Earl Van Dorn (September 17, 1820 – May 7, 1863) was a career military officer, fighting with distinction with the Confederacy during the Civil War. He was noted for his defeats at Pea Ridge and Corinth, MS, in 1862, and his murder by a civilian in the spring of 1863.
Known to be impulsive and highly emotional, Van Dorn was also a Renaissance man, talented in fine painting, poetry, horsemanship, and also had a weakness for his love of lonesome women. This last trait would lead to his death in 1863, when his alleged womanizing became public knowledge. A reporter at the time dubbed him "the terror of ugly husbands" shortly before Van Dorn's murder.
I am reminded of this story after seeing my friend Kathie Fuston's lovely photographs of a local, home called White Hall. The UDC ladies lunched their yesterday, and Kathie shares her photographs with us.
The scandalous story that shrouds this house is more tantalizing than any whim or fancy Scarlett O'Hara could have imagined, for it was here the beguiling temptress, Jessie McKissack Peters, would rendezvous with Major General Earl Van Dorn while her husband, Dr. Peters, was away for unknown reasons and suspected to be a Union spy.
The story began in the early spring of 1863, when Earl Van Dorn brought his cavalry command into the Spring Hill area and made his first headquarters in the home of Dr. Aaron White. Van Dorn, a married man, was soon in Spring Hill’s social swirl, which included the young and beautiful and married Jessie McKissack Peters.
Jessie's husband George was her cousin. He was older and had two wives before Jessie who had died. He was a man of great wealth with property in both Tennessee and Arkansas. While George was away on business, Jessie began to keep company with Van Dorn. She often entertained the general and his staff at the Peters’ home on Kedron Road late into the evening, or should I say the wee hours of the morning, and rumors began to spread about her relationship with the general.
One day Jessie, wearing a black velvet riding habit and a matching hat with an ostrich plume, stirred more gossip by going to see Van Dorn at the Whites’ home. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was inappropriate for ladies to call on men. In this case, Jessie was expected to ask to see Van Dorn and wait in the parlor while Mrs. Margaret White went, or sent a servant, upstairs to let the general know he had a visitor. He was then expected to go downstairs to meet Jessie, and they were to converse openly in the parlor. But, once Jessie was admitted into White Hall, she brushed past her hostess, walked briskly through the house to the back door, and then went up the outside stairs that led to Van Dorn’s room.
About an hour later, she left.
Jessie’s behavior was a serious breach of etiquette. Margaret White was mortified. She feared that when neighbors learned what Jessie had done and speculated on what happened with the general upstairs, the talk would taint the reputation of the Whites and their home.
Jessie returned a few days later for a similar visit. Margaret, embarrassed and outraged, took to her sick bed. She arose as soon as her husband returned home and demanded that he get Van Dorn out of their house.
According to several sources there are two versions of what happened next.
One is that before Dr. White could ask Van Dorn to leave, the general announced he was moving his headquarters and left.
But most sources say Dr. White explained to Van Dorn that he and his staff were taking up most of the space in the house, leaving the Whites and their small children only one bedroom and access to the kitchen and the dining room. White said his family needed more room and privacy. Van Dorn graciously agree to relocate and quickly found lodging in the Martin Cheairs home, known today as Ferguson Hall.
About this time, George returned to Spring Hill, and he soon heard the rumors of his wife's relationship with Van Dorn.
The morning of May 7, 1863, George rode to Ferguson Hall, tied his horse at the north entrance, walked around the northwest corner of the house and entered the west door, which faces Main Street.
Some Confederate staff officers were smoking and talking several yards from the brick house. They noticed George but paid him little attention. He had often been to headquarters for passes. Nor was there anything suspicious about George’s departure, as he mounted his horse and rode east, toward his home. A few minutes later a girl came running from the house and cried out that Van Dorn had been shot.
The staff officers found the general slumped at his desk, with a bullet in the back of his head. Cavalrymen were ordered out to find George.
George is said to have ridden quickly home and shouted to Jessie, “I have shot General Van Dorn and I am going to join the Yankees!” Then he rode off.
Jessie is quoted as saying, "Now ain’t that the devil, a sweetheart killed, and a husband run away, all in the same day.”
The story continues. Van Dorn lived about five hours after being shot and apparently never regained consciousness. There is evidence that some Confederate officers, embarrassed by the general’s escapades, did not vigorously pursue George. Van Dorn’s brazen relationship with a married woman had offended many officers and enlisted men, and there was a feeling that the general got what he deserved.
That seemed to be the feeling in Spring Hill and Columbia. “None of the local churches would let Van Dorn’s funeral be preached in their churches, so the funeral was conducted at the Columbia courthouse," according to local hisorian Bob Duncan.
The general’s killer was never brought to justice.
Jessie gave birth to a girl on Jan. 26, 1864, less than nine months after Van Dorn’s death. The child was named Madora.
In 1866, George filed for divorce in Arkansas, claiming he had been deserted by Jessie on May 7, 1863.
An 1868 newspaper article reported George and Jessie had reconciled. Duncan suggests they patched things up for financial reasons, and notes that the reason often given for their marriage was to keep property and money in the family. One of George’s conditions for the reconciliation was that Madora would not be part of the family, and the girl was placed in a Nashville orphanage. A few years later Madora was brought into the family.
George and Jessie sold their Spring Hill home in 1873 and moved to Memphis.
Alsup says it is ironic that George was in poor health toward the end of his life and was tended in his last few weeks by Madora.
George died in 1889. Jessie died in 1921.
Thank you Kathie for the inspiration to this post and for sharing your beautiful photos.
White Hall will be on the Maury County APTA's Maury Christmas Historical Home Tour: Prelude to the Battle of Franklin. Forrest's troops had breakfast there on the day of the Battle. The event is scheduled for November 30 and December 1, 2012. Tickets are $20 and benefit the Maury County chapter of the APTA.