Confederate General Earl Van Dorn Murdered by Cuckolded Husband
Major General Earl Van Dorn, C.S.A. (1820-1863)
Date and photographer unknown
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)
Today in Military History: May 7, 1863
The 150th anniversary of the American Civil War presents me with several opportunities to include posts about various battles and related stories. This post is probably one of the more unusual, concerning the murder of a serving Confederate general.
Earl Van Dorn was born in 1820 near Port Gibson, Mississippi. He was one of eight siblings, and his mother was a niece of Andrew Jackson, savior of New Orleans and later to become the seventh U.S. president. Thanks to the influence of his relationship to Jackson, Van Dorn received an appoint to the U.S. Military Academy. He graduated in 1842 – 52nd in a class of 56 – and was brevetted second lieutenant in the 7th U.S. Infantry Regiment.
Van Dorn served on garrison duty throughout the southern U.S. – including the Army forces which occupied Texas in 1845 when that republic became a U.S. state. He served with distinction in the Mexican-American War, earning a promotion in early 1847 and two additional brevets for bravery in action in the final campaign to capture Mexico City.
In 1849-50, Van Dorn saw action against the Seminole Indians in Florida, saw more garrison duty, and even served as a recruiter for a time. In 1855, he was promoted to captain and transferred to the 2nd U.S. Cavalry. Over the next three years, he fought Seminoles and Comanches in Oklahoma and was badly wounded twice. He was on medical leave from the army for most of 1860 and into 1861.
At the outset of the Civil War, Van Dorn resigned his U.S. Army commission, which was accepted effective January 31, 1861. He was appointed a brigadier general in the Mississippi Militia on January 23, and replaced Jefferson Davis as major general and commander of Mississippi's state forces in February when Davis was selected as the Confederacy's president.
For the first months of the war, Van Dorn served in Texas recruiting new Rebels and capturing Federal posts and several ships. He was summoned east to join the Army of Northern Virginia as commander of all its cavalry, and later promoted to divisional commander. In January of 1862, Van Dorn was sent back west to assume command of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi District, where two other generals were fighting for the command.
"Battle of Pea Ridge Arkansas" March 7-8, 1862
Chromolithograph by Kurz and Allison, printed in 1880's
[Note the American Indian in the lower right corner; some were present at the battle]
In March of 1862, Van Dorn led a Confederate army into northern Arkansas to intercept a Union invasion from Missouri. The Confederates fought a two-day battle – variously known as the battle of Pea Ridge (Union) or Elkhorn Tavern (Confederate) – which caused the Rebels to retreat. Despite the defeat, the Confederate Congress sent Van Dorn its thanks for his "valor, skill, and good conduct in the battle…" Van Dorn responded, "I was not defeated, but only foiled in my intentions."
Van Dorn suffered another defeat seven months later at the second battle of Corinth. As a result of this latest setback, he was brought before a court of inquiry to explain his actions. During the trial, Van Dorn stated that he had no personal wealth – having spent his life in service to his country – but that his only real possession was his reputation, "without which life to me were as valueless as the crisp and faded leaf of autumn." He was eventually acquitted of all charges, but he was relieved of his command.
Following his ouster, in January of 1863 Van Dorn was appointed commander of all Rebel cavalry in the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana. He led his horsemen in several skirmishes. In March Van Dorn was given overall command of the cavalry corps of the Army of the Tennessee. He fought his last battle on April 10, skirmishing with Union cavalry near Franklin, Tennessee. Shortly afterwards, he returned to his headquarters at Spring Hill, Tennessee.
Downfall and Death: The "Terror of Ugly Husbands"
Despite the fact that Van Dorn was a married man with two children, he was what one author called "a serial adulterer." Another of his contemporaries called him the "terror of ugly husbands." Van Dorn's reputation preceded him to Spring Hill. One young Southern widow admonished him to "let the women alone until after the war is over." He replied, "I cannot do that, for it is all I am fighting for." This character flaw would prove fatal.
At some point in 1863, Van Dorn met Mrs. Jessie McKissack Peters, the beautiful and much younger third wife of a Dr. George Peters. The doctor was a wealthy landowner and retired physician. Her husband had been gone for months attending to his duties as a member of the Tennessee state legislature. During the doctor's absence, his beautiful bride was often seen at Van Dorn's headquarters under circumstances that left little doubt about the nature of her visits.
As described in an online biography, "Van Dorn proved to be a Southern cavalier incarnate, with his slim-waisted, broad-shouldered physique. His handsome face, blue eyes, light chestnut hair and mustache were much admired by the ladies. Added to his physical characteristics, he was also an accomplished painter, amateur poet, a dedicated romantic, and considered one of ‘the finest horseman in the cavalry of the old United States Army.'"
Martin Cheairs Mansion, Spring Hill, TN
Gen. Van Dorn's headquarters at the time of his murder
(Building is on property owned by the Tennessee Children's Home)
Mrs. Peters's unsupervised visits to Van Dorn's headquarters – and their unchaperoned carriage rides – set the local gossips' tongues wagging. In his own words, Dr. Peters later stated: "I arrived at home on the 12th of April and was alarmed at the distressing rumors which prevailed in the neighborhood in relation to the attentions paid by General Van Dorn to my wife." In addition, the doctor caught one of Van Dorn's servants delivering a note to Jessie: Peters told the message carrier to "...tell his whiskey-headed master, General Van Dorn, that I would blow his brains out, or any of his staff that stepped their foot inside of the lawn..."
Determined to catch the general in the act, Peters pretended a trip to Shelbyville, TN but never left the area, doubling back to Spring Hill instead. Peters claims he: "came upon the creature, about half-past two o'clock at night, where I expected to find him..." According to Peters' later statement to the Nashville police, when he threatened to kill the general, Van Dorn begged for his life and then promised to write out a public statement exonerating Mrs. Peters from any guilt if the doctor would spare his life.
Early on the morning of May 7, 1863, a number of Confederate officers were standing on the wide front lawn of the Cheairs mansion. The officers barely noted the arrival of Dr. Peters on horseback. As the doctor dismounted and tied his horse to the north gate, one of the officers mumbled a laconic greeting to him before resuming their conversation. There was nothing unusual about the visit, as the doctor was a frequent visitor, often stopping at headquarters to obtain a pass to go through Confederate lines. It wasn't long before the doctor returned to his horse, mounted and rode off eastward at a leisurely pace towards his home.
Only a few minutes passed before the loud sobs of a female were heard. It was the daughter of the mansion's owner, Martin Cheairs, crying out: "The doctor has shot the general!" The officers found Van Dorn slumped over at his writing desk, a bullet wound in the back of his head. Upon closer inspection it was found that the small-caliber ball had lodged itself behind the general's forehead but hadn't killed him instantly. For four and one half hours, the general lay in a comatose state, unable to utter a word before he died.
Footnote #1: Dr. Peters rode to Nashville, where he turned himself in to the local police. He gave a complete confession about the incident, and was never prosecuted for the crime. Soon afterwards, the doctor made his way to Arkansas and settled on some of the land he owned – and was joined shortly thereafter by his wife, apparently forgiven for her dalliances. Mrs. Peters steadfastly denied any wrongdoing with "Buck" Van Dorn.
Footnote #2: During his tenure as commander of the Trans-Mississippi District, Van Dorn designed a flag which he ordered the units under his command to fly as regimental colors. It had a red field, a white crescent moon in the upper left corner, and thirteen white five-pointed stars arranged in five rows.
Van Dorn battle flag
(Image courtesy of http://www.scv674.org)
Footnote #3: Military historian David L. Bongard described Van Dorn as "aggressive, brave, and energetic but lacked the spark of genius necessary for successful high command in combat." Further, Van Dorn has been regarded by a number of historians as the equal of other Confederate cavalrymen such as Jeb Stuart, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and John Hunt Morgan.
Footnote #4: Van Dorn was buried initially in Spring Hill. In 1899, his family exhumed his body and moved it to the family plot near Port Gibson, MS.
Tombstone of Earl Van Dorn, Port Gibson, MS
(Photography courtesy of http://www.findagrave.com)