Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Tarnished Cavalier

I finally got around to a much desired but too long postponed reading of an Earl Van Dorn biography. The first step was to decide which one. There are really only two choices: Robert G. Hartje's Van Dorn: The Life and Times of a Confederate General (Vanderbilt Univ. Press, 1967) and The Tarnished Cavalier: Major General Earl Van Dorn, C.S.A. by Arthur B. Carter (Univ. of Tenn. Press, 1999). I went with Carter's book on the presumption that it incorporated many sources unavailable to Hartje more than three decades earlier. Also, the historiography of Van Dorn's campaigns was infinitely better developed by the late 1990s. Indeed, excellent major studies of Pea Ridge and Corinth (the two campaigns during which Van Dorn led armies) shortly preceded the publication of Carter's biography.

Though his 1862 campaign strategies in Arkansas and Mississippi were not Beauregard-level flights of fantasy, Van Dorn was clearly one of the Confederacy's most exceptional devotees of 'high risk-high reward' generalship. Few readers or scholars would contest Carter's view that Van Dorn's boldness and operational creativity were not at all matched by sufficient attention to detail when it came to planning, logistics, intelligence gathering, and reconnaissance. This critical evaluation of the persistent flaws present in the general's pair of near disastrous army command performances is similar in nature to those found in William Shea & Earl Hess's Pea Ridge study and Peter Cozzens's Corinth campaign history. Carter's assessment of Van Dorn's leadership qualities is fair-minded and judicious, and his overview accounts of the campaigns and battles themselves fairly rigorous.

Though Van Dorn unquestionably failed as an army commander, the general came into his own as a highly effective cavalry general beginning in late 1862. It would be difficult to refute the book's conclusion that the overwhelming success Van Dorn achieved during his December 1862 raid on Holly Springs and his adroit handling of larger mounted forces in Tennessee (a signal triumph being his victory at Thompson's Station on March 5, 1863) marked the general as a rising star among the Confederacy's mixed bag of western theater cavalry generals. Carter makes a pretty solid case that the more contained aggressiveness and higher value placed on battlefield intelligence that Van Dorn demonstrated in Middle Tennessee meant that he was able to learn from his mistakes.

Hello, ladies!
Much like Grant's drinking, Van Dorn's alleged womanizing was a topic of open conversation and one complicated by mixtures of rumor, innuendo, and fact. His extended extramarital affair during his Old Army service that produced three children and noticeable neglect of his legitimate family during the Civil War are both black marks on his character. Of course, his wartime connection to Jessie Peters, whatever its full nature might have been, is his most infamous indiscretion, and the one that resulted in his violent death at the hands of her physician husband. In-depth discussion of the circumstances, myths, and conjectures surrounding Van Dorn's May 7, 1863 Spring Hill murder is another highly appealing feature of the book. While the author's far-reaching exploration into the details of the assassination (to include the true locating of the shooting, the weapon used, and other lingering debates) and the motivations behind the killing results in one of those historiographical situations where more interesting questions are raised than conclusive answers given, the process makes for fascinating reading. Though the idea floated by some that Van Dorn's killer, Dr. George B. Peters, was a Union agent is rejected, Carter notes that the assassin did escape to Union lines for protection and apparently had his extensive, and previously confiscated, Arkansas property holdings and slaves returned to him (though the latter seems highly unlikely due to the Emancipation Proclamation being in force). One of the more intriguing new elements introduced into the discussion is fresh information obtained from the author's extensive 1967 correspondence with Col. Manning M. Kimmel, Jr. (the son of a Van Dorn staff member), whose father kept secret from the public some details of the affair (ex. the site of the killing) that were deemed especially injurious to the general's reputation.

Though I had no reason not be be, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked this book. Obviously I can't compare Carter's study to Hartje's biography, but I would heartily recommend The Tarnished Cavalier to anyone wishing to learn more about Earl Van Dorn's distinctly up and down Civil War military career and ignoble end.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review, Drew. I read Hartje's long ago, and really don't recall all that much except that I liked it--but it was so long ago and my palette for good scholarship has evolved.

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