Van Dorn's Folly Loses Arkansas

Posted on March 7, 2012 

Attempting to reclaim lost ground, Major General Earl Van Dorn took a gamble that didn’t pay off and demonstrated a poor grasp of logistics in the Confederate defeat at the battle of Pea Ridge. Van Dorn’s folly gave control of most of Arkansas to the Federals.

Van Dorn was born near Port Gibson, Miss., and used his kinship with Andrew Jackson to secure an appointment to West Point. In 1842, he graduated from West Point ranked 52 out of 56 cadets. During the Mexican War, Van Dorn was twice recognized for gallantry.

From 1852 to 1855, Van Dorn returned to Mississippi, serving at the East Pascagoula Military Asylum. Two years later, Van Dorn returned to combat, fighting the Comanche Indians in Texas. When Mississippi seceded from the Union, Van Dorn followed his native state into the Confederacy. By 1862, Van Dorn was a major general serving in the Trans-Mississippi District.

Van Dorn received his command in the Trans-Mississippi thanks to an ongoing feud between Sterling Price and Benjamin McCulloch. Instead of showing any favoritism between Price and McCullough, President Jefferson Davis offered Van Dorn the command.

In March 1862, Van Dorn learned that Federals under the command of Brigadier General Samuel Curtis were moving south from Missouri into northwest Arkansas. Van Dorn sensed an opportunity to defeat Curtis and possibly open up Missouri for a Confederate offensive.

Van Dorn hoped to either maneuver Curtis out of Arkansas or encircle his entire Federal army. The Mississippian’s confidence was evident in a letter to his wife, “I am now in for it, to make a reputation and serve my country conspicuously or fail. I must not, shall not, do the latter. I must have St. Louis -- then Huzza!”

Van Dorn split his forces with McCulloch attacking from the north and Price marching toward Curtis’ position at Sugar Creek. In order to get into position, Van Dorn’s troops were ordered to travel light. Each man had a blanket, 40 rounds of ammunition and three days’ rations.

Each division was allowed one wagon to carry more ammunition and one more day of rations. Any other wagons with more supplies, tents, cooking utensils were left behind and would be brought to the army later.

Curtis deployed his troops to defend against a possible attack from McCulloch and Price, selecting a strong position near Little Sugar Creek and Elkhorn Tavern. Meanwhile, Federals chopped down trees across the Bentonville Detour to make the march more difficult for the Confederates.

Even before the battle began, Van Dorn’s best laid plans were falling apart. Only McCulloch was in position with Price lagging behind. On Mar. 7, 1862, McCulloch clashed with Colonel Peter Osterhaus’ Federals as both forces marched along Ford Road.

Initially, all went well as the Confederates overwhelmed the small Union force, capturing three cannons. In an instance, a tragic set of events doomed McCulloch’s attack. McCulloch rode forward to reconnoiter the ground for renewing the attack. While doing so, he came within range of Federal guns. He was shot in the heart and killed.

Brigadier General James McIntosh assumed command but chose not to inform his subordinates of McCulloch’s death fearing it would hurt morale in a time of battle. While leading the next assault, McIntosh was killed.

Command now fell to Colonel Louis Hebert who did not know McCulloch and McIntosh were dead. Hebert, commanding the left wing of McCulloch’s force, was busy leading his own advance through the timber along Ford Road.

As Hebert smashed into the Federal line, colonels on the right wing gave orders to fall back. Hebert’s attack almost pierced the Union line but the timely arrival of Colonel Jefferson C. Davis’ division stopped the Confederate thrust. During the attack, Hebert was taken prisoner by the Federals.

Command of McCulloch’s force fell to Colonel Elkanah Greer but he wasn’t informed of this for several hours. Upon finding he was in command, Greer withdrew from the field, joining Van Dorn at Cross Timber Hollow.

Price clashed with Colonel Eugene Carr’s Federals near Elkhorn Tavern. Although his Confederates outnumbered Carr, Van Dorn was cautious as the battle continued through the afternoon. With Van Dorn leading the right wing and Price the left, the Confederates were able to push the Federal line back before the fighting ceased.

During the night, temperatures dropped rapidly causing both Union and Confederate soldiers to spend an uncomfortable night in freezing weather. During the night, Van Dorn failed to realize his supply train had been turned around. He would be without his reserve artillery ammunition the following day.

On Mar. 8, Colonel Franz Sigel began a 21-gun artillery barrage on the twelve remaining Confederate cannon. Before long, the Confederate guns were rendered ineffective and Sigel turned his attention to the infantry positions. Sigel’s shelling served to soften up the Confederate lines for a Federal advance. By midday, Van Dorn’s army was in full retreat.

The Confederate retreat proved almost debilitating at the battle of Pea Ridge. With their supply wagons far away, the Confederates were forced to march through a desolate area of Arkansas, scrounging for morsels of food to sustain them. By the time, they reached the supply wagons, thousands of Confederates had deserted back to Missouri or the Indian Nations.

Despite the terrible outcome, Van Dorn refused to admit defeat, writing that he “only failed in my intentions.” Most of Van Dorn’s remaining army was transferred across the Mississippi River to reinforce the Confederate Army of the Tennessee. Arkansas was left defenseless.

Van Dorn’s next attempt at a significant victory was in October 1862 at the second battle of Corinth which also ended in defeat. While retreating from Corinth, Van Dorn’s army was trapped and nearly captured.

They escaped thanks to a determined stand made by Brigadier General John S. Bowen, buying time for Van Dorn to escape. After Corinth, Bowen brought charges questioning Van Dorn’s competency as a general. Although he managed to retain his rank, Van Dorn was never trusted to command an army again.

While Van Dorn did not survive the Civil War, he wasn’t killed in a glorious charge. Van Dorn had a well-earned reputation as a womanizer. A Vicksburg paper once called the Mississippian “the terror of ugly husbands.”

Van Dorn was killed by one of those “husbands” at Spring Hill, Tenn., by Dr. James Peters who accused the general of having an affair with his wife, Jessie McKissack Peters. Van Dorn was shot in the back of the head while writing orders. His body was brought back to Port Gibson, where he is buried.

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