Among Confederate cavalry officers, none seem to draw as much criticism, or curiosity, as Major General Earl Van Dorn. His record at West Point, service in the U.S. Army, questionable decision making in combat and on campaign, and his penchant for womanizing are all well known to readers of Civil War history. Still, the dashing and decorated officer garnered the attention of nearly everyone he met. Despite being married to Caroline Godbolt and fathering two children with her (Olivia and Earl Jr.), Van Dorn held a reputation as a cheat and had a record of reported affairs. Even before the war, he had carried on a secret affair with Martha Goodbread that resulted in the birth of three children. Still, perhaps the most striking detail about the man is the manner in which he met his death. It was evident that Dr. George Peters did not want to be a victim of the "Terror of Ugly Husbands."[i] Whether Van Dorn was ever referred to by such a title remains uncertain, but one thing is clear, the Rebel cavalier soon became a victim himself.[ii]
Van Dorn began operations in Middle Tennessee in February of 1863 and together with Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest began concentrating their forces in the region. In Franklin, a Federal garrison under the command of Brigadier General Charles C. Gilbert received orders from the headquarters of the Army of the Cumberland. By Major General William Rosecrans' orders, Gilbert was to organize a cavalry force to advance on Van Dorn's Spring Hill position. Chosen to lead this reconnaissance-in-force expedition was Colonel John Coburn commanding the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division, Reserve Corps of the Army of the Cumberland. On March 4, 1863 Coburn and his 2,837-man command marched out of Franklin toward Spring Hill on the Columbia Pike.[iii] Behind Coburn's mounted column, an eighty-wagon supply train carrying stores and forage for an extended expedition stretched back along the road. Advancing only four miles, Coburn's lead elements encountered Confederate cavalrymen and two artillery pieces. Earlier in the morning, Van Dorn and Forrest had sent forward Brigadier General William Jackson's three brigades (approximately 1,200 men) in advance of their "forced reconnaissance" toward Franklin.
The two sides quickly closed on each other and Coburn deployed his force with great efficiency. Federal and Confederate artillery exchanged ferocious and deadly shot against the opposing line. As Coburn's position lingered on untenable, he decided to attack Jackson's line. Almost instinctively, Jackson withdrew and established another line of defense just south of Thompson's Station. As Coburn continued his pursuit, Jackson's mounted infantry emerged from a wood line sending the Federal attack into retreat. As Coburn's artillery began to fire on the Confederate position, Van Dorn arrived with the main body of his force. Realizing that he was no longer facing a meager opposing force, Coburn ordered the wagon train to return to Franklin and began to concentrate his forces for one last assault before nightfall. The attack stalled allowing only thirty-nine of his wagons to escape and, fearing that a renewed attack might bring on a full-scale engagement, Coburn bivouacked for the night. Four miles away, Van Dorn consolidated his line and assumed defensive positions atop the rolling hills and knolls astride the Columbia Pike only four miles from the Federal position.[iv]
By 10:00 AM on the morning of March 5th, Coburn's force was on the move again. Pressuring Confederate pickets developed into a full engagement. Confederate artillery positions poured heavy fire into the advancing Union cavalry and both horse and rider were forced to reroute their advance. Behind the cavalry came Coburn's infantry regiments, the 33rd and 85th Indiana, 22nd Wisconsin, and 19th Michigan. The momentum of the attack carried Coburn's force to the depot and well beyond where Van Dorn anticipated his line would allow. Danger came, however, when Coburn was made aware of Forrest's attacking 1,000-man cavalry force on the Lewisburg Pike. With his line surrounded by Van Dorn to his front and Forrest to his rear, Coburn determined to fight to the finish. Perhaps realizing the futility of such a stand, Coburn examined the situation and finding that his artillery and cavalry had fled from the field, decided to surrender his force. Coburn, as well as 1,221 of his men, laid down their weapons, the stiff contest was finished.[v] For Van Dorn, Forrest, and the Confederate forces in the region, the victory at Thompson's Station, though hollow in reality, demonstrated their ability in the field and proved their dominance over their adversary. This success though would be short lived.
Having gained confidence from his stunning victory at Thompson's Station, Van Dorn began scheming for his next punch. Likewise, Forrest made his next move. Riding north he drove the Union garrison from Brentwood and exposed the flank of the Federal occupied town of Franklin. Since his arrival in Middle Tennessee, Van Dorn had his eyes set on dislodging the large Federal garrison at Franklin though doing so would be no easy task.
Routes of entry to the town nestled on the banks of the Harpeth River, were guarded by an earthen fort bristling with two 24-Pounders and two 3-Inch rifled guns on the northern bank. The town itself was garrisoned by 5,194 infantrymen, a force of 2,728 cavalry, eighteen pieces of artillery under the command of Major General Gordon Granger. Not unaware of the threat posed by Van Dorn and Forrest, Granger organized his forces and made preparations for an attack. Understanding the particulars of the terrain and the danger to his flanks, Granger sent Major General David Stanley's mounted force to observe the crossing at Hughes' Mill and Brigadier General Absalom Baird's troops to screen for an advance below Franklin. Finally, he ordered the division of Brigadier General Charles C. Gilbert to form a reserve that could quickly reinforce Stanley to the north or Baird to the south.
On April 10th, Van Dorn moved his force, roughly 9,000 men, to the outskirts of Franklin. As his mounted force advanced over the hills on the approach into town, Granger's skirmishers engaged with the Rebels. As the skirmish line withdrew toward the town, the 40th Ohio Regiment, on guard duty on the south bank, quickly entered the fray and delayed a hasty Confederate advance. Near Hughes' Mill Road, Stanley, hearing the gunfire, sent his force toward the crossing and the Lewisburg Pike to attack the advancing Confederates. Stanley managed to overrun a Confederate battery and threaten Van Dorn's rear until a counterattack by Forrest ended the action for the day. Despite his bold strike at Franklin, the attack that Van Dorn envisioned failed to materialize. As invigorating as the success at Thompson's Station was, the defeat at Franklin nearly stymied all morale. Van Dorn, however, had to appreciate that his force avoided total destruction and that he was allowed to enter into a period of relative inactivity in Spring Hill.
As Van Dorn settled into Spring Hill, disharmony between he and Forrest became apparent. In the last few weeks of April an apparent argument between the two led to a clash within the Confederate command structure. The details of the argument are disputed and shrouded in myth and legend. What is known for certain is that Federal stores captured by Forrest's men after Thompson's Station had not been sent to the Army of Tennessee's headquarters and properly distributed throughout the ranks. When Van Dorn received orders from his superior, Lieutenant General Braxton Bragg, for Forrest to return the contested goods, the latter vehemently protested. Several accounts of their exchange exist all with differing opinions of what was actually said between Van Dorn and Forrest. One thing is certain, the two, who had worked so well together thus far, had been forced to work in too small an area of operations with each other for too long. Van Dorn concluded the dispute by offering Forrest an opportunity for independent command. With their argument settled, Van Dorn and Forrest parted ways for the last time. Van Dorn's cavalry remained active in the area and constantly screened for Federal movement in the region, while he became active within social circles of Spring Hill.[vii]
Van Dorn established his headquarters at the White Hall, the home of Dr. Aaron White and his wife. Recognized as something of a womanizer, or at the very least a flirt, Van Dorn began his association with Jessie Peters. Peters was not only a wife to Dr. George Peters but a mother to both his children and stepchildren. Learning of such unbecoming behavior, Dr. White asked that Van Dorn leave the home. The officer soon established his new headquarters in the home of Martin Cheairs, Ferguson Hall. There, he began regular visits with Mrs. Peters. Enraged, Dr. Peters confronted Van Dorn over the affair and threatened to kill him if the Rebel officer did not furnish an official statement absolving Jessie of any wrongdoing.
On the morning of May 7th, Peters arrived at Ferguson Hall to obtain the signed statement. Upon discussion of the matter with the esteemed doctor, however, the cavalryman made it clear that he could not sign such a letter. The two allegedly exchanged words before Van Dorn acquiesced and signed the statement. Tensions still boiled over. Peters revealed a pistol and fired point-blank. Turning his head, almost out of instinct, the bullet penetrated the back of Van Dorn's skull and lodged just behind his right eye. By 1:00 PM, Van Dorn was dead, and his murderer was on the run. Peters escaped to Nashville before being captured by Confederate forces and put on trial. Ultimately, Peters was acquitted. After the war ended, George and Jessie divorced but eventually re-married each other and lived on well after the conclusion of the conflict.[viii]
The details of the murder have faded into time and memory. Was the murderous act solely motivated by the wrath of a jealous husband? Could Peters, who had taken the Oath of Allegiance to the Union, have acted as an assassin?[ix]Certainly, Van Dorn was at the height of his career when he was murdered. What other factors could have elicited such a reaction from Peters? The truth, simply put, may never be known.
Van Dorn's body was brought to the Maury County Courthouse before a funeral was held at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Columbia. Brigadier General Lucius Polk supplied a grave to hold the body until it was transferred to the Godbolt family plot in Mount Vernon, Alabama. Not until 1899 did Van Dorn reach his final resting place when Emily Van Dorn Miller had his body interred with the remains of his father in Port Gibson, Mississippi.[x]
Beneath a simple headstone featuring only his name lies Earl Van Dorn, the man known for his debacle at Pea Ridge, overlooked for his impressive victory at Holly Springs, and remembered for his controversial death that overshadowed the pinnacle of his military career. The once dashing cavalier, Van Dorn remains very much at the center of discussions of the American Civil War in the West, in myth and reality, today.
[i] Carter, Arthur B. The Tarnished Cavalier: Major General Earl Van Dorn, CSA, (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee, 1999), 187. [ii] Carter, The Tarnished Cavalier, 33; Hartje, Robert G. Van Dorn: The Life and Times of a Confederate General, (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1967), 46 [iii] United States War Department, The War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Volume 23, Part 1. (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1889), 85-86. Hereafter referred to as OR 23. [iv] OR 23, 116 [v] OR 23, 89-90, 116-117. [vi] OR 23, 222-224. [vii] Hartje, Van Dorn, 302-304. [viii] Gupton, Linda. Seasons of the South: The Lives Involved in the Death of General Van Dorn, (Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse, 2013), 57-59, 66; Carter, The Tarnished Cavalier, 187. [ix] Carter, The Tarnished Cavalier, 193. [x] Hartje, Van Dorn, 322-323.