, “where I expected to find them.” Van Dorn begged for his life and the doctor let him go. However, apparently reconsidering Van Dorn’s fate, early in the morning of May 7, 1863 Peters appeared at the general’s headquarters and shot him. He then rode to Nashville and turned himself in but was never prosecuted for the crime.
History is written after the fact, but based on the evidence chosen it forever defines who we are and how we will be remembered. Earl Van Dorn is no exception. The defeat at Pea Ridge aside, will he primarily be cast as a successful Civil War Confederate cavalry officer or as a “serial adulterer?”
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.