Earl Van Dorn was a West Point graduate and career U.S. Army officer, who fought with distinction in the Mexican-American War, but, resigned his commission in 1861 to join with his native state of Mississippi, in the Confederate cause. He would make the ultimate sacrifice for his beliefs.
Earl was born in Claiborne County, Mississippi on September 17, 1820, to Peter Aaron Van Dorn, a lawyer and judge and Sophia Donelson Caffery, a niece of Andrew Jackson.
When he grew up his family relations to Andrew Jackson secured him an appointment at the United States Military Academy at West Point and he enrolled in 1838. In July 1842 he was appointed a brevet second lieutenant in the 7th U.S. Infantry Regiment and began his army service in the Southern United States.
In December 1843, Van Dorn married Caroline Godbold, and the couple would eventually have two children. After fighting in the Mexican-American War, he saw action in Indian Wars with the Seminole in Florida and the Comanche in Texas. However, when the Civil War erupted, he resigned his commission in 1861 to join the Confederacy. After serving briefly as commander of the Mississippi Militia, Van Dorn received a commission in the regular Confederate army as a colonel of infantry in March 1861.
In January 1862, Van Dorn, now a major general, was given command of the newly-formed Trans-Mississippi Military District. Van Dorn immediately faced a Union invasion of Arkansas. He personally took charge of his two Confederate armies and devised a complex flanking maneuver designed not only to defeat the smaller Union force but also to advance north through Missouri, capture St. Louis and threaten Ulysses S. Grant’s armies. Despite his numerical advantage, Van Dorn’s two-pronged attack on entrenched Federal positions at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, failed due to delays, lack of supplies, and the loss of his top two army commanders. The Union forces counterattacked and drove Van Dorn’s armies from the field.
Van Dorn suffered a similar fate at the Second Battle of Corinth, Mississippi. Again failing to properly reconnoiter the defensive position of his opponent, Van Dorn’s attack on General Rosecran’s Federal troops fell short and was eventually repulsed, forcing the Confederates to retreat. Following the battle, Van Dorn was relieved of his army command and reassigned to command General John C. Pemberton’s cavalry. As a cavalry commander Van Dorn would achieve his greatest success in a raid on Grant’s supply depot at Holly Springs, Mississippi, on December 20, 1862. Van Dorn’s raid thwarted Grant’s initial plan to attack Vicksburg and cut the Confederacy in half. On May 7, 1863, Van Dorn was shot dead at his headquarters by a husband jealous of the attentions Van Dorn paid his wife. He was buried at the Wintergreen Cemetery in Port Gibson, Mississippi.
By Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated February 2020.