Friday, December 13, 2013

The Terror Of Ugly Husbands

Earl "Buck" Van Dorn

       There are about as many conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn as there are surrounding the murder of President Abraham Lincoln. I believe this is what draws me to the murder of Van Dorn. Although, there are many theories, afterall, there were no actual witnesses to the murder, we can be at least ninety percent certain of what happened in Spring Hill, Tennessee on that May morning in 1863. 
       Earl Van Dorn was born on September 17, 1820 in Port Gibson, Mississippi. Earl, nicknamed "Buck" had two older sisters. His mother died while Buck was ten. Although, Earl Van Dorn had a brother two years younger than he was, his older sisters doted on him. The reason is not clear. Regardless, it seems that Earl "Buck" Van Dorn was a spoiled young man. 
       Van Dorn longed to be a soldier and because his mother had been the niece of Andrew Jackson's wife, he won an appointment to West Point. He would graduate there 52nd out of 56 cadets in the class of 1842. A year later he would marry an Alabama lady named Caroline Godbold. Together they would have two children. 
       In 1856, while stationed in Texas, Van Dorn would meet Martha Goodbread a laundress at his fort and together they would have three children. All this occurred while he was still married to Caroline Godbold. Remember, things like this didn't occur didn't this time period. 
       Van Dorn was known to be impulsive and highly emotional. He was about five feet, seven inches in height, well dressed, and handsome.
       During he Civil War, Van Dorn attained the rank of major general, yet he wasn't a very successfull commander until placed in command of cavalry in 1862. Making his headquarters in Spring Hill, Tennessee, he used an upstairs room in the home of Doctor Aaron White house named "White Hall." 

White Hall

       In April of 1863, Jessie McKissack Peters arrived at White Hall and asked Mrs. White if she could visit with General Van Dorn in private. Mrs. White replied that she would see. As she started for the staircase, Jessie brushed past her and announced that she would just introduce herself. She entered the bedroom upstairs that Van Dorn was using as his office and remained for over an hour. This greatly disturbed Mrs. White and when it occurred again three days later, Mrs. White had her husband ask the general to move his headquarters to another location. 

Ferguson Hall

       The general was only too happy to move his headquarters. The house he chose was called Ferguson Hall and it shouldn't come as a surprise to learn that from Van Dorn's room, he could see Jessie' home across the field. One reporter had actually written that General Van Dorn was the terror of ugly husbands.
       In the meantime, Jessie's husband, Doctor George Peters, who had been attending his plantation in Arkansas for a year returned home and was greeted by ugly rumors in regard to his wife and General Van Dorn. This hadn't been the first time that Doctor Peters beautiful young wife had been involved in an extramarital affair. Doctor Peters was Jessie's first cousin and when they'd married, he was 44 years old and she was 20. They seem to have been married in an effort to keep the money in the family. 
       Not long after Doctor Peters returned home, General Van Dorn sent a message to Jessie by one of his couriers. Doctor Peters informed the courier to inform his "whiskey-headed master, General Van Dorn, I will blow his brains out..." One would think that this would end the affair, but not Earl Van Dorn. 

A drawing of Jessie Peters later in life

       Doctor Peters soon went to Nashville and upon returning learned that Van Dorn had spent every night of his absence at his home with Jessie. George Peters then planned a trip to Shelbyville, but returned to his home at 2:30 a.m. and caught General Van Dorn there in bed with his wife. Van Dorn was intoxicated and raced from the house and hid beneath the porch. Doctor Peters grabbed him by the hair of his head and dragged him from beneath the house. Holding a pistol to the general's head, Van Dorn began to plead for his life. Doctor Peters then told Van Dorn he would allow him to live if he would write out an admission of his guilt and also write a letter to his wife in Alabama admitting what he'd done. Van Dorn agreed to do this. 
       Two days later, Doctor Peters arrived at Ferguson Hall to see if Van Dorn had done what he'd agreed to the night before. He found Van Dorn had not written what he'd promised. He told Doctor Peters that he didn't love his wife and to write an admission to what had occurred would only harm the Confederate cause. Doctor Peters told Van Dorn he would give him thirty minutes to do as he'd promised the night before. George Peters then left Ferguson Hall, attended to some business and soon returned. 
       He found that Van Dorn was still refusing to write an admission of his guilt stating that it would harm his reputation. Doctor Peters replied, "You did not think so thirty hours ago when your life was in my hands. You were then ready to promise anything. Now you think I am in your power, and will do nothing; but, sir, if you don't comply with my demands, I will instantly blow your brains out."
       Van Dorn probably believed Doctor Peters would be too afraid to shoot him with his staff officers surrounding the house. If so, he was wrong. Van Dorn replied, "You damned cowardly dog, take that door, or I will kick you out of it."

Room where Van Dorn was killed

       Doctor Peters drew his pistol and shot Van Dorn in the back of the head, the bullet coming to rest behind his right eye. Doctor Peters then quickly left the residence and mounting his horse rode hard across the field to his home. There he gathered a few belongings and informed Jessie that he had killed General Van Dorn. He would eventually make his way to Federal lines. 
       A servant recalled Jessie standing in the doorway, hands on her hips as she watched her husband ride away, said, "Ain't that the devil, a sweetheart killed and a husband runs away in the same day."
       Van Dorn would never regain consciousness, dying about four hours later. He would eventually be buried beside his wife in Alabama. It is believed he had a letter in his possession from his wife that announced her intention to divorce him because of his adulterous ways. A few years later, his sister would have the general exhumed and buried beside their father in Port Gibson, Mississippi and many believe it is because of the contents of that letter. 
       Doctor George Peters would die in Memphis, Tennessee in 1889. As Jessie was dressing for the funeral, she said, "Well, I never cared much for George, but I guess I owe him this much." Jessie would survive until 1921. They both rest in unmarked graves in Elmwood Cemetery, Memphis Tennessee. Because of all their noteriety, their family chose not to mark their graves. 
       The story doesn't quite end here. Eight and half months after the death of Earl Van Dorn, Jessie would give birth to a baby girl which she named Medora Wharton Peters.
Was there in doubt as to who Medora's father is? Following the war, when Doctor Peters asked Jessie to return to his home, he instructed her not to bring that child. Ironically, it would be Medora who would care for Doctor Peters just before he died. 
       Historians still discuss the possibility that Jessie may have had an affair with Confederate Major General Benjamin Franklin Cheatham in 1864. We will probably never know for sure. 

1 comment:

  1. Please read Bridget Smith’s “Where Elephants Fought” or at least the concluding details of the main characters. While Jessie Peters was involved with Van Dorn in 1863, the true motivating force behind the shooting was that Clara, Peters’ 15-yr-old daughter, was seduced by the general as well. It was Clara who gave birth to Medora in January 1864, not Jessie. Clara later converted to Roman Catholicism and became a nun, living out her life in Missouri, where she had been sent following Van Dorn’s death. Medora was place at an orphanage at birth but later joined the family following George and Jessie’s divorce and subsequent remarriage in 1868.