Earl Van Dorn (1820 – 1863)
The Army of the Trans-Mississippi was the army of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department (originally District). The department encompassed approximately a third of the territory of the Confederate States of America and included Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Indian Territory (mostly modern Oklahoma), and the portion of Louisiana west of the Mississippi River. After the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi, to Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863, a Union victory that put the Mississippi River under USA control and split the Confederacy along its north-south axis, both the Trans-Mississippi Department and its army operated almost independently from the rest of the CSA. Indeed, the commander of the army, General Kirby Smith, acted with such autonomy that the Trans-Mississippi Department was universally referred to as “Kirby Smithdom.” The general and his force had the distinction of being the last Confederate army to surrender, on May 26, 1865. Terms were concluded at Galveston, Texas, on June 2, but the 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles, a part of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi, under the command of Brigadier General Stand Watie, himself a Cherokee, remained in the field until June 23, 1865. Watie thus became the last Confederate general to surrender.
The Department of the Trans-Mississippi was formed with the separation of the District of the Trans-Mississippi from the Western Department of the Confederacy on May 26, 1862. Its army was called the Army of the Southwest until February 9, 1863, when it was renamed the Army of the Trans-Mississippi. The only principal Confederate army west of the Mississippi River, it mustered between 40,000 and 50,000 soldiers in units of varying permanence that were widely broadcast across the vast territory of the department. The enormous area covered promoted the development of cavalry; however, with most manpower and supplies concentrated in the Eastern Theater of the Civil War, the Army of the Trans-Mississippi was chronically undermanned, underfed, and underequipped.
The District of the Trans-Mississippi was commanded by Earl Van Dorn from January 10 to May 23, 1862, when it was part of the Western Department (Department No. 2) of the CSA. A great-nephew of Andrew Jackson, Van Dorn was born in Mississippi, educated at West Point (graduating fifty-second out of the fifty-six members of the Class of 1842) and saw peacetime duty in the South before participating in the US-Mexican War (1846–48). Van Dorn fought with distinction, earning two brevets and sustaining two wounds, near Mexico City on September 3, 1847, and little more than a week later, on September 13, during the storming of Belén Gate. After the war he saw action against the Seminoles and, in Texas, against the Comanches. At the Battle of Wichita Village (October 1, 1858) in Indian Territory, he was severely wounded. Given up for dead, the resilient Van Dorn surprised all by recovering and returning to action. Promoted to major on June 28, 1860, Van Dorn took a leave of absence from the USA until he resigned his commission on January 21, 1861, and became a brigadier general in the Mississippi Militia later that month. In February, promoted to major general, he replaced Jefferson Davis, who was now the Confederate president, as commander of all Mississippi state forces.
THOMPSON’S STATION Tennessee, March 5, 1863
Van Dorn fought at the Battle of Pea Ridge (March 6–8, 1862, Arkansas; defeated), the Second Battle of Corinth (October 3–4, 1862, Mississippi; defeated), Thompson’s Station (March 5, 1863, Tennessee; victorious), and the (first) Battle of Franklin (April 10, 1863, Tennessee; defeated). A brave and vigorous commander of cavalry units, Van Dorn was out of his depth commanding larger forces.
From May 26 to June 20, 1862, the District of the Trans-Mississippi was commanded by Brigadier General Paul Octave Hébert, who graduated from West Point at the top of the Class of 1840, resigned from the USA in 1845 to become Louisiana state engineer, but resigned that post to accept a USA commission as lieutenant colonel and commanded the 14th Infantry Regiment in the US-Mexican War (1846–48). He fought at Contreras, Churubusco, Molino del Rey, Chapultepec, and Mexico City, receiving a brevet to colonel for his gallantry. In 1853 he was elected governor of Louisiana and served until 1856.
In the run-up to the Civil War, Hébert was instrumental in reorganizing the Louisiana militia and preparing the defenses of New Orleans. After his state seceded on April 1, 1861, he was commissioned as a brigadier general, but was not activated until 1862, when he was sent to Texas and briefly assumed command of the District of the Trans-Mississippi.
After Hébert, what was now the Department of the Trans-Mississippi was briefly commanded by Major General Thomas C. Hindman (June 20–July 16, 1862) and then by Major General Theophilus H. Holmes (July 30, 1862–February 9, 1863). A North Carolinian, Holmes graduated from West Point in 1829, second from the bottom of his class, and fought in the Second Seminole War (1835–42) and the US-Mexican War. He was effectively exiled to command of the Department of the Trans-Mississippi after his undistinguished performance at the Battle of Malvern Hill (July 1, 1862, Virginia; Confederate defeat). While commanding the Trans-Mississippi Department, Holmes refused to send troops to the aid of Vicksburg, which was under siege by Ulysses S. Grant. This prompted Jefferson Davis to remove Holmes from command of the department.
Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith took over the department and the Army of the Trans-Mississippi on March 7, 1863, and held command of both throughout the rest of the war.
SIZE AND ORGANIZATION
The Army of the Trans-Mississippi varied in strength from about 40,000 to 50,000 soldiers. At the very end of the war, desertion reduced its rolls considerably below 40,000. The army was organized into three numbered corps in addition to a cavalry corps and a reserve corps. Because of the large area assigned to the army, the corps were headquartered in widely dispersed locations.
Headquartered at Shreveport, Department of Louisiana, I Corps was organized under Simon Bolivar Buckner. Headquartered variously in locations within the Department of Arkansas and Missouri, II Corps was organized on August 4, 1864, under the command of John B. Magruder. Headquartered at Galveston, Department of Texas, III Corps was organized on August 4, 1864, under John George Walker. The Cavalry Corps was organized on August 4, 1864, under Sterling Price, and the Reserve Corps was created on September 10, 1864.
SIMON BOLIVAR BUCKNER, I CORPS
Buckner was born in 1823 at Glen Lily, near Munfordville, Kentucky, and was named in honor of Simón Bolívar, the “Great Liberator” of Spanish South America. An 1844 graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, Buckner was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the 2nd US Infantry Regiment and served in a Lake Ontario fortress garrison until he was appointed assistant professor of geography, history, and ethics at his alma mater.
In May 1846 Buckner joined the 6th US Infantry, initially as a recruiter during the US-Mexican War (1846–48) and then in the field, at Vera Cruz and nearby Amazoque. While serving as quartermaster of the 6th Infantry, Buckner fought at San Antonio and Churubusco, receiving a minor wound at the latter battle. Brevetted to first lieutenant for gallantry at Churubusco and Contreras, Buckner declined the honor because reports of his having participated at Contreras were mistaken; he had not fought at that battle. When subsequently offered the brevet for Churubusco, he accepted—and then was again brevetted, this time to captain, for gallantry at Molino del Rey. Buckner fought in the culminating battles of the war: Chapultepec, Belen Gate, and the storming of Mexico City.
Following the war, Buckner returned to West Point, this time as an instructor of infantry tactics. In protest of West Point’s policy of compulsory chapel attendance, Buckner resigned in 1849 and was assigned as a recruiter at Fort Columbus, Ohio. After serving in the West and as captain of the commissary department of the 6th US Infantry in New York City, Buckner resigned his commission to join his father-in-law’s real estate firm in Chicago. He joined the Illinois State Militia and, in 1857, was appointed adjutant general of Illinois by the state’s governor. Resigning that post shortly after his appointment, he was promoted to colonel and assigned to lead an Illinois volunteer regiment during the so-called Utah (or Mormon) War of 1857–58. The conflict was settled before he marched, and Buckner moved his family to Louisville, where he became captain of the local militia. When his unit was mustered into the 2nd Regiment of the Kentucky State Guard, Buckner was appointed inspector general of Kentucky in 1860. The following year, Kentucky governor Beriah Magoffin appointed him adjutant general and promoted him to major general. When Kentucky declared itself neutral at the outbreak of the Civil War, Buckner mustered sixty-one companies to defend its neutrality.
After state officials condemned the militia as pro-secessionist, Buckner resigned on July 20, 1861. He twice declined the offer of a brigadier general’s commission in the Union army and, following the Confederate occupation of Columbus, Kentucky, accepted a commission as a brigadier general in the Confederate States Army on September 14, 1861. He was assigned command of a division in the Army of Central Kentucky under Brigadier General William J. Hardee.
Buckner fought at the Battle of Fort Donelson (February 11–16, 1862; Confederate defeat) on the Cumberland River. Buckner’s delay in supporting an attack in defense of the fort contributed to its capture by Union forces. To Buckner fell the unwelcome assignment of surrendering to General Grant. Held as a POW at Fort Warren in Boston, he was exchanged after five months for Union brigadier general George A. McCall. On his release Buckner was promoted to major general and ordered to join the Army of Mississippi (under General Braxton Bragg) at Chattanooga.
On October 8, 1862, Buckner fought at Perryville, Kentucky, a battle that ended in strategic defeat. After serving in the District of the Gulf, building up the defenses of Mobile, Alabama, he was assigned (on May 11, 1863) to command the Army of East Tennessee. Soon, his army became III Corps in the Army of Tennessee. He led his corps against Ulysses S. Grant at Chickamauga (September 19–20, 1863, Tennessee; narrow Confederate victory). Disgusted by Bragg’s leadership, Buckner collaborated with other generals in writing an anti-Bragg protest to President Davis, who retaliated for what he deemed disloyalty and insubordination by reducing Buckner to division command. On April 28, 1864, however, Buckner was assigned to the Army of the Trans-Mississippi as commander of I Corps. He did not arrive until August 4 and was promoted the following month to lieutenant general, on September 20.
Following Lee’s surrender to Grant on April 9, 1865, the Army of the Trans-Mississippi rapidly disintegrated as soldiers simply walked away. Ten days after Appomattox, the Confederate District of Arkansas was consolidated with the District of West Louisiana, and Buckner assumed command of the combined district. On May 9 Kirby Smith appointed him his chief of staff. It was rumored that Smith and Buckner intended to lead Confederate loyalists into Mexico; however, Buckner surrendered at New Orleans on May 26.
Buckner entered politics after the war and was elected governor of Kentucky in 1887. His term ended in 1891, and he continued to be politically active, living to the age of ninety.