Summing up the life of Mrs. Carrie Van Dorn - “A good man is hard to find, You always get another kind”


2nd Lieutenant
Aug 6, 2016

Mount Vernon Arsenal
(LOC - Public Domain)

Earl Van Dorn graduated West Point in the class of 1842. Out of fifty-six graduates he ranked at fifty-two, two points better than fellow graduate and future civil war general James Longstreet. Van Dorn, the born in Claiborne County Mississippian, was an impressive man.

“His figure was lithe and graceful, his stature did not exceed five feet eight inches, but his clear blue eyes, his firm set mouth, with white strong teeth, his well-cut nose with expanding nostrils, gave assurance of a man whom men could trust and follow.” {1}

He was stationed at the Mount Vernon Arsenal where he Caroline or Carrie as she was called, the only child and daughter of Colonel James D. Godbold and his wife Olivia. Emily Van Dorn, the general’s younger sister, described Carrie as a: “girlish-looking little woman - modest and shy, slight and graceful” {1}. The relationship intensified and within a few months after their first meeting and over the objections of Carrie’s parents the couple married December 23, 1843. Earl Van Dorn was twenty-three; his bride Carrie was sixteen.

Van Dorn’s responsibilities with the military soon saw the young lieutenant sent away and Carrie’s parents insisted their daughter stay on their Alabama plantation. It was a union which would be defined as a couple living more apart than living together, and with his classical education, his dashing good looks, his ability to finesse his writing with words in French and Latin; it was fertile ground for the “womanizing” Van Dorn.

Within three years after their marriage Van Dorn was serving in the Mexican-American War where he survived two woundings. He continued his military service while Carrie continued to live with her parents. The couple celebrated the birth of their children: a daughter Olivia (1852-1878) and son Earl Van Dorn, Jr (1854-1884). Carrie continued to live with her parents. In the twenty years they would have as a couple Carrie never had a permanent home.

During the mid-1850’s, Van Dorn was serving in Texas and he discovered his talent as a painter. In April of 1856 he informed his wife:​

There may have been more than painting going on in his life while he was in Texas. I found one source that listed a Martha Goodbread (1836-1872) living in Texas who had a relationship with Van Dorn resulting with a son Percy (1857-1879), a daughter Lammie in (1858-1930) and don’t forget little Douglas Van Dorn born in (1861-1906). {1} Most family members agree the Mississippi family never knew of the Texas family. Martha never spoke about her relationship yet her children carried the “Van Dorn” name. Upon her death, they were raised by her parents. It’s believed Van Dorn left his Texas family when he left the Union Army.​

* * *​

During the Civil War Earl Van Dorn communicated via letters with Carrie. A reoccurring issue was her need for money. In one letter Van Dorn writes:​

“Yours has been a trying life. I hope you will be happier with a good cause.” {3}

Included in the letter was $100.00. He also wrote Carrie that he had left a horse behind in New Orleans with instructions to sell the steed and forward the money to Carrie.​

“Write to me when you need more [money], I will send all that I can spare. Be still patient for we are on hard times.” {3}

Life for Mrs. Carrie Van Dorn appears to have been challenging. Correspondence from Carrie was spotty at best. She was known to have sequestered herself in her parents home in Alabama for an entire summer. Meanwhile Van Dorn continued to fight. Early April found Van Dorn fighting at Elkhorn Tavern (also known as the Battle of Pea Ridge) on March 7-8 of 1862. After the his defeat wrote Carrie:​


Battle of Pea Ridge (Elkhorn Tavern), Arkansas by Kurz and Allison​

In the same letter dated April 6, 1862 he wrote:

“This is a terrible war, but we must see it through, and have our country come out of the struggle with honor and independence. If we do not I must look for a home in some other climate—South America or Mexico.” {1}

On May 12, 1862 he writes his wife:

“When this coming storm is over I will return to you, as I have said, gentler than I have ever been to you. Until then have patience with me and forgive me for my silence. With many kisses and affectionate love, I am your husband, Earl” {4}

On July 22, he continues with his endearing tone:

“God bless you my own dear wife. I received your kind, good letter today with one from my dear little angel daughter. You are a gentle, kind and forgiving wife and the tone of this letter has pleased me a great deal. You do not scold at me for not writing because you know how troubled and harassed I am continually with the cares of my position here.” {4}

Little did Carrie know that within a year her life would change. General Van Dorn had just a little over nine months to live and things that he wanted to keep hidden from “his own dear wife” would burst out in the public discourse. It would not be an enemy bullet that took him down - it would be a jealous husband. Dr. George Peters shot Van Dorn in the back of his head on May 7, 1863 as he worked at his headquarters at the Martin Cheairs Mansion in Spring Hill Tennessee. His place of birth in Mississippi was under Union control so he was taken to his in-laws home in Alabama where he was buried.

For the northern papers this was an opportunity to exploit the tragedy against the southern people by pointing out the tawdry way Van Dorn was executed the result of a “lovers triangle”. Some northern papers even went so far as to report that Van Dorn was actually at the Peters home when he was shot and taken to his headquarters so reports could claim he was shot there. Southern papers were quick to print that Miss Jessie Peters denied any romantic involvement with the general. She asserted “that General Van Dorn never approached her by word or deed save in the most respectful manner”. {4}

A Fitting Funeral for a Southern Hero

As one eyewitness recounts as his body arrives in Columbia Tennessee:

“As we watched the immense procession of soldiers, the horse drawn by six white horses, its gorgeous array of white and black plumes, that bore the grand casket in which the dead hero lay, we thought with sorrow of the handsome face still in death and the heart-broken wife thus cruelly widowed.” {4}

After lying in state in Columbia Tennessee his body was brought back to Alabama and the Godbold family cemetery. His young daughter Olivia was described as the “chief” mourner for Carrie was too distraught to attend. The eyewitness report continues:

“Poor little Olivia was the most charming child at twelve years of age I ever saw; it was only in the month of January preceding that I had gone to Mt. Vernon to hasten the General’s return to the army in obedience to a telegram from General Johnston, and had made the above remark to him, and his face at once glowed with tenderness, as he rejoined that, ‘for years she had always reminded him of some exquisite melody,’ and decided some original lines addressed to his daughter:

‘In the desert of my life is a fountain of bright water
the keeps one oasis of its sands ever green,
Tis the sheen of an angel, ’tis the eye of my daughter

that gladdens my heart with its love-lighted beam’.” {4}

Caroline “Carrie” Van Dorn joined her husband in death thirteen years later on January 19, 1876. She was laid to rest next to her husband and together they stayed until November of 1899 when Emily Van Dorn Miller (1827-1912) had the general reinterred in the Wintergreen Cemetery (next to his father) located in his home town of Port Gibson Mississippi. It seems even in death he still had the appearance of the dashing general:

“At Port Gibson, the casket was opened, after more than 30 years of interment, and the remains were found to be in an excellent state of preservation. ‘The form was clad in the Confederate gray uniform of a major-general, the belt, buckles and epaulettes being intact, and around his shoulders were the soft golden curls familiar to soldiers on a hundred battlefields as the intrepid warrior rode at the front of his men and urged them to battle’.” {5}

Carrie remains behind with her daughter Olivia (died 1878) and Earl Jr. (died in 1884) once and for all separated from her husband even in death. The last letter I found he sent his wife was dated March 14, 1863 from Columbia, Tennessee.

“I fought a battle near here a few days ago and won it. It was a beautiful affair. . . I took four regiments prisoners. Have had a rough time, but satisfactory to everybody. . . I am surrounded continually be a crowd and cannot write. I am well, and stand well with my troops. All cheers and serenade me. Children to change with every change of fortune!” {4}

And as he signs his letters to his wife - - -


* * * * *

3. Van Dorn: The Life & Times of a Confederate General, by Robert George Hartje
4. "A Soldier's Honor"
All Photos Public Domain unless Otherwise Noted


2nd Lieutenant
Aug 6, 2016
"soft golden curls familiar to soldiers on a hundred battlefields"
I have found many people during this time period as having this particular hair characteristic - yet when I look at the pictures - it appears they have darker hair. Perhaps in the Victoria age “particularly in literature, blonde hair was associated with beauty and goodness” {*} it was used to complete the perfect picture of a warrior and hopefully without lots of photographs they could get away with it (for awhile anyway).​


1st Lieutenant
Forum Host
Apr 18, 2019
Upstate New York
I have found many people during this time period as having this particular hair characteristic - yet when I look at the pictures - it appears they have darker hair. Perhaps in the Victoria age “particularly in literature, blonde hair was associated with beauty and goodness” {*} it was used to complete the perfect picture of a warrior and hopefully without lots of photographs they could get away with it (for awhile anyway).​
I wonder if this wasn't also done with people whose hair had darkened over time. If you met my son you'd say he's a brunette but I think of him as a blonde since he was for most of his life


Apr 14, 2019
The original of this order is one of my prized possessions. Issued on behalf of Van Dorn by his AAG, W.C. Schaumburg to General N.B. Forest. Although the content is mundane, notice the date -- May 6, 1863. The next day Van Dorn was assassinated at his desk in the same room where this order was written. I still get chills whenever I touch it. I am working on an article for NSCWT.



Forum Host
Nov 27, 2018
Chattanooga, Tennessee
Something about the phrase "well-cut nose with expanding nostrils" makes me want to giggle. I can picture one of those silent movie scenes where the hero expresses surprise by opening his eyes wide and flaring his nostrils!
It is the heat of passion displayed for a woman, like the lizard displays in mating. Toward men, it is the heat of contempt. Beautiful description. I like your point of view.