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Van Dorn, the hero of Mississippi.

Major General Dabney H. Maury.
General Earl Van Dorn was, in the opinion of the writer, the most remarkable man the State of Mississippi has ever known. My acquaintance with him began in Monterey, in the fall of 1846. He was aide-de-camp then to General Persifor F. Smith and was one of the most attractive young fellows in the army. He used to ride a beautiful bay Andalusian horse, and as he came galloping along the lines, with his yellow hair waving in the wind, and his bright face lighted with kindliness and courage, we all loved to see him. His figure was lithe and graceful, his stature did not exceed five feet six inches, but his clear blue eyes, his firm set mouth, with white strong teeth, his well cut nose with expanding nostrils, gave assurance of a man whom men could trust and follow. No young officer came out of the Mexican war with a reputation more enviable than his. After the close of that war he resumed his duties and position in the infantry regiment of which he was a lieutenant. In 1854 the Second Cavalry was organized, and Van Dorn was promoted to be major of the regiment. He conducted several of the most important and successful expeditions against the Comanches we have ever made, and in one of them was shot through the body, the point of the arrow just protruding through the skin. No surgeon was at hand. Van Dorn, reflecting that to withdraw the arrow would leave the barbed head in his body, thrust it on through, and left the surgeon little to do. When the States resumed their State sovereignty, he took a bold and efficient part in securing to Texas, where he was serving, all of the war material within her [461] borders. Early in the war he was ordered to join the army under General Joe Johnston at Manassas; whence soon after, in February, 1861, he was ordered to take command of the Trans-Mississippi Department.

I was associated with him in this command as chief of his staff, and saw him daily for many months. He had conceived the bold project of capturing St. Louis and transferring the war into Illinois, and was actively engaged in preparing for this enterprise when he was summoned by General Price to Boston Mountain, where the forces of Price and McCulloch lay in great need of a common superior — for these two generals could not co-operate because of questions of rank. Therefore, Van Dorn promptly responded to Price's summons, and in a few hours was in the saddle and on his way to Van Buren. I went with him, and one aide-de-camp, an orderly, and my servant man Jem made up our party. Van Dorn rode a fine thoroughbred black mare he had brought from Virginia. I was mounted on a sorrel I had bought in Pocahontas a few hours before we set out. Except my sorrel mare, Van Dorn's black mare was the hardest trotter in the world, and as we trotted fifty-five miles every day for five or six days, we had a very unusual opportunity of learning all that a hard trotter can do to a man in a long day's march. Had it not been that we slept every night in a feather bed, that soothed our sore bones and served as a poultice to our galled saddle pieces, we would have been permanently disabled for cavalry service forever. My boy Jem alone enjoyed that trip. He rode in the ambulance all day and slept ad libitum day and night; and except when he got a ducking by the upsetting of a canoe in Black river, he was as happy as ever he had been since the last herring season on the Potomac. The battle of Elk Horn disturbed Jen's equilibrium even more than the upsetting of the canoe. The excitement of imminent danger, which was never a pleasing emotion to Jem, was kept up at Elk Horn much longer than in Black river, and I could not find him for three days-not, indeed, until we accidentally met on the route of our retreat, when, I must say, he showed great delight at “meeting up” with me again, and took to himself no little credit for the skill with which he had conducted the movements of that ambulance for the past three days. It had contained all of our clothing, and blankets, and camp supplies, of no little value to hungry and wearied warriors. The blankets and clothing were all right, but we found nothing whatever for the inner man. Jem was cheerful, and cordial, and comfortable, but we never could ascertain where he had the ambulance from the time the first shot was fired [462] until the moment we encountered him in full retreat, and with the last sound of the battle died out in the distance behind him.

Van Dorn had planned the battle of Elk Horn well; he had moved so rapidly from Boston Mountain, with the forces of Price and McCulloch combined, that he caught the enemy unprepared, and with his divisions so far separated that, but for the inevitable indiscipline of troops so hastily thrown together, he would have destroyed the whole Federal army. By the loss of thirty minutes in reaching Bentonville, we lost the cutting off of Sigel with seven thousand men, who were hurrying to join the main body on Sugar creek. But we pushed him hard all that day; and after he had closed upon the main body, Van Dorn, leaving a small force to occupy the attention in front, threw his army, by a night march, quite around the Federal army, and across their only road by which retreat to Missouri could be effected. He handled his forces well-always attacking, always pressing the enemy back. When he heard of the death, in quick succession, of the three principal commanders of his right wing-McCulloch, McIntosh, and Hebert-and the consequent withdrawal from the attack of that whole wing, he only set his lips a little firmer; his blue eyes blazed brighter, and his nostrils looked wider, as he said, “Then we must press them the harder!” And he did, too; and he had everything moving finely by sundown, and all the enemy's line before us in full retreat at a run, and falling back into their wagon trains; when, by misapprehension on the part of the commander with our advanced troops, the pursuit was arrested, our forces withdrawn from the attack to go into bivouac, and the enemy was permitted to quietly reorganize his army and prepare for a combined attack upon us in the morning. During the night, we found that most of our batteries and regiments had exhausted their ammunition, and the ordnance train, with all the reserve ammunition, had been sent away, fifteen miles back, on the road along which we had come, and the enemy lay between. There was nothing left for Van Dorn but to get his train on the road to Van Buren, and his army off by the same route, and to fight enough to secure them. This he did, and marched away unmolested.

Arrived at Van Buren, Van Dorn addressed himself to the completion of the reorganization of his army, thenceforth known as the Army of the West; and it was there he gave an illustration of true magnanimity-very rarely known in ambitious men-by the offer he made to move with all his forces to reinforce General Sidney Johnston at Corinth. By this he surrendered the great independent command of the Trans-Mississippi Department, and all the plans he [463] had formed, for the sake of his views of the best interests of their common country, and became a subordinate commander of an army corps instead of the commander-in-chief of an army. He hoped to reach Johnston in time for the battle of Shiloh, and had he done so, would have given a very different result to that critical battle. But Shiloh had been fought, and our army, under Beauregard, was occupying the works of Corinth when Van Dorn, with the Army of the West, sixteen thousand effectives, reached that point. We lay near Corinth more than six weeks, and three times offered battle to Halleck, who, with one hundred thousand men, was cautiously advancing as if to attack us. Three times our army, forty thousand strong, marched out of its intrenchments and advanced to meet Halleck and give him battle, but every time he drew back and declined it. In every council Van Dorn's voice was for war. May 30th, 1862, Beauregard evacuated his works in a masterly manner, and marched south, unmolested, to Tupelo, when he halted the army and held it ready for battle. In June, Van Dorn was ordered to go to Vicksburg, which was threatened with attack, and was in poor condition for defense. He evinced here great energy and ability. He repulsed the enemy's fleet, put the place in a good condition of defense, occupied Port Hudson, and there erected such works as enabled us for a year longer to control the Mississippi river and its tributaries, so as to keep open free intercourse with the trans- Mississippi, whence large supplies for the armies 6n this side were drawn. He organized an expedition against Baton Rouge during this time, which, but for the cholera, which swept off half of the force, and the untimely breaking down of the ram “Arkansas” engine, when almost within range of the town, would have been a brilliant and complete success.

After this, Van Dorn urged General Price, who had been left at Tupelo with the Army of the West, when Bragg moved to Chattanooga, to unite all their available forces in Mississippi, carry Corinth by assault, and sweep the enemy out of West Tennessee. This, unfortunately, Price, under his instructions, could not then do. Our combined forces would then have exceeded twenty-five thousand effectives, and there is no doubt as to the results of the movement. Later, after Breckenridge had been detached with six thousand men, and Price had lost about four thousand on the Iuka expedition (mainly stragglers), the attempt on Corinth was made. Its works had been greatly strengthened, and its garrison greatly increased. Van Dorn attacked with his usual vigor and dash. His left and centre stormed the town, captured all the guns in their front, and [464] broke Rosecrans' centre. The division comprising our right wing remained inactive, so that the enemy, believing our right was merely making a feint, detached Stanley, with six thousand fresh men, from his left and drove us out of the town.

Never was a general more disappointed than Van Dorn; but no man in all our army was so little shaken in his courage by the result as he was. I think his was the highest courage I have ever known. It rose above every disaster, and he never looked more gallant than when his broken army, in utter disorder, was streaming through the open woods which then environed Corinth and its formidable defenses. However much depression all of us showed and felt, he, alone, remained unconquered; and if he could have gotten his forces together, would have tried it again. But seeing that was impossible, he brought Lovell's Division, which, not having assaulted, was unbroken, to cover the rear and moved back to Chewalla, seven miles west of Corinth, encouraging officers and men to re-form their broken organizations as we marched along. No sooner did he halt at Chewalla than he gave orders to move in the morning to attack the enemy at Rienzi. But the condition of two of his three divisions was such that the generals advised against attempting any new aggressive movement until we could re-form and re-fit our commands. My division had marched from Chewalla to attack Corinth with four thousand eight hundred muskets the day but one before. We left in the approaches, and the very central defenses of Corinth, two thousand officers and men, killed or wounded; among them were many of my ablest field and company officers. The Missourians had lost almost as heavily; Lovell's Division alone, not having attacked the works at all, came off with but a trifling loss. It was, therefore, decided to move down to Ripley by the route we had so lately come over in such brave array, and with such high hopes. But before dawn the next morning, Van Dorn had moved the cavalry and pioneers on the road to Rienzi, still resolved to capture that place, and march around immediately and attack Corinth from the opposite direction.

The plan was worthy of Charles XII., and might have been successful; and Van Dorn only abandoned it when convinced that he would inevitably lose his wagon train, and that the army would feel he was rash. A. friend said to him finally: “Van Dorn, you are the only man I ever saw who loves danger for its own sake. When any daring enterprise is before you, you cannot adequately estimate the obstacle in your way.” He replied: “While I do not admit the correctness of your criticism, I feel how wrong I shall be to imperil [465] this army through my personal peculiarities, after what such a friend as you have told me they are, and I will countermand the orders and move at once on the road to Ripley.” Few commanders have ever been so beset as Van Dorn was in the forks of the Hatchie, and very few would have extricated a beaten army as he did then. One with a force stated at ten thousand men, headed him at the Hatchie bridge, while Rosecrans, with twenty thousand men, was attacking his rear at the Tuscumbia bridge, only five miles off. the whole road between was occupied by a train of near four hundred wagons, and a defeated army of about eleven thousand muskets. But Van Dorn was never, for a moment, dismayed. He repulsed Ord, and punished him severely; while he checked Rosecrans at the Tuscumbia until he could turn his train and army short to the left, and cross the Hatchie by the Boneyard road, without the loss of a wagon.

By ten P. M. his whole army and train were safely over the Hatchie, and with a full moon to light us on our way we briskly marched for Ripley, where we drew up in line of battle and awaited the enemy; but he not advancing, we marched to Holly Springs. When, in November, Van Dorn checked Grant's advance, he then occupied the works on the Tallahatchie, which he held for a month — Grant's force was sixty thousand, Van Dorn's was sixteen thousand. He then retired behind the Yallabusha to Grenada., and awaited Grant's advance until Christmas eve, 1862, when, leaving the army at Grenada, under Loring's command, he moved with two thousand horse around Grant's army, swooped down upon Holly Springs, captured the garrison, destroyed three months stores for sixty thousand men, and defeated Grant's whole campaign and compelled him to abandon Mississippi. From that time Van Dorn resumed his proper role as a general of cavalry, in which he had no superior in either army. His extrication of his cavalry division from the bend of Duck river, equaled his conduct in the forks of the Hatchie.

In the spring of 1863, he was the chief commander of the cavalry of Bragg's army, then at Tullahoma; he had as brigade commanders Armstrong, Jackson, Cosby, and Martin, and, with about eight thousand men, was preparing to move across the Ohio. His command was bivouacked in the fertile region of Middle Tennessee. His headquarters were at Spring Hill, and almost daily he would engage the enemy with one of his brigades while the other three were carefully drilled. His horses were in fine order and his men in better drill, discipline and spirit than our cavalry had ever been. He was assassinated just as he was about to move on the most important enterprise of his life. I believe that in him we lost [466] the greatest cavalry soldier of his time. His knowledge of roads and country was wonderful. He knew how to care for his men and horses. His own wants were few; his habits simple; he was energetic and enduring; he deferred everything to his military duty; he craved glory beyond everything-high glory; there was no stain of vain glory about anything he ever did or said. As the bravest are ever the greatest, so was he simple and kind, and gentle as a child. I remember one evening on our ride across Arkansas, we stopped at the hospitable house of an old gentlemen (Dr. Williams) about one day's march this side of Van Buren. We were sitting on the portico --Van Dorn and I-when a little child came out to us; he called her to him, and soon had her confidence, and as she told him, in her child-like way, that she was an orphan, and spoke of her mother, lately dead, his eyes filled with tears, and I noticed that he slipped into her hand the only piece of gold he owned, and asked her to get with it something to remember him by.

The pre-eminent quality of his military nature was that he was unconquerable. Whether defeated or victorious, he always controlled his resources. As Napoleon said of De Soix, he was all for war and glory; and he had a just idea of glory. There was no self-seeking in him, and he would die for duty at any moment. His personal traits were very charming. His person was very handsome; his manners frank and simple; with his friends he was genial, and sometimes convivial; but never did I know him to postpone his duty for pleasure, or to pursue conviviality to a degree unbecoming a gentleman. Take him for all in all, he was the most gallant soldier I have ever known.

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