When does character matter? No one is perfect, and even those most admired by people often have serious deficits of morals or integrity even though it does not affect their professional lives. Sometimes a lack of honor can wreck institutions, careers, and even armies. The life of Earl Van Dorn, one-time Confederate commander in Arkansas is such a case.
Earl Van Dorn was born in Port Gibson, Mississippi, in 1820. He grew up along one of the most important port cities that Mississippi had, a city that traded in everything – grains, corn, cotton, tobacco, and slaves. His father was a prominent judge, and his mother was the niece of Andrew Jackson. He had a future that was bright and secure, but his character flaws would one day doom him.
As his family had a lot of political connections, Van Dorn gained a spot at the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1838. His performance at West Point was lackluster at best, and he graduated fifty-second in a class of sixty-eight. In 1842. His army career as an infantry officer took him to a variety of posts across the South. He had an artistic side, enjoying painting and writing poetry. But contemporaries were quick to point out that he was impulsive and sharp-tempered.
When Texas was annexed to the Union in 1845, his regiment was sent to the Rio Grande to enforce the American claim on the border. When war with Mexico erupted, he found himself in the middle of some of the biggest fights of the conflict. He was twice wounded in combat and commended for his action under fire.
Van Dorn enlisted in the Confederate army after Mississippi seceded in 1861. He was given command over troops in Texas where he arrested all remaining Union troops in the state. In January 1862, now a general, he was given command of the Trans-Mississippi Department, leading Confederate forces west of the Mississippi.
He arrived in Arkansas in January 1862. He chose Pocahontas, near the Missouri border, for his headquarters. He initially hoped to lead troops on an offensive into Missouri but circumstances changed.
Alerted to an approach of Union troops, he moved his troops to Northwest Arkansas across the hills and mountains of the region in early March. The Battle of Pea Ridge was the largest battle of the war west of the Mississippi and lasted for two days. Van Dorn held the lines on the first day but watched it all fall apart the next and had to withdraw. On one of the few occasions where Confederates outnumbered Union forces, Van Dorn lost.
The loss at Pea Ridge was a huge defeat for Confederate plans in the area. Van Dorn was ordered to take command of the Army of Mississippi. Van Dorn complied and took most of his troops with him. The departure of Van Dorn’s troops along with Van Dorn left Arkansas scrambling to defend itself. The state’s major centers at Fort Smith and Little Rock fell a year later.
In October, Van Dorn lost another major battle at the Second Battle of Corinth. He was stripped of his command and made a cavalry commander with the Army of Tennessee. He managed to redeem himself with several small victories and the capture of Union supplies in early 1863.
On May 1, his home town of Port Gibson fell to Union forces. In what became so symbolic of Confederate planning and resource allocation, Port Gibson’s most important military figure of the war was hundreds of miles away and had not seen battle for several weeks by that point. He learned of the defeat by telegram.
Though Van Dorn was married, he still saw other women. The rumors had circulated for some time about Van Dorn and another man’s wife while he was in Tennessee and his wife at home in Mississippi. Dr. George Peters, who regularly visited Van Dorn’s headquarters, found out that it was his wife in question while he was away on business. Humiliated, Peters decided to take matters into his own hands. Though dueling had long existed in the South over questions of honor, Peters decided he would not bother with that for Van Dorn.
On May 8, 1863, he strolled into the stately mansion that acted as Van Dorn’s headquarters and shot him. Mortally wounded, Van Dorn died a few hours later.
Authorities decided not to prosecute Peters. Defending his wife’s honor and the honor of his home was considered enough of a defense in the South at the time that he was released without incident. The general public had loudly condemned Van Dorn’s indiscretions. Of all the sins of the wartime South, sleeping with another man’s wife was simply too far. Whatever else southern culture produced, honor mattered above all else. To insult a man in his home or to intrude on the sanctity of a marriage was a line that could not be crossed.
Van Dorn’s indiscretions had disgraced himself and damaged the overall Confederate position. A senior commander had been gunned down by a jealous husband.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a history professor at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org<mailto:email@example.com>. The South Arkansas Historical Foundation, an organization dedicated to historical education and preservation, is based in El Dorado and can be found at www.soarkhistory.com or (870) 862-9890.