Attack Written Deep and Crimson – Sidebar: May ’99 America’s Civil War Feature

Court-Martial of Van Dorn

As the result of his actions before, during and after the Battle of Corinth, the Confederate Army court-martialed Earl Van Dorn. Though other generals had lost battles, Van Dorn had the singular misfortune of having a vocal critic who was so dissatisfied with Van Dorn’s performance that he preferred charges against him.

Brigadier General John Bowen was a brigade commander in Lovell’s division. An 1853 graduate of West Point, Bowen was an army engineer for only two years before resigning his commission. When the Civil War broke out, he went from the Missouri State Guard to the Confederate Army.

When Bowen preferred charges, the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, ordered a court of inquiry to investigate. Bowen made two charges against Van Dorn: neglect of duty and improper treatment of his men.

Specifications under the first charge included attacking Corinth “without due consideration or forethought,” failing to attack on the night of the 3rd, and allowing reinforcements to reach Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans.

Specifications under the second charge included causing “long, tedious, and circuitous marches” and allowing at least one train of wounded to spend the night in Water Valley unattended. Later a charge of drunkenness was added.

As it was, there was little doubt of the outcome of the inquiry. Davis liked Van Dorn, and stacked the court in his favor. President of the court was Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, with Brig. Gen. Dabney Maury another member. Both appeared as witnesses in Van Dorn’s defense. The third member of the court was Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghmann, who also was a defense witness, though he was not even present at the battle.

Given the opportunity of prosecuting the case, Bowen backed down, allowing the court recorder to handle the questioning. His own testimony failed to substantiate all his claims, and defense witnesses refuted others.

Van Dorn concluded his defense by personally refuting each charge. “Gentlemen of the court, I am a Mississippian by birth,” he said. “The ashes of my parent repose in her soil. It has been my pride to serve her….My blood has always been ready for her, yet in the midst of my struggles for her my name has been blighted by her people.”

It did not take the court long to find him innocent of all charges. But, though vindicated legally, Van Dorn was never again trusted with command of an army. He was transferred to command of the cavalry, and a few months later was shot dead by a jealous husband in Tennessee.

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