Why Was General Earl Van Dorn Murdered?

In some ways, historians are like anyone else: they hate to make mistakes. But if you write enough, sooner or later, you will make a mistake—I assure you. I certainly have, but I have been more fortunate than most. Sometimes, mistakes benefit you. What I suppose are my two most significant errors to date came more than two decades apart, and both had overall positive results.

In the late 1980s, I wrote a book entitled Hitler’s Legions. In it, I accepted as fact a U.S. Army intelligence report which stated Generalleutnant Josef Folttmann was killed near Belfort Gap in November 1944. (I was just starting out as a historian in those days and the report was written by the same intelligence officers who gave us the Battle of the Bulge three weeks later, but I did not take that into consideration.) Shortly after Legions was published, Friedrich-Theodor von Stauffenberg wrote to me, corrected me, and informed me that Hans Oschmann was the general who was killed in the battle in question. When I asked him if he was sure, Stauffenberg sent me a copy of a book General Folttmann wrote in 1957—13 years after I killed him off. It listed Oschmann as killed on the date I cited.

Hitler’s Legions... Mitcham, Samuel W., Jr. Best Price: $5.50 Buy New $28.20 (as of 07:50 EDT - Details) This turned out to be perhaps the most fortunate professional mistake anyone ever made. Friedrich and I corresponded, became good friends, finally met, and even wrote a book together.[1] When he realized his last illness would be fatal, he sent me his papers, as well as three unpublished manuscripts by General der Panzertruppen Hans Eberbach.[2] I used the Eberbach manuscripts as the basis of a book and have mined the Stauffenberg Papers for more than 20 years.[3]

My latest literary faux pas also turned out to be beneficial. In Bust Hell Wide Open: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest, I wrote that Dr. George Peters murdered General Earl Van Dorn because he was fooling around with Peters’ wife. It turns out that this is not true. In her book Where Elephants Fought, Ms. Bridget Smith proved definitively that Peters shot Van Dorn because he was in an elicit affair with Peters’ 19-year-old daughter—at the same time he was having intimate relations with her mother![4]  (Dr. Peters would have been doubly enraged had he known that his daughter was pregnant at the time.)[5]

I don’t feel too penitent about this particular mistake. Some of the giants in the field committed the same error. I won’t mention any names, but I bet are some very distinguished historians are reading this with a little egg on their faces. On the other hand, my mistake also had a benefit for me. It led me to attend one of Ms. Smith’s presentations, and I found her to be a brilliant, entertaining, and extremely well-informed public speaker.[6] She lived near Spring Hill, Tennessee, where General Van Dorn was murdered, and as a young lady heard rumors that the “official” story was not exactly accurate. It took her many years to run down the entire true account, partially because some of the surviving members of the Van Dorn family did not want the truth of the scandal uncovered. How she did it is discussed in Where Elephants Fought, and the details are impressive but would require too much space to recount here.

Looking back on it, the logic behind Ms. Smith’s conclusions concerning Dr. Peters’ motives is unassailable. The author indicates that Mrs. Peters was beautiful, promiscuous, and possibly a nymphomaniac. Had the doctor—who was much older than she—killed every man who took an amorous interest in his spouse, he would have been a mass murderer.

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