The following is the Editor's Letter from the Third WInchester issue, Volume 27, #3.

Earl Van Dorn—More Than Just A Skirt-Chasin’ Pretty Boy

This issue features the Confederate raid on Holly Springs, Miss. The leader of the raid on Ulysses S. Grant’s supply base for his first drive against Vicksburg was Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn, a colorful and controversial figure in history.

During his military career Van Dorn fought the Mexican Army, the Comanche and Kiowa, and the Yankees, but he will always and forever be remembered as a skirt-chaser who was killed by a jealous husband. I personally contributed to that legacy with a 1984 article detailing Van Dorn’s ignominious demise at Spring Hill, Tenn., on May 7, 1863, at the end of a smoking gun in the hand of Dr. George Peters. I believe there was an affair, at the very least an encounter (a one night stand), between Van Dorn (who, by the way, was married with two children) and the voluptuous and oft-lonely Mrs. Peters. The dashing Southern cavalier and “pretty boy,” as one might refer to him today, had the reputation as far back as West Point days of being quite the charmer. Women and young girls were said to swoon in his presence.

But there is more to the Mississippi-born Van Dorn. Superiors, subordinates, and fellow officers admired him and testified to his fearlessness in battle. In Mexico, Van Dorn made a lasting impression on Bvt. Maj. Gen. David E. Twiggs. When the 2nd Cavalry was formed in 1855, Van Dorn was among those favored by then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, himself a veteran of the Mexican War, to serve in the new mounted regiment. This released Van Dorn from duty as a ground-pounder, the fate to which his low grades at West Point had put him. (Van Dorn’s sister composed a special march for the 2nd, just as “Garry Owen” later came to be associated with the 7th Cavalry.)

In 1856 the 2nd Cavalry took the field against the Comanche in Texas. When Van Dorn completed his first action against the Indians, leading a squadron, and reported to his immediate superior, the officer he saluted was Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee. There is no evidence the two ever became warm friends, but their professional associations in Texas, in the field and on court martial duty, reflect a mutual regard. When Lee left the 2nd Cavalry in 1857 and returned to his Arlington, Va., home to tend to family matters, command of the 2nd Cavalry fell to Maj. George H. Thomas. However, when General Twiggs wanted to launch a punitive expedition against marauding Indians, he passed over Thomas to lead it, and instead chose the senior captain (and brevet major from the Mexican War): “I intend to put the command under Major Van Dorn, as I have every confidence in his capacity.”

The ensuing fight with the Comanche at Rush Creek on October 1, 1858, totally routed the unsuspecting Indians from their camp and 56 warriors were killed. Van Dorn took two arrows, one above the left wrist—Van Dorn’s luck: his left hand was holding the reins in front of his heart—another in his right side, a wound that many considered fatal. But Van Dorn survived and was back in the saddle in a matter of weeks.

In May 1859, Van Dorn led another devastating assault on the Comanche that left 49 warriors dead. In this fight, two 2nd Cavalry officers and future Confederate generals, Capt. E. Kirby Smith and Lt. Fitzhugh Lee, were wounded. The latter referred to Van Dorn as a “game cock,” further describing him as “courteous, amiable, with a magnetic presence, agreeable manners—popular with his officers and men, he was easily the most conspicuous officer of his rank.”

When Van Dorn requested leave to visit his family in Alabama and Mississippi during the fall of 1859, Twiggs felt compelled to extol the accomplishments of his favorite subordinate publicly: “This officer by his marked judgment, energy, and military ability, has gained two decisive victories over large bodies of Comanches. . . .” When Van Dorn returned to Port Gibson, Miss., the hometown hero was showered with gifts and admiration. Upon entering a theater in Mobile, Ala., the town where he had raised Co. A for service in the 2nd Cavalry, Van Dorn was greeted with three cheers from the crowd. He even wrote his one-time commander in the 2nd, Col. Albert Sidney Johnston, about his dream of one day being a general in the U. S. Army.

This was the status of Earl Van Dorn on the eve of the Civil War—a rising star in his chosen profession and a name that had glittered in national headlines.


Editor