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Earl Van Dorn ( 1820 - 1863 )  Category ( Historical_Figures ) [suggest a correction]
 

Earl Van DornSome soldiers possess personalities that have a softer side to balance their stern military discipline. Earl Van Dorn, a United States Army officer and Confederate general, was one of these individuals. Perhaps he should have avoided military life altogether, as he was a painter of note, a poet, and something of a ladies' man. He is also remembered for his impressive defeats at Pea Ridge and Corinth, during the American Civil War. Sadly, he was also murdered by a civilian during that same war.

Born in Mississippi to Sophia Donelson Caffrey (who was a niece of Andrew Jackson), and Peter Aaron Van Dorn, a lawyer and judge, he was raised in an educated, well-to-do and well-connected household.  He received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, though he graduated low in his class four years later. However, his family connections insured his appointment as a second lieutenant in the Infantry Regiment. Van Dorn happened to be stationed in Texas when the U.S.-Mexican War began, and saw action at the Battle of Monterrey in 1846. The next year he was promoted to first lieutenant and received other awards and promotions for conduct, eventually attaining the rank of captain. He was also an Indian fighter, during the 1850s, during conflicts with the Comanche and Seminole tribes. He was wounded several times. He took a leave of absence during 1860 and the early part of 1861.

When his home state chose to join the Confederate cause, Van Dorn resigned his U.S. Army commission and was appointed brigadier general for the Mississippi Militia. He acted quickly and decisively, organizing a brigade in Texas and capturing three Union ships in Galveston harbor. He was then ordered to Richmond, Virginia where he received the promotion to colonel over the entire Virginia cavalry forces (he was a highly-regarded horseman). Within a year he was appointed general, being given command of an entire division of the Confederate Army of the Potomac.  However, not long after, at the Battle of Pea Ridge, a series of mistakes and just plain bad luck resulted in a major defeat. Later he was forced to retreat during the battle of Corinth. After that defeat he was required to answer questions posed by a court of inquiry. He was acquitted of the charges against him, but he was still removed from his position as a district commander. He returned to the position of cavalry commander, and again displayed his natural talent in leading from horseback.

By 1863 he was well along in the rehabilitation of his military reputation. Unfortunately, his romantic intrigues led to his ultimate undoing. In May of that year he was shot to death, in the back of the head, by James Peters, who was convinced that Van Dorn and Peter's wife, Jessie, were having an affair. Peters was arrested but never stood for trial. Military historian Richard P. Weinert once stated that Van Dorn was "A brilliant cavalry officer, he was a disappointment in command of large combined forces."


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