Trained at West Point, from which he graduated in 1842, Earl Van Dorn fought in Mexico and on the frontier. Assigned to senior command in the Confederate army, he assumed control of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department early in 1862.
In March 1862, Union forces under the leadership of Samuel Curtis, defeated Van Dorn and his Army of the West at Pea Ridge, Arkansas. In October, the Army of the West Tennessee, under his command, was routed at Corinth, and forced to retreat into central Mississippi. Although he was absolved of any responsibility for the Corinth defeat, Van Dorn was transferred to the cavalry as an independent commander. He returned to the field on December 20, when he led Pemberton's cavalry in a successful offensive at Holly Springs, Mississippi, where he captured the Union's supply base.
Van Dorn was fatally shot in a lover's quarrel in May 1863. The assailant claimed that his victim had been carrying on an affair with his wife.