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The War Nerd / April 9, 2011
By Gary Brecher

Gen. Earl Van Dorn: Dixie girls thought he was handsome, more proof Dixie was insane.


If you ever need to remind yourself that military command isn’t as glamorous as people think, it doesn’t hurt to go over the short, ridiculous Civil-War career of Earl Van Dorn.

He’s one of those “dashing” Southern commanders who got a coat of tinsel from writers like Shelby Foote, who never met a Dixie nutcase he didn’t admire. These guys always come off much better than they really deserve in Foote’s stories. Foote goes on and on about how much they suffered for “the Cause,” and conveniently leaves out a couple of important points. One: The Cause was, like Grant said after, “one of the worst for which men ever fought.” And Two: A lot of that big-time suffering was self-inflicted, because these guys were more interested in making “a burning name” for themselves than thinking about war like grownups. Actually it’s worse than that: the suffering caused by idiots like Van Dorn wasn’t suffered by themselves, it was suffered by the poor gullible white trash who followed on foot, bare feet most of the time, while the romantic idiots rode ahead on horses they hadn’t even paid for.

That ridiculous quote, “a burning name,” comes direct from Van Dorn himself. That’s what he said he was looking for in the war. There’s a whole set of words that are nature’s way of saying, “Don’t follow this idiot into combat.” Another good one is “elan.” Stay away from elan. Others are real, and important, but dangerous when some fool with epaulettes think they can substitute for logistics, like “esprit de corps.” Esprit is great, but you have to make sure there are supplies for the men too, even if it means going through every page of the Georgia census and tax returns the way Sherman did when he planned his march. The way he did the math to see how many trains he’d need, how many cars, before moving on Atlanta. Math, accounting, admin—being a real commander means dealing with all that boring stuff.

Van Dorn ignored all that, and that’s why he lost every battle in which he held a large command. He was no genius, 52nd out of 56 in his West Point class–but that’s not always a good indication of a smart general. After all, Grant ranked in the low-middle at West Point, didn’t stand out at anything except horsemanship and math. Besides, plenty of West Point academic stars like Halleck (third in his class) and McClellan (second in his class) bombed in combat.

But even if you don’t have to be a genius to be a good general, you do have to be a grownup. If you’re not, you get so “dashing” you dash around without thinking about dull stuff like food and ammo and fuel. Oh, sure, I know you’re thinking, what about Patton, huh Brecher? Patton was just a big kid, and he was a great general. Or Pancho Villa? Pretty macho and hard-charging, and it worked for him, didn’t it? Well, I got two snapshots for you:

1. Pancho Villa at a staff conference after the first day of Celaya, the biggest battle of the Mexican Civil War and his life, after his lieutenants tell him “We’re running short of ammo,” replies “Courage will be our ammunition.” Next morning they charge Obregon’s lines; Obregon’s using actual lead ammo. Guess what happens.

2. Patton runs out of gas in the middle of Operation Market Garden. I know, I know, it wasn’t his fault, but all the same I can’t imagine Eisenhower or Abrams hitting the pedal and mumbling, “Uh I fergot ta check the gas guage.”

Boyish generals have their place: in the cavalry, around brigade level. Van Dorn was promoted way beyond that because the South was a romantic delusion itself so it just naturally loved delusional romantics when it was picking generals. And in the west, at least, where Van Dorn operated, they got what you’d expect: rotten, lousy generals. Van Dorn was one of the worst: just plain silly, a kid on horseback. Mark Twain always said that all those romantic novels and poems were what got the South screwed, and Van Dorn was the living proof. Well, “living” until 1863, when he finally died of romance, but I’ll get to that.

Van Dorn’s two big battles were Pea Ridge and Corinth II. He lost both. And not because he was doing Shelby Foote’s po’ ol’ little Southland Underdog thing either. Van Dorn outnumbered his Federal opposition, 17,000 to 10,000, at Pea Ridge and still got stomped. Van Dorn did everything boy generals do: dreamed up a complicated plan that involved splitting his forces, didn’t spend a second on logistics, never thought about how hard he was marching his men, and ignored the weather. He sent his troops marching the long way around a fortified enemy through a sleet storm, abandoned his wagons to make better time, and was surprised when his exhausted, frozen and hungry troops failed to make their complicated rendezvous.

Sherman, the textbook example of a grownup general, had a great line on these smart-looking complex maneuvers generals love, something like, “These complex arrangements nearly always fail.” I can’t find the quote, but he was talking about the Battle of Iuka, when Grant blamed Rosecrans for failing to trap Sterling Price in one of those pincers. I always thought Grant was unfair to Rosecrans for not making these pincers work. Sherman says it best, something about how you don’t ever rely on those pincers to work, and most of all you don’t do them early in the war with raw troops. McMahon went on to destroy the French army and prove the point by trying the same crap with civilian levies at Sedan.

In fact that war was the best example I can think of of the way logistics and command structure kicks elan’s ass every time.

Straightening the mess out made so much noise and used up so much time that the Federals repositioned themselves between Van Dorn’s separated forces . The only grownup Confederate commander on the field, Ben McCullough, got himself killed early in the battle, and it was all up to the dumbnastic duo, Van Dorn and Sterling Price —and when Price got wounded, it was Van Dorn all by himself, a private’s nightmare. On the second day of battle Van Dorn was all ready to make another valiant mess when some brave aide told him that there was no ammunition; Van Dorn had sent it all down the wrong road.

So Van Dorn did what he always ended up doing: lied and fled. He blamed his officers and troops for his own romantic-ass stupidity and left all of Missouri to the Union.

He proved Pea Ridge was no fluke at Corinth.

Battle of Corinth: When elan meets logistics, elan gets killed.

He marched his men in the wrong direction, turned them around when he had an attack of elan and decided to attack the fortified town of Corinth MS in tandem with Sterling Price. A real Brain Trust. I’ll have to write about Price sometime, another comic character, but he and Van Dorn agreed the best thing to do was to launch a mass attack on an equal number of Federal troops fighting behind parapets, with plenty of artillery. Somehow they broke the Feds’ line and crashed into town, but whoops! Van Dorn had forgotten to bring ammo again, so they had to flee over a mile of open ground, making great practice for the gunners and sharpshooters. “Our lines melted like snow,” was the way one Confederate officer remembered it. They dropped everything and ran. Some men were too worn out from marching, hunger and combat even to run. They just waited to be taken prisoner, and it was probably a smart move; you stood a much better chance of surviving the war as a Confederate POW than serving it out under the kind of commanders the South put in charge outside Virginia.

Van Dorn made such a mess of the battle and the retreat—a whole train of wounded was just plain forgotten all night, men screaming in pain and nobody around—that he finally had to deal with a court martial where his own officers testified he was too “dashing” to think about logistics. But the South loved its dashing ol’ fools, and Van Dorn was acquitted. They put him where men like him belonged, in the cavalry where his only job was to wreck things, a breeze for him. But he still managed to die of romance, like I said: He was shot in the back of the head by a jealous husband whose wife he’d been seeing. That was Van Dorn to the end: Romance at all costs, never mind worrying about what might go wrong. It was the first time his dashing crap didn’t kill somebody else, and finally got the idiot who really deserved it.

Read more:, Gary Brecher, The War Nerd

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Add your own

  • 1. atlas_sucks  |  April 9th, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    Does anyone else see the connection between lousy real-life military commanders and “Zapp Brannigan” from Futurama?

    Sadly people still fall for silly romanticized heroes; like Rudy Giuliani standing stonefaced after 9/11 and suddenly being hailed for his leadership. Or Dubya and his mission accomplished made-for-tv event.

  • 2. Grimgrin  |  April 9th, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Rather reminds me of a pair of Corb Lund songs. They’re about the Civil War, pre and post.

    “I Wanna Be In The Cavalry”

    “I Wanna Be In The Cavalry, Reprise”

  • 3. Strelnikov  |  April 9th, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    In that photo he sort of looks like “Gavin McInnes: 1850s edition.”

    I agree with Brecher; this guy was definitely not General material….a cavalry Colonel maybe. The South needed to face the facts in 1861; they didn’t have the industrial power to beat the North, nor enough of a population base to wear the Northern armies down. Therefore they should have gone on a lightning campaign in 1861-62 to seize Washington D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia, smashing factories along the way in a mirror of Sherman’s March to the Sea. That was a major problem with the CSA; nothing was truly planned out from the beginning, it was more like a kid losing a game saying “fuck you, I’m quitting.”

  • 4. Michal  |  April 9th, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    Cool article. I’m not nearly as attracted to the topic of civil war, but with this kind of narrative I’m beginning to appreciate it.

  • 5. maha  |  April 9th, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    This was great reading.

  • 6. Connor K.  |  April 9th, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    Reminds me of another Redneck, neo-Confederate (libertard?) hero: Jesse James. Today, I suppose we’d call him a member of the dealership class, as in “My dad owns a dealership.” From James M. McPherson’s THIS MIGHTY SCOURGE: “A study of the social origins of Missouri’s Confederate guerillas shows that they came from families (like the James family) that were three times more likely to own slaves and possessed twice as much wealth as the average Missouri family. The Younger brothers (Cole, Jim, Bob, and John), who formed the core of the postwar James gang along with Jesse and Frank, were the sons of Jackson County’s richest slaveowner.”

  • 7. Xenon Lied, People Died  |  April 9th, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    Grant condemning others for having ignoble causes? That’s rich, considering he had a slave plantation up and running until he was forced to let the slaves go at the end of the war. (Not to mention fighting for Abraham “let’s deport all negroes from Illinois” Lincoln.)

  • 8. blackbox  |  April 9th, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    Any chance of a WN perspective on the role of music (live and recorded) in past, present and future conflicts ? Starting with this one ?

  • 9. vortexgods  |  April 9th, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Zapp Brannigan: You see, Killbots have a preset kill limit. Knowing their weakness, I sent wave after wave of my own men at them, until they reached their limit and shutdown. Kif, show them the medal I won.

  • 10. Fatty Arbuckle's Ghost's Pants  |  April 9th, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    You are awesome Gary. Keep it up!

  • 11. Geoduck  |  April 9th, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    When we fought the Yankees and annihilation was near,
    Who was there to lead the charge that took us safe to the rear?
    Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone;
    Old “Toot your own horn – pone.”
    Jubilation T. Cornpone, a man who knew no fear!

  • 12. pat b  |  April 9th, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    given how poor southern commanders were in the west, Why didn’t the union pour resources in there, stall in the east and let the westerners win the war?

  • 13. Technomad  |  April 9th, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    You want to talk about “dashing” generals that hurt their own side, try JEB Stuart sometime. The silly bastard went riding off and left Lee groping in the dark in Pennsylvania; he could be called the man who lost Gettysburg for the Confederacy, but there were other idiots on that field, including St. Robert E. Lee himself, who STUPIDLY approved of Pickett’s Charge.

  • 14. helplesscase  |  April 9th, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    Few things are as satisfying as watching the plans of Romantic idiots go horribly awry. Great read.

  • 15. J.T. Patton  |  April 9th, 2011 at 11:07 pm

    Funny stuff! Hope “Civil War Caturday” becomes a regular feature.
    Great quips about Villa and Patton.
    CSA did have one grown-up in the west- you know who!

  • 16. observer  |  April 10th, 2011 at 12:41 am

    well, I think I deserve a mention for your sudden focus on logistics. But you really could go much, much deeper into this subject, very profitably

  • 17. bud  |  April 10th, 2011 at 2:05 am

    Awesome article. I love learning about the Civil War in such an entertaining way. What a poetic way for a man with such a haircut to die no?

    So I had this friend whose great great uncle or something was a soldier serving under General George Custer. Except this fellow seemed to have been unable to attend the massacre of his mates. My response to this incident was that his great uncle didn’t make the cut. I’d like to hear a little about Custer too, how about the traits that make a leader like Custer, and how those traits are apparent today?

  • 18. Joe R  |  April 10th, 2011 at 4:10 am

    Interesting as always.

    The article I’m really waiting for from you is the explanation of how Afghanistan fell to the Taliban after the Soviets left.

  • 19. swr  |  April 10th, 2011 at 4:58 am

    Sherman early in 1861

    You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it… Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.

  • 20. swr  |  April 10th, 2011 at 5:02 am

    Shelby Foote’s not a bad historian but you’ve isolated his major flaw.

    He spends SO MUCH TIME talking about generals like Van Dorn (without getting to the core of why they failed) that it throws the rest of his narrative out of focus.

    It’s like “OK. Sherman in Georgia.”


    Now it’s time for a 100 page digression about a minor raid in the west and the tale of another dashing general.

    Foote is good about the Griersson raid, however. John Ford (in the horrible John Wayne movie The Horse Soldiers) travestied the history and turned Grierson from an interesting nerd into just another stock John Wayne Greatest Generation WWII hero.

    Had I knot read Foote I would have known nothing about the real Grierson at all.

  • 21. Eric  |  April 10th, 2011 at 7:54 am

    <3 civil war caturday.

    The importance of a good economy/supply line is basic stuff you learn from playing any RTS. It's like none of these guys even bother playing war games.

  • 22. Jack  |  April 10th, 2011 at 8:23 am

    Sam Houston Nailed the North/South conflict right on the head: “Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives you may win Southern independence, but I doubt it. The North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche”

  • 23. floodingupeconomics  |  April 10th, 2011 at 11:01 am

    @Xenon Lied, People Died

    Hey, don’t be a daft idiot. The slaves Grant “owned” were owned by his Wife’s Father. He bought one slave from said Father, who he freed in 1859 despite needing money at the time.

    There is historical evidence from his letters he was mildly opposed to the Slavery Question.

    Way to be ignorant. I hate it when people make up (read lie about) history to suit their own bias. Of course, if you want to be honest you could have said… “Grant was connected to the slave trade through his Father in Law who owned a plantation. Grant was mildly opposed to slavery. For a short time Grant purchased a slave from his father in law, who he then set free.”

    But I assume you have an agenda (and probably an ignorant one at that). I, for one, have no real agenda with regards to this, because I’m sure Grant wasn’t a great guy by all accounts. But here you are just plain incorrect and ignorant.

  • 24. swr  |  April 10th, 2011 at 11:16 am

    The slaves Grant “owned” were owned by his Wife’s Father. He bought one slave from said Father, who he freed in 1859 despite needing money at the time.

    The neo-confederate douches tell a similar lie about Alexander Hamilton.

    Hamilton was an abolitionist who believed blacks and whites were racially equal. He helped found the New York Manumission Society. He did way more to end slavery in the North than John Adams did.

    But when he helped his sister in law move back to the United States from Britain, he helped get her estate in order, and she owned slaves. By that little sleight of hand, they label Hamilton a slave owner.


  • 25. AR  |  April 10th, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    A reporter at the time dubbed him “the terror of ugly husbands” shortly before Van Dorn’s murder.[2]

    Before the battle:

    “I am now in for it, to make a reputation and serve my country conspicuously or fail. I must not, shall not, do the latter. I must have St. Louis — then Huzza!”[2]

    After the battle:

    “I attempted first to beat the enemy at Elkhorn, but a series of accidents entirely unforeseen and not under my control and a badly-disciplined army defeated my intentions. The death of McCulloch and Mcintosh and the capture of Hebert left me without an officer to command the right wing, which was thrown into utter confusion, and the strong position of the enemy the second day left me no alternative but to retire from the contest.[24]”

    “I was not defeated, but only foiled in my intentions. I am yet sanguine of success, and will not cease to repeat my blows whenever the opportunity is offered.”[24]

  • 26. Jyp  |  April 10th, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    Hey wait a minute. Rooster Cogburn named his cat after Gen. Sterling Price. You ain’t a-sayin’ that John Wayne was a dick, are ya? Are ya?

  • 27. fnord  |  April 10th, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    Donald Rumsfeld. Proves reincarnation, but not in a good way.

  • 28. wengler  |  April 10th, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    Pea Ridge was an interesting battle. It is one of the only Civil War battlefields I ever visited, and was remarkable for certain things. One of these being that it was the only major Civil War battle I can think of that had a large amount of Indians fighting for the Confederacy. By all accounts they fought well.

    The white rebels on the other hand were led by morons who didn’t give a shit about them. This distinction cuts to the core as to why Union armies were able to eventually march across the South. They were more egalitarian. More democratic. Sure you had your silly frontal assaults like Cold Harbor, but these actions weren’t done to punish the army like Hood’s Tennessee campaign in the fall of 1864. Slavers always have a natural hatred of humans that don’t make them money, give them power, or aggrandize them in some way.

  • 29. super390  |  April 10th, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    Wengler –
    I can’t believe I’m here defending anything about the CSA, but I think your statement oversimplifies the relationship between the the generals and their men on both sides. There probably was not a general more careful about the lives of his soldiers than Joe Johnson, but it wasn’t his job to protect his men, it was his job to win against impossible odds by taking big risks. Otherwise, not much point in being a rebel general.

    There’s also the distinction between East and West. The generals in the west were culturally less snobby in both armies, but that led to complex effects: McClellan tried to avoid bloody battles in the east because he wanted his pretty European-style army spared an ugly slaughter, while John Bell Hood seems to have been kind of a redneck nut (“Ol’ Wooden Head”) who risked his men as casually as he risked himself. Neither of them did their men any favors.

  • 30. CaptainCrowbar  |  April 10th, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    Re swr@19’s quote from Sherman – it strikes me that you could have said exactly the same thing to Japan eighty years later.

    Come to think of it, Admiral Yamamoto did say the same thing. And nobody listened to him either.

  • 31. allen  |  April 10th, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    Thanks AR and swr for the quotations. They really give insight into the two men …

    Sherman seems like an almost dangerously sane and savvy, and despite his “reputation” almost painfully decent and sober (given the times he lived in).

    Van Dorn sounds like a guy who is rightly compared here, in the comments, to Zapp Brannigan … he sounds like’ a vainglorious blowhard twit that would better belong in a Warner Brothers cartoon.

    I’m amazed his own men didn’t shoot him.

  • 32. Pilot MKN  |  April 11th, 2011 at 8:57 am

    Shelby Foote certainly tried to paint these guys in the best light possible but its no different than you trying to paint monsters like Grant and Sherman as noble heroes.

    How about your heroes shelling Atlanta for hours when they knew the Confederate troops had abandoned it and there were nothing but civilians in the town? Or, like I’ve mentioned earlier, burning down towns just because they could?

  • 33. debaser  |  April 11th, 2011 at 11:33 am

    @ 18, I agree. These civil war ramblings are a waste of a well respected blog, and embarrassingly self indulgent given the wealth of CURRENT war stuff that’s going on. Get your shit together WN these ‘civil war’ articles are getting fucking annoying, and increasingly irrelevant.

  • 34. Onarag Dickshit  |  April 11th, 2011 at 11:52 am

    Xenon Lied, People Died –FOS.

  • 35. Neil Templeton  |  April 11th, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    @18 & 32: All war is relevant. War is backbrain. Because we have a backbrain we are forever incompatible with a truly rational and humane social order. Do you beat and banish your brother, or admit that he has a point?

  • 36. Peter L. Winkler  |  April 12th, 2011 at 2:38 am

    Patton and the 3rd Army weren’t remotely involved in Operation Market Garden. So what are you talking about?

  • 37. John Figler  |  April 12th, 2011 at 4:32 am

    So, now Patton was into Market Garden, uh?

    Oh, and French “civil levies” in Sedan… ?


    War Nerd is definitely on a downward slope.

  • 38. J.T. Patton  |  April 12th, 2011 at 10:01 am

    What he meant was, fuel was diverted away from Patton’s army FOR Market Garden, ye knuckleheads.

  • 39. Judah Maccabee  |  April 12th, 2011 at 11:41 am

    @ John Figler

    The War Nerd is going to need a corrections page very soon. Pretty sure Patton opposed Montgomery’s scheme and i’m also sure that France had a professional volunteer army during the start of the Franco-Prussian War.

  • 40. gary  |  April 13th, 2011 at 1:06 am

    we should hve let them secede..the south would be like mexico…cheap non union labor
    and meth labs

  • 41. Matthew Van Dorn  |  September 28th, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    Heh, I’m directly related to General Van Dorn… and serving in the army now… If I am half the fuck-up he is… Well, lets just hope they don’t give me a command post.

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