Van Dorn's Raid on Holly Springs
(December 16-28, 1862)
From the Novel
Mounted Raids of
The Civil ?War
Edward G. Longacre
In the military, as in all walks of life, appearances often deceive. As a case in point, consider the background of Major General Earl Van Dorn. Few contemporaries noting his martial bearing and the caliber of his wartime efforts prior to the outbreak of the secession crisis would have believed him destined to fail as a Confederate general. But fail he did
Frequently, sometimes disastrously, often because of flaws in personality and judgment and almost as often, it would seem, through simple bad fortune. Luck rarely sided with Earl Van Dorn, and in fact, only once gave him the sort of untarnished success that many thought to be his due.
From earliest days he seemed endowed with credentials that guaranteed glory. His birthplace was a plantation near Port Gibson, Mississippi and his family was one of the best known in that community. Family ties extended even to the white House; it was a distant cousin, President Andrew Jackson, who fulfilled Van Dorn's youthful ambition to become a soldier by helping him obtain appointment to the United.
States Military Academy. Van Dorn graduated in the Class of 1842, ranking fifty-second among fifty-six cadets, but soon bettered his military standing by embarking on a series of duty tours that offered him the opportunity to gain a solid reputation. He first served in the campaigns against the Plains Indians, and when the Mexican War broke out in 1846 was a twenty-seven-year-old lieutenant. In the Mexican conflict he won fame, distinguishing himself by raising the American flag under heavy fire during one battle, by being the first soldier to scale enemy walls in another fight, and by charging in the forefront of a force that stormed the Belen Gate during action at Mexico City. The war below the Rio Grande fully confirmed his desire to follow a military career:
"I never could be happy out of the Army," he declared, I have no other home He won new honors after the war by serving as captain, then major, in the prestigious 2nd United States Dragoons, whose field officers included two future Confederate greats, Albert Sidney Johnston and Robert E. Lee. The framework of success around which Van Dorn's life seemed to be built was almost complete by the time Confederate guns bombarded Fort Sumter in April 1861.
At the outbreak of war, Van Dorn appeared the archetypal Southern officer and gentleman. He was slim wasted and broad shouldered, with a handsome face adorned by chestnut-colored hair, an elegant imperial mustache, and a goatee. Although only five feet, six inches tall, he was rugged and strong, an accomplished horseman, and something of an esthete as well, dabbling in poetry and art. Women invariably found him attractive-some irresistible, despite the fact that he had married Caroline Godbold in 1843 and, though no longer close to his wife, had never been legally separated from her. Van Dorn seemed to go out of his way to live up to his reputation as a ladies' man, an effort that in time would result in his death.
This rakish side of his personality notwithstanding, Van Dorn was the epitome of the dashing fire-eater, a man cut from much the same cloth as other Confederate cavalrymen such as J. E. B. Stuart and John Hunt Morgan. He once expressed his fascination with soldiering in a letter to one of his sisters: "What does the gambler know of excitement who has millions staked on a card? He can lose but millions, he can win but millions. But here life is to lose-glory to win.
High rank, but no glory, came his way in the early months of his service with the Confederacy. In June 1861 he received an appointment as a brigadier in the Southern ranks. Already stationed in Texas, he garnered some headlines by capturing several Yankee troop ships in the Gulf of Mexico. That September he earned a second star and soon afterward found himself in Virginia, where a period of inactivity intensified his desire to win renown in battle.
The next January he was placed in command of the Trans-Mississippi District-Missouri, Arkansas, part of Louisiana, and what is today the state of Oklahoma-and at last received his chance to grasp glory. In a maneuver calculated to eventually seize Federal-held St. Louis, he divided his sixteen thousand-man army for a two-pronged strike at Yankee forces invading Arkansas. Unforeseen delays in marching orders prohibited Van Dorn's forces from cooperating, and other instances of bad fortune, including an errant ammunition train, compounded numerous tactical mistakes and resulted in Union victory at the battle of Pea Ridge.
Van Dorn was subsequently transferred to the Army of Mississippi, headquartered at the river stronghold of Vicksburg, where he repulsed a Union amphibious attack that summer. Sent to invade West Tennessee in September, he began his task in fine style, and then suddenly returned to Mississippi, hoping instead to seize the strategic rail center of Corinth from Federal Major General William S. Rosecrans, his West Point classmate. Van Dorn's men suffered severe repulses after a series of bloody attacks and were forced to retreat. Afterward Van Dorn remained in command of Confederate forces in northern Mississippi but came under the strict supervision of the new departmental chief Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, and was assailed by widespread criticism of his military abilities. By late summer of '62 his once-intact pattern of success had unraveled. Not even a court of inquiry, which cleared him of official allegations of gross neglect of duty at Corinth, could stop the downward arc of his career.
However, even as Van Dorn's military fortunes neared rock bottom, a good many of his soldiers could not account for his disgrace. They considered him a gallant and gifted general, one in whom they had much faith. One officer who knew him well declared that his appearance and demeanor "gave assurance of a man whom men could trust and follow."8 And Van Dorn himself could hardly believe the sorry times upon which he had fallen. He keenly felt his double humiliation at Pea Ridge and Corinth, and fervently hoped that another opportunity to restore luster to his reputation might soon materialize.
Finally, in December of 1862, by a stroke of that same good fortune which had eluded him for so long, Van Dorn got his chance.
In that chilly and blustery autumn-a season of despair for the Confederate armies in the West-Major General Ulysses S. Grant advanced relentlessly down the corridor of land in central Mississippi, angling toward Vicksburg. Riding a wave of victory that had carried him through battles at Forts Henry and Donelson, Grant hoped to take that vital river fortress and so control the Father of Waters. To rule the Mississippi was to cut the Confederacy in half-doubtless a mortal blow. As Grant came on, Pemberton's outnumbered army fell back ever deeper into the state, searching desperately for a way to curtail the invaders' advance.
Pemberton put his subordinate officers to work studying the situation, probing for weak points in Grant's strategy. It was a lieutenant colonel of Texas cavalry who came up with an idea that the Confederate high command finally adopted. The Texan was convinced that the only way to stop Grant's thrust along the axis of the Mississippi Central Railroad was to strike at that rail line as well as at a parallel road, the Mobile & Ohio. By these lines, Grant drew his supplies from the great depot at Columbus, Kentucky. A cavalry expedition, the lieutenant colonel felt, would so disrupt Federal communications as to cause Grant to fall back north into Tennessee, abandoning his overland campaign against Vicksburg.
Looking more closely at the project he had suggested, the Texas officer focused his attention on yet another great supply depot that the Yankees had recently established on the Mississippi Central, at a town named Holly Springs, in the northern portion of the state. The base was not so formidable as that at Columbus, but it too was a vital link in Grant's supply network and damage there might accomplish much the same result as a strike at the Kentucky depot. Moreover, as Pemberton himself learned when he gave the officer's plan close scrutiny, Holly Springs reportedly was held by only two thousand five hundred Federals. The present situation was considered so critical that the plan was quickly accepted, and Pemberton allowed Earl Van Dorn, whom the Texas officer had recommended, to command the raiding force.
It seemed apparent that no other tactic was capable of stopping the Federal movement. Yet this vital task now rested on the shoulders of a man whom destiny had frustrated time and again. Quite possibly Pemberton, in choosing him for the assignment, felt that Van Dorn was due for a drastic change of luck.
Three brigades of cavalry, comprising troopers from Texas, Tennessee, Missouri, and Mississippi, assembled in the village of Grenada, on December 12. When Van Dorn ceremoniously arrived to take command of the force, his drama-tic appearance caused many of the cavalrymen to break into loud cheering. At once Van Dorn turned happy; he had been given a command that he felt ably suited to lead and whose personnel obviously appreciated his talents.
By the 16th, when the column started its northeastward march toward its unpublicized objective, the riders had sized up their diminutive but impressive-looking leader. Many had not previously served under him, but irrespective of the bad publicity he lately had received, decided they liked him. One of them described him as "a man apparently about forty years of age, small of stature, dark skinned, dark haired, bright, keen black eyes, clear cut and well defined features, straight as an Indian, sitting [on] his horse like a knight, and looking every inch a soldier."
The three thousand five hundred troopers marched through a rainstorm toward the town of Houston, which they reached about noon the next day. On the 18th they rode over muddy trails until they struck Pontotoc, whose citizens, awed by the sight of rank upon rank of gray-clad cavalrymen, offered them king-size portions of meat, fowl, fruit, milk, and other edibles.
Some miles east of Pontotoc the raiders first encountered the enemy, to the rear. These were cavalrymen led by one of Grant's mounted commanders, Colonel T. Lyle Dickey, returning westward after carrying out an assignment to cut those parts of the Mobile & Ohio line that lay in Rebel hands. Van Dorn's scouts reported the whereabouts of Dickey's small force early that afternoon. Refusing any combat that would slow his march and divert his attention from Molly Springs, Van Dorn largely ignored Dickey's presence and continued to ride northward.
Marching away from an enemy force-especially one that would have been easy pickings in a fight-was not something that came easy to Van Dorn. Essentially, he was a man of action and daring, preferring to enter any fight in which he stood a reasonable chance to win. But by now, perhaps, he had grown leery of trusting fate in that manner, and did not wish to make any mistake that might destroy this latest opportunity to recoup lost prestige. When a courier sent by the commander of the rear guard pounded up to the head of the column with an urgent message, Van Dorn exhibited commendable coolness and restraint. The soldier shouted that his superior sent me to inform you that the Yankees have fired on his rear!
"Are they still in the rear?" asked the general.
"Yes, sir," replied the courier.
"Well," Van Dorn said, "you go back and tell your Colonel that the Yanks are just where I want them.
Seeing that the Confederates were not going to stop and accept battle, Colonel Dickey hurried toward Grant's headquarters at Oxford, more than twenty miles below Holly Springs and far to the west of Van Dorn's raiders. Ahead of him rode couriers with the news of the Confederates' advance toward the supply base, but that evening the messengers went astray, and so Grant did not learn the facts until the morning of December 2O. By then it was too late to send a cavalry force to intercept Van Dorn short of his objective-and barely in time to warn the garrison at Holly Springs that thousands of Rebels were heading their way.
On the night of the 18th the raiders camped on the west bank of the Tallahatchie River, seeking sleep in the middle of a chilling, drenching rainstorm. The next day they continued northward for a short distance, then turned west toward the line of the Mississippi Central. They were now only a few miles from their destination. The day was miserably cold; the horses' hooves kicked up clods of frosty earth as the long, winding column made its way through the countryside. The riders-some of whom wore six or more shirts beneath their coats to ward off the cold-were hungry as well as chilly and weary. Yet their officers noted that their spirits were remarkably high; they had confidence in Van Dorn and were looking forward to surprising their enemy.
To avoid a skirmish with Yankee outposts, Van Dorn halted his command some miles from Holly Springs, separated it into two large contingents for a concerted attack, and then sent a scout familiar with the local geography, to study the enemy defenses. After a tense waiting period, Van Dorn welcomed back the scout, who brought the happy news that the Yankees suspected nothing; so blissfully unaware of danger were they that they were planning a gala Christmas ball. Before dusk, Van Dorn's two forces moved out, their carbines, pistols, and swords ready-they would do some celebrating of their own.
In the darkness the raiding units slipped inside the local picket lines, then halted for another short rest. Soldiers were dismounted and posted along all roads leading into the town as a security measure, while the rest of the raiding command was allowed to rest so long as the men remained standing in readiness beside their still-saddled horses. At dawn Van Dorn would charge his units through the town, hoping to scatter all enemy soldiers and make a dash for the depot buildings where supplies and rations were stored.
The troops garrisoned at Holly Springs consisted of detachments from three infantry regiments, the 20th, 62nd, and 101st Illinois, plus six companies of the 2nd Illinois Cavalry, under overall leadership of Colonel Robert C. Murphy. They totaled approximately one thousand five hundred effectives-much fewer than Pemberton had supposed-and were concentrated in three major areas. Some of the infantrymen-only about five hundred of them-were stationed in the town proper; other foot soldiers were encamped near the railroad station; and the cavalry companies were deployed on the fairgrounds just beyond the town limits.
Despite the scattered nature of these troops, and contrary to the report of Van Dorn's scout, Colonel Murphy had received sufficient warning that Confederates were sweeping down upon him. Shortly before dawn he wired Grant at Oxford that "Contraband [Negro] just in reports Van Dorn only 14 miles from here with 5,000 cavalry, intending to destroy stores here. Van Dorn had been diligent in stopping potential messengers from reaching the town; still, a black man had managed to evade the cordon of raiders. Had another officer commanded the garrison, Van Dorn's attack plan might have been in jeopardy.
But Colonel Murphy was no Napoleon. Though forewarned of the danger, he failed to alert the infantry camp at the depot or the cavalry billet on the fairgrounds. Apparently several of Murphy's officers had already begun celebrating Yuletide in disorderly fashion; some were reported drunk at the time Van Dorn's people came calling. All in all, affairs at the depot garrison were very much at loose ends at a critical juncture.
Murphy belatedly made an effort to remedy the situation. Before the Rebels could attack, he raced to the rail depot to dispatch two locomotives to alert other garrisons along the railroad, above and below Holly Springs. At each station, officers aboard the trains were to sound an alarm and muster reinforcements, who were to head straight for the supply base town. Construction crews working for the military railroad were also supposed to hasten to the town's defense, erecting cotton bale barricades around the depot and public buildings.
But time quickly ran out on Colonel Murphy. Before his orders could be carried out, Van Dorn's raiders came charging into Holly Springs from three directions, shouting the Rebel yell at the top of their voices.
The Mississippians entered the town from the northeast, charging through blue-clad infantry and then piling into the cavalry camp; behind them came the Missouri troops in support. East of the village, the Texas riders cut off routes by which Federal supports might rush to the scene of fighting; and north of Holly Springs, the Tennesseans massed to counter any Federal attempt to send troops down from the direction of Bolivar, Tennessee, where part of Grant's army was encamped.
One cavalryman, who rode into a Yankee infantry billet alongside Van Dorn himself, heard his comrades give the general a wild cheer. The shout awoke some of the unsuspecting garrison troops, he later remembered, "but before its echoes ceased to reverberate, we had literally ridden over them. When the alarm was given, they rushed out of their tents, and taking in the situation at a glance, promptly commenced a series of maneuvers, not laid down in tactics, to avoid being run over."
To the Federals, stumbling out into the frigid dawn wearing sleepwear and various vestiges of outer clothing, a nightmare had come true. All around them, fierce-looking cavalrymen were charging through the streets, blasting away with rifles and revolvers, shrieking like banshees, singling out foot soldiers and methodically running them down. Scores of wide-eyed infantrymen threw down their guns, raised their hands high, and shouted their willingness to surrender.
A journalist accompanying the raiders offered a graphic picture of the fracas: "The scene was wild, exciting, tumultuous. Yankees running, tents burning, torches flaming, Confederates shouting, guns popping, sabres clanking; Abolitionists begging for mercy, 'rebels' shouting exultingly, women en dishabille clapping their hands, frantic with joy, crying 'kill them, kill them'--a heterogeneous mass of excited, frantic, frightened human beings presenting an indescribable picture, more adapted for the pencil of Hogarth than the pen of a newspaper correspondent."
The soldiers in the infantry camp capitulated after only a brief struggle, but their cavalry comrades at the fairgrounds put up stiffer resistance. Realizing that the depot would be captured unless they stood firm, the troopers formed a hollow square surrounding their camp, drew sabers, and met the onrush of Van Dorn's Mississippians. While his men were gradually forced backward, the Federal cavalry commander was captured, and thereafter the troopers' strength faded rapidly. The Confederates managed to encircle the camp and break through the eastern side of the square, menacing all other angles of the formation. Only a swift and desperate charge by 130 of the Illinoisans, who fought their way to safety by slashing wildly with their swords, prevented the garrison cavalry from being captured en masse. By eight A.M. Holly Springs was securely in Confederate hands.
Van Dorn could rejoice that he had finally achieved unalloyed success. Within his reach was a vast conglomeration of warehouses and shops that housed everything necessary to supply a large field army during a lengthy campaign. The material to be found there would immeasurably benefit his soldiers, some of whom wore clothing so ragged as to appear mendicants. And, of course, destruction of those supplies which could not be carried off could spell disaster to General Grant.
The extent of Van Dorn's spoils startled many a Rebel cavalryman. One of them noted that "Every available building at and near the depot, including the machine shops, round house and large armory and foundry buildings, and many houses on the public square, were filled with commissary, quartermaster and ordnance stores. In addition to these were numerous sutlers' shops, stocked with articles so well suited to the wants of Confederate soldiers, that they seemed to have been provided for their especial use. Appropriately, it was the Christmas season: here were gifts galore for the Rebel cavalry.
But Van Dorn did not allow himself to rejoice for long. He was well aware that General Grant would not let the attack go un-avenged. In quick time trains would come chugging from north and south, carrying reinforcements from other garrisons. Time was a crucial concern, what with the amount of work still to be done. Therefore he headquartered himself in a centrally located building and doled out assignments to his subordinates. Soon the lower echelon commanders were hustling about, directing the enlisted men to remove Federal prisoners and townspeople from the projected path of destruction, then to ignite hundreds of torches.
The raiders worked furiously, with a passion that consumed the full extent of their energy and made them forget the rawness of the weather. Details of soldiers removed all useable quantities of arms, ammunition, medicine, clothing, blankets, and horse equipments from the government storehouses. Afterward the torches were applied, and within minutes sheets of flame rolled above the plundered buildings and a dense black cloud curled atop the fire to mingle with the sullen grayness of the winter sky. All warehouses, cotton stores, machine shops, and sutlers' shacks were fired, one after another, with almost patterned thoroughness. Soldiers, Confederates and Federals alike, stood in the rutted streets, watching the conflagration and warming themselves by the flames. Whiskey, salvaged from medical supply houses, began to trickle over the curbs from smashed kegs. More than a few observers sampled the brew as the fires raged, some of them drinking so avidly that they began to reel about in a ludicrous frenzy. Finally officers put an end to the strange orgy by leveling pistols at their own men.
Deafening explosions ripped through the town as some store houses filled with powder blew sky-high. Some of the flames fell onto houses not designated for ruin, spreading destruction even further.
One of Van Dorn's men watched as several of his comrades, their faces reflecting the glow of the fires, scurried to their horses with plunder. It was curious to note their preferences for loot: "Boots and hats seemed to be the most popular articles in the way of clothing, but it was amusing to see how tastes differed. Some men would pass by a dozen things, which they really needed, and shouldering a bolt of calico, walk off apparently perfectly satisfied with their selection. Sugar, coffee, crackers, cheese, sardines, canned oysters, were not neglected Indeed they were not, for the ride to Holly Springs had been an especially hard one, and little time had been set aside for partaking of food.
By sundown the sacking of Holly Springs had been completed, and the Federals had been paroled as prisoners of war. More than one million dollars worth of rations and materiel had gone up in flames or had been removed from the warehouses, and a vast amount of physical damage had been rendered other military resources, including track age on the Mississippi Central and the rail depot buildings in Holly Springs.
Despite the extent of the damage they had inflicted, Van Dorn's soldiers had injured neither the local citizenry nor the hordes of freed Negroes who in previous months had flocked to the town to receive Federal protection. The troops also treated with respect Mrs. Grant, whom they found temporarily residing in a Holly Springs home while her husband campaigned in the field. And only buildings deemed of military value were destroyed by flames, with the exception of a hospital and a few situated alongside those fired and which could not be protected from flying sparks.
With the principal warehouses in the process of being reduced to ashes, Van Dorn had no reason to linger any longer in Holly Springs; his work here was done, and additional chores that he had planned for his men still lay ahead, farther to the north. About four P.M.. he remounted his command and led it through the maze of smoldering ruins.
The general seemed euphoric. Some of his critics later alleged that he was drunk at the time of his departure from the town. They failed to note that Van Dorn's condition came naturally to a man whom, after years of failure, had at last won redemption.
When Ulysses Grant, at Oxford, heard from Colonel Murphy about the Rebels' proximity to Holly Springs, he grew highly concerned for the safety of the depot (as, of course, for the safety of his wife). Some time after Van Dorn's men entered the town, Colonel C. Carroll Marsh, commander of the Union District of the Tallahatchie, headquartered about fifteen miles south of Holly Springs, sent official word of the town's impending capture, which he had received from a Federal officer who had deserted Holly Springs shortly before the raiders arrived. Grant soon had infantry regiments moving northeast by rail from his headquarters to Colonel Marsh's station at Abbeville, on the Mississippi Central, and also ordered one thousand two hundred cavalrymen under Colonel John K. Mizner, posted even farther to the south, to join Marsh before daybreak on the 21st and cooperate with him in nabbing the Confederates. A detached cavalry regiment, the 6th Illinois, commanded by an officer himself soon to become famous as a raider, Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson, joined Mizner before the latter could overtake Colonel Marsh's infantry.
However, Marsh's men moved so quickly toward Holly Springs that the two cavalry colonels despaired of ever catching them. Sensing a hopeless task ahead, Mizner went into camp several miles below the captured town instead of pushing onward, as Grant wished. Learning this fact, the general-in-chief lost his temper and tersely ordered Mizner to resume his advance or be placed under arrest.
Mizner sought to make amends by again hurrying after Marsh's infantry. Yet it was two A. M. on December 21 before the cavalry got under way once again. Grant must have groaned with frustration as he watched the pursuit get off to such a sorry start.
Earl Van Dorn was of course unaware of his opponents' movements. He took his cavalrymen into camp north of Holly Springs early that morning, allowed them some cherished rest, and had them back in their saddles a few hours later. A short march on the La Grange Road brought his column to the village of Davis's Mill, eighteen miles above Holly Springs and just below the Tennessee line, where it encountered another Federal garrison. Here he had visions of repeating his smashing success of the day before, with particular reference to destroying the trestle that carried the track-age of the Mississippi Central across nearby Wolf River. Van Dorn waxed confident when he learned that barely 250 Yankees defended the post-especially since he had easily defeated more than five times as many at Holly Springs.
His assurance was misplaced. Unlike Holly Springs, Davis's Mill was commanded by a resourceful, determined officer colonel William E. Morgan of the 25th Indiana Infantry. Morgan had learned of the Rebels' approach well in advance of their arrival and had arranged the best possible defensive positions, utilizing every resource at his disposal to make maximum resistance possible. He had built blockhouses, had manned them with sharpshooters to protect the approaches to the rail trestle, and had dug rifle pits to accommodate dozens of other marksmen.
Wasting no time, Van Dorn ordered an attack on foot, hoping to smash the enemy works by sheer force of numbers. Just before noon his assault commenced, spearheaded by four Texas regiments that rushed forward with impressive speed. But the soldiers in the blockhouses stood firm, pouring volleys of rifle fire into the oncoming ranks. The Texans recoiled, came on again, were ripped apart by another fusillade, charged a third time, and were beaten back once more. A fourth attack enabled the Texans to reach the trestle, the floor of which they discovered to have been un-planked by the garrison troops. The surviving attackers scrambled behind a levee that adjoined the bridge, to avoid suffering further casualties, and huddled there for safety, wondering why these Yankees did not react as Colonel Murphy's soldiers had.
Van Dorn pondered the situation and finally decided to withdraw. Without artillery, he had no hope of driving the enemy from their strategically located fortifications. But even as he recalled the remnants of his attacking force, some of the Texans nearest the trestle tried to set it afire by peppering it with balls of cotton, soaked in turpentine. The tactic might have been successful had not Colonel Morgan ordered his men to increase their rate of fire so greatly as to compel the Confederates to abandon the contest for good. Embattled cavalrymen raced from behind the levee toward the main body of the raiding column, many of them dropping in their tracks from sharpshooters' bullets. When Van Dorn calculated the arithmetic, he found that twenty-two of his men had been killed and thirty others so badly wounded that they could travel no farther. Several other troopers, pinned down at the bridge, had already surrendered to Morgan's riflemen.
After an unsuccessful attempt at convincing Morgan he must surrender his outnumbered garrison, Van Dorn rode away from the scene of this minor defeat, crossing into Tennessee and heading farther north, then eastward.
For the next couple of days, his column plodded on its way over rocky ground and frozen mud, the soldiers huddling inside their captured clothes. As they rode, they rendered damage to Federal-held sections of lower Tennessee by cutting rail lines and downing telegraph wires. The men continually cast glances over their shoulders, looking for signs indicating a large enemy pursuit force was after them.
Despite the element of real danger in this march, Van Dorn played the part of a confident, even cocky, warrior. He took his men toward the Union base at Bolivar and feigned an attack on the garrison. But he struck only the pickets below the village, captured many of them, and finally turned south for the long ride home.
Meanwhile, Grant's pursuit continued to move sluggishly. Colonel Mizner, despite his apparent desire to make amends for past slowness, had pushed northward with less than desirable speed. Without waiting for Mizner to join him, Colonel Marsh and his foot soldiers had reached Holly Springs at ten A. M. on the 21st, to find the base a shambles and the Rebels long gone. For his continuing lethargy, Mizner again incurred Grant's wrath, and this time the commanding general relieved him of his command. Colonel Grierson, an abler officer, succeeded to leadership of the cavalry command that hereafter would take on most of the responsibility for chasing the Confederates.
Grierson moved north through Holly Springs at a speed that should have warmed Grant's soul. Below Bolivar, he finally picked up Van Dorn's trail and determined to turn the contest into a simple, old-fashioned race. Though outnumbered by the Rebel raiders, Grierson was akin to Colonel Morgan-he was unafraid to challenge heavy odds.
Still a comfortable distance ahead of his followers, Van Dorn stopped once again during his march, to call for the surrender of another Union garrison. However, at Middleburg, Tennessee, seven miles below Bolivar, he was again repulsed by entrenched Federals, this time after a two-hour struggle. Nursing his latest wounds, Van Dorn decided to play it safe; from now on, he would concentrate his energy in getting his column home freely instead of trying to reap further glory by thrashing enemy outposts into submission. It was well that he determined thus, for along the Tennessee-Mississippi border thousands of Yankee troops of all arms, activated by Grant, were awaiting marching orders should Van Dorn tarry too long in one locale and place himself in position to be overtaken.
Christmas Day, 1862 was a day of almost continuous marching for Van Dorn's troopers. Arriving at Ripley, due east of Holly Springs, a town he had ridden through several days before en route to his primary objective, Van Dorn left a small rear guard behind, to fend off Grierson's fast-riding soldiers, then pushed on via a road that led southwestward. Some hours later the Federal pursuers came up to Ripley, encountered the guard, and spent precious time sparring with it at long range. The Confederates would fire at Grierson's troopers, keeping them back, and then skillfully withdraw from harm's reach, repeating the procedure when the Federals followed. In this manner Van Dorn effectively delayed the enemy while pushing his main force ever closer to safety. The general's confidence in his ability to escape would have been bolstered had he known that Griersons soldiers had been overtaken by the cavalry officer whose dilatory habits had become so conspicuous. Now the entire pursuit force was again under the leadership of Colonel Mizner, whom Grant, for some unknown reason, had forgiven and placed in field command once again.
Mizner exhibited his timidity anew by vetoing Grierson '5 suggestion that at nightfall on the 25th they attack Van Dorn's rear guard below Ripley, then smash straight toward his main force. Too risky, thought Mizner, and he may have been correct. But in so deciding he wasted his final chance to carry out Grant's orders.
Thanks to his rear guard's delaying action, Van Dorn outdistanced his pursuers during the morning of the 26th-rather, outdistanced all but one unit. This was yet another cavalry force dispatched from army headquarters an under strength brigade under Colonel Edward Hatch of the 2nd Iowa. For the past several days, after receiving his instructions, Hatch had been roaming in many directions near Oxford, responding to a series of conflicting reports about the Rebels' whereabouts. At dawn on Christmas Day, Hatch finally took his eight hundred riders along an eastward road that he hoped would enable him to intercept his quarry short of its home base. The next morning he neared the town of Pontotoc; at this juncture Van Dorn's men were still near Ripley, many miles to the north, but coming on with a full head of steam. Hatch thought of erecting barricades across roads the Rebels might take, barely noting that the raiders though tired and riding upon jaded horses, far outnumbered his own force on hand.
At a point near New Albany, Hatch rounded up some Rebels who were straggling far afield of Van Dorn's column. Questioning them, he learned that the main body of the Confederate command was still farther north, and at Ripley had fought a skirmish with Federals to their rear. Hatch, a conscientious officer, felt that he should place himself where the action was: he pushed his eight hundred men directly toward Ripley. But his choice of roads was unfortunate, for as he rode on, Van Dorn's column passed him farther to the west, riding in the opposite direction. Hatch's scouts were too thinly deployed to ascertain this fact, and Hatch did not learn of it till it was too late. By then he was entirely willing to call it quits, for during the previous thirty-two hours he had marched sixty grueling miles. Later he communicated with Mizner and Grierson, learned that the former had ordered the chase discontinued since it was now obviously a futile effort, and made plans to rejoin the main army as soon as possible.
The great pursuit was over. Once he realized he was beyond the threat of capture, Van Dorn led his men at a leisurely pace, to conserve horseflesh, and by nightfall on December 28 had returned to the camps he had left twelve days earlier. He rejoined Pemberton's army amid circumstances unusual to him: he was welcomed back with much pomp and was bestowed with a flurry of congratulations by his commanding officer. At long last, Earl Van Dorn seemed to have found his place in the hallowed Confederate hierarchy.
The raid on Holly Springs coupled with a simultaneous and highly successful expedition by Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest against the Mobile & Ohio line in Union-held portions of Tennessee had a decisive effect on the Civil War in the West. Deprived of the sinews of war, Grant's army could not continue its overland campaign toward Vicksburg, and had to retrace its steps to the Mississippi-Tennessee border, where it sat out the winter, seething with frustration and anger. Van Dorn's depot attack was a major factor in prolonging the struggle in that sector of combat, keeping the Mississippi River in Rebel hands until July 1863, when Grant finally succeeded in taking the river stronghold by siege.
In respect to Earl Van Dorn's memory, it would be pleasant to record that he went on to win even greater renown or at least stabilized his reputation as a gentleman and soldier. But history was not kind to him. The Holly Springs expedition marked the apogee of his career, and even his success in that operation was overshadowed by the circumstances of his death, only five months later.
His character traits rather than his actions in battle brought about his untimely end. Van Dorn's avowed fondness for the company of lovely women led him, in the spring of 1863, into an affair with a married woman. The lady's outraged husband sought revenge one day by firing a pistol ball into Van Dorn's skull as the general lolled in his headquarters at Spring Hill, Tennessee.
It was certainly not the most elegant way for a Confederate commander to depart his army's service. And yet, considering the controversial circumstances that attended many of Van Dorn's endeavors, his demise may have been fitting, after all.