Born on September 20, 1820 in Port Gibson, Mississippi, Earl Van Dorn was the fourth child and first son of a prominent Southern family. In 1837, Earl wrote to his uncle Andrew Jackson and asked for aid in securing an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. After weeks of waiting, Earl Van Dorn entered West Point on July 1, 1838. After a relatively unsuccessful West Point career, Van Dorn graduated on July 1, 1842, 52nd out of 56 graduates. After a summer of graduation leave, the newly commissioned lieutenant began his military career in the Seventh Infantry Regiment at Fort Pike, Louisiana.
After participating in the Mexican American War, Van Dorn distinguished himself as a good commander of small cavalry units and was popular among his fellow soldiers on the Texas frontier. By June 1860, the army promoted Van Dorn to the rank of major and he wrote longingly of advancing his military career.
By the end of 1860, increasing talks of secession and the volatile issue of the coming election caused many soldiers to debate the merits of loyalty to the United States. Earl Van Dorn became known for his decided views on the rights of Southern states to secede. By the time Mississippi seceded from the Union on January 9, 1861, Van Dorn had already severed his ties with the U.S. army, in which he had served for 18 years, and offered his services to the state of Mississippi. When the Major General of Mississippi troops, Jefferson Davis, was elected president of the Confederacy, Earl Van Dorn was promoted to Major General of Mississippi troops. Although he enjoyed the rank and position, Van Dorn soon tired of the politics and office work, so he resigned and volunteered for the Army of the Confederacy as a colonel. By June 1861, Confederate officials promoted Van Dorn to brigadier general and he was quickly gaining a good reputation throughout the South.
In late January 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis assigned Earl Van Dorn to the command of the Trans-Mississippi District. Van Dorn arrived in Arkansas soon after and set up his headquarters at Pocahontas. When Samuel Curtis pushed the Missouri State Guard into Arkansas, Price and Benjamin McCulloch called on Van Dorn to meet them in western Arkansas. Van Dorn joined Price and McCulloch and went into discussion about possible courses of action.
On March 4, Van Dorn’s army moved out of the Boston Mountains toward Fayetteville with only one blanket for each man and minimal rations. The night of March 6 saw Curtis massing his forces around Little Sugar Creek and Van Dorn debating his options for attack. Van Dorn decided to move around Curtis’ front and attack from the north via the Bentonville Detour and the Telegraph Road. While moving his troops to accomplish this goal, the hard pressed and exhausted Confederate troops began to lag. In order to maintain the element of surprise, Van Dorn decided to split his army into two, one led by himself and the other led by McCulloch. Van Dorn’s men went northeastward on the Bentonville Detour and attempted to attack the Federals from the north via the Telegraph Road. McCulloch’s troops were to cut across the east-west Ford Road and meet Van Dorn’s men at the intersection of Telegraph and Ford Road.
Unfortunately, for the Confederates, McCulloch’s troops engaged a small group of Federals near Leetown and were occupied most of March 7 with the events there. Van Dorn and his troops became bogged down against the Federals who held the ground around the Elkhorn Tavern and only managed to push up to the high ground around the tavern on the night of March 7. Through Van Dorn’s lack of logistical planning, on the morning of March 8, Confederate forces lacked the ammunition and supplies necessary to repel a Federal attack. Around eleven AM, Confederates retreated off the battlefield towards Huntsville and the battle of Pea Ridge ended a Union victory.
After the Battle of Pea Ridge, Van Dorn went back to Mississippi where he joined forces with Confederates under Beauregard. After aiding in the Confederate evacuation of Corinth, Van Dorn moved towards Vicksburg to fortify the city against a possible naval attack by Federals under Captain David G. Farragut. After successfully defending this city, Van Dorn attempted to retake Corinth, Mississippi but was repulsed. After this, many Southerners became disillusioned with Earl Van Dorn and he was given command of a smaller cavalry unit. On May 7, 1863, Earl Van Dorn was killed by a jealous husband in Tennessee.