Van Dorn, Earl (1820–1863)

By: Robert G. Hartje

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: February 1, 1996

Earl (Buck) Van Dorn, soldier and Confederate major general, the son of Peter A. Van Dorn and Sophie Donelson Caffery, was born in Port Gibson, Mississippi, on September 20, 1820. He received an appointment from President Andrew Jackson to the Military Academy at West Point. Generally a poor student and often cited for misconduct, he showed skills in horsemanship, field soldiering, and drawing. After graduation from West Point in 1842, Van Dorn married Caroline Godbold, daughter of a prominent Alabama plantation owner. They had a son and a daughter. Van Dorn saw his first combat in the Mexican War; he earned many commendations for his actions at Fort Texas, Cerro Gordo, and Mexico City. During the late 1850s he was a company commander in the famous Second United States Cavalry, formed by Congress in 1855 to secure the southwestern frontier against Indians. In the dull moments he turned to watercolor painting, at which he became quite adept, and horse racing. In 1858 Van Dorn participated in an engagement at Wichita Village in Kansas territory. From his advanced post, Camp Radziminski, Van Dorn's scouts brought him news of a combined Kiowa-Comanche gathering some forty miles distant. At dawn on October 1, 1858, the bugle sounded the attack. Van Dorn was shot through the arm and through the stomach and lung. Invalided back to Camp Radziminski, he received high praise for the attack against a force nearly twice the size of his own. Despite the Department of Interior's insistence that the War Department's aggressive policy hampered peace plans, Van Dorn was soon in action again. Recovering from his severe wounds during the winter and following War Department directions, he engaged the Comanches along the Cimarron river in late spring 1859. With six companies of cavalry dismounted, he defeated a band of warriors and squaws in their encampment. Though these actions suggest patterns of Indian treatment later highlighted at Wounded Knee, they did address the spirit of the times in the Lone Star State and Van Dorn received much honor for his deeds.

As the Southern states moved toward secession, Van Dorn was one of the strong voices for action. When Mississippi left the Union, he resigned from the regulars and accepted a commission as brigadier general, second in command, of state troops under Maj. Gen. Jefferson Davis until Davis's election to the Confederate presidency, when Van Dorn replaced him with the rank of major general of Mississippi troops. Considered one of the most promising officers of the new Confederacy, he soon tired of state office work and accepted a colonelcy in the Confederate army to serve in Texas recruiting regular army members still in that state. A spectacular seizure of the Union Star of the West and the capture of the commands of Union Maj. C. C. Sibley and Lt. Col. Isaac V. D. Reeve netted him other vessels and several companies of Federal troops. In September 1861 the restless officer, now a brigadier general, received an appointment to command in Virginia, where hopes for combat seemed more promising. He soon engaged in the inglorious game of competing for rank until Richmond authorities finally reassigned him to command the newly created Trans-Mississippi District of Department 2, including parts of Louisiana, Missouri, the Indian Territory, and all of Arkansas. Called to Corinth, Mississippi, by Gen. Albert S. Johnston to join with the Army of Tennessee to stem the tide of the advance of the Army of the Tennessee (Union), he chose instead to defend northern Arkansas against a Union invasion led by Brig. Gen. Samuel Curtis. Van Dorn and Gen. Sterling Price chose to attack Curtis's forces advancing into Arkansas from behind Pea Ridge, a high peak near Elk Horn Tavern. By Van Dorn's own estimate, his force numbered about 16,000 troops, including 1,000 Indians and many raw undisciplined recruits. The first day's battle, marked by poor coordination within the Confederate command, was a fiercely bloody affair that cost the Confederates heavily in officers and men. Van Dorn altered his original battle plans, choosing instead to attack Curtis in his strongly defensive position near the tavern. Musket fire supported by artillery took a heavy toll among the attackers, and after heavy losses Van Dorn withdrew his army from the field. The ineptness in handling large troop movements that stalked so many officers in the Civil War had cost the Confederacy another great victory.

Next, assigned to the river defenses at Vicksburg, he improved these defenses considerably during the summer of 1862. Impressed by his actions, the Confederate War Department in September removed him to central Mississippi to work closely with General Price as commander of the Army of the West. In another confusion of orders, this time on the part of generals Braxton Bragg, Van Dorn, and Price, Van Dorn chose to follow his own plans and attacked his old West Point classmate, Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans, in the fortifications at Corinth, which he had helped to build before the Federals had occupied the town in early summer. Again it was a Confederate disaster, Van Dorn and Price failing in their frontal assaults against Corinth, while Bragg was facing his own difficulties in Kentucky. After the battle a court of inquiry questioned Van Dorn's conduct of the battle. When the Court ruled negligence on his part, a decision sharply contested by his officers, General Bragg reassigned him to the cavalry. Here he seems to have found his niche, and until his death he joined Nathan Bedford Forrest, John Morgan, and Joe Wheeler in harassing the Federal invaders. At Holly Springs, one of Ulysses S. Grant's Mississippi supply depots, in December, his small command handed Grant an important defeat that was a factor in delaying a Federal offensive against Vicksburg.

On May 7, 1863, Van Dorn's life ended, not on the battlefield, but in his office in Spring Hill, Tennessee, where he was shot by a local doctor, George Peters. 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. The reputation of Van Dorn also clouds the issue, his losses in battle, his Corinth court of inquiry, the rumors abounding about his drinking and womanizing. 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. His body now lies next to that of his father in a Port Gibson cemetery.

Grant Foreman, Advancing the Frontier (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1933; rpt. 1968). Larry Jay Gage, "The Texas Road to Secession and War: John Marshall and the Texas State Gazette, 1860–1861," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 62 (October 1958). Robert G. Hartje, Earl Van Dorn: The Life and Times of a Confederate General (Nashville: Vanderbilt Press, 1967). Earl Van Dorn Collection, Alabama State Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama. Earl Van Dorn Collection, Mississippi State Archives and History, Jackson, Mississippi. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.
Time Periods:
  • Antebellum Texas
  • Civil War

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Robert G. Hartje, “Van Dorn, Earl,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 30, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

February 1, 1996

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