This post was inspired by a terse note next to a picture of the gentleman in question, on a page in one of my reference books – a note that the Confederate commander, one Major General Earl Van Dorn was murdered in mid-campaign, in his HQ in Spring Hill, Tennessee by an outraged husband. A personal thing, not an arranged assassination … or was it? Intrigued, for such is my butterfly interest in such matters, I went snorkeling around in the various sources, searching for more details.
Like the character in Gilbert and Sullivan’s musical Pinafore, Earl Van Dorn was a very modern major general for the 19th century; a handsome cavalryman, the very beau ideal of a certain breed of Victorian male. He was accounted to be very handsome, by the standards of the time, although my personal reaction is meh; the enormous bushy soup-strainer mustache in contemporary photographs is off-putting to me, but photographic portraiture of the time really doesn’t do much in establishing the raw sexual appeal of anyone. But Van Dorn was also a charismatic and flamboyant personality, so that may account for it. He was a gallant officer in service to the Noble Cause, cutting a splendid figure in the gray and gold-hung uniform of the Confederacy … he wrote poetry, painted, was a consummate horseman … and notoriously, loved the ladies, who loved him right back. He loved them so much that he had long been known as the terror of ugly husbands and nervous papas everywhere.
He was a Regular Army officer, a heroic veteran of the war with Mexico, who had thereafter served a somewhat rewarding and satisfactory career on the Texas frontier. He was accounted to be a master of cavalry command; fearless, able, competent. He was also a great grandnephew of Andrew Jackson, being born to one of Jackson’s nieces; a place at West Point was thereby assured, although he successfully graduated 52 out of 68 places, due to use of tobacco, failure to salute superiors and extravagant use of profanity. He had several sisters who adored him, a wife whom he married after graduating from West Point – and sired two children with her, although never quite being able to establish a permanent home for his family. Whether this was due to disinclination and lack of enthusiasm on either part, or the brutal requirements of service in the military in those decades is a matter of speculation. He had mixed success as a commander in the first few years of the Civil War – a loss at Pea Ridge in a Confederate attempt to take St. Louis, another in the Second Battle of Corinth, but slashing success as a cavalry commander in fights at Holly Springs, Thompson’s Station, and the first battle at Franklin.
In the spring of 1863, Van Dorn was stationed in Spring Hill, Tennessee, thirty miles south of Nashville and almost in the dead center of the state. According to some accounts, Van Dorn and his staff were first billeted in home of local magnate Aaron White and his wife and family, but that didn’t last long. Accounts vary – some have it that Mrs. White was unhappy at having most of her home taken over as a military HQ, leaving her family with a just couple of bedrooms and access to the kitchen. She was even more unhappy – scandalized, even – when rumors began to fly about General Van Dorn’s romance with a married woman in Spring Hill. Jessie Peters was the very pretty, flirtatious, and much younger third wife of Dr. George Peters, who very openly came to visit the General at the White residence – a considerable breach of Victorian etiquette. Mr. and Mrs. White were not pleased at this scandalous turn of events. At about this time, Van Dorn moved his headquarters to another residence in Spring Hill, the mansion owned by one Martin Cheairs, about half a mile distant. (Both houses still stand, apparently.)
George Peters was a wealthy landowner and politician, a doctor, and often gone on business for long periods of time, leaving his young wife to find her own amusements, domestic and otherwise. It was also rumored that he was of Union sympathies, but nevertheless, upon his return to Spring Hill in early April, 1863 Dr. Peters became aware of the rumors concerning his wife and General Van Dorn, the long unchaperoned carriage rides they went on together, and the General’s many visits to the Peters home. To say the very least, Dr. Peters was not pleased, especially after he caught his wife and the General in a passionate embrace. Angry words were exchanged; George Peters threatened to shoot Van Dorn then and there. Supposedly Van Dorn asked for forgiveness and took the blame for the affair all to himself … and the matter seemed to be smoothed over.
But two or three weeks later, Dr. Peters appeared at the Cheairs house, asking to speak to General Van Dorn. Assuming that he wanted another permit allowing him to pass through the Confederate lines, he was directed into the study where Van Dorn sat at his writing desk, hard at work. Dr. Peters pulled out a pistol and shot Van Dorn in the back of the head. No one among the general’s staff took notice of Dr. Peters’ swift departure – not until the young daughter of the Cheairs family ran out of the house, exclaiming that the General had been shot. Of course, everyone rushed into the study, where they found Van Dorn unconscious, but still breathing. He died hours later, much mourned across the South, although there seemed to have been many who considered that he had brought it upon himself with his reckless pursuit of women captivated by his personal appeal.
Eventually, Dr. Peters was apprehended and arrested for the murder, but curiously, never tried. He insisted that Van Dorn had, in his words, “violated the sanctity of his home.” Most everyone then and since assumed that it meant Van Dorn’s affair with Jessie Peters. But was it? A novel by another indy author, also fascinated by the conundrum and possessed of certain local-specific resources, suggests that the motive for murder was not simply Van Dorn’s affair with Jessie Peters but his seduction of Clara Peters, Dr. Peter’s unmarried teenage daughter from an earlier marriage … a doubly scandalous matter which resulted in Clara Peters being pregnant.
Just another rabbit-hole in the pursuit of writing engaging historical fiction – additional evidence that our 19th century forbearers were at least as horny as humans anywhere else. They just … didn’t do it in the road and frighten the horses. Comment as you wish.