Where Elephants Fought

The truth revealed

The Naughty General

General Earl Van Dorn

Confederate General Earl Van Dorn is more often remembered for his antics off the battlefield than on it. Rumors of extra-marital affairs began circulating as early as 1858, and by the time the handsome general was dead, his reputation was firmly established as a seducer and libertine, his few military successes often overlooked in the pages of Civil War history. Instead of a medal of honor, the general’s notable accomplishments include a host of scandalous love affairs and battlefield blunders.   Yet, I would be remiss if I did not speak of the daring cavalry leader’s better qualities. The fair-haired Van Dorn was charming and artistic, educated and well heeled. He was a doting father to his daughter Olivia and a loving and loyal brother to his sisters Emily and Octavia. As a small division cavalry leader, he often proved himself a brilliant strategist – most notably, his successful raid on General Grant’s supplies in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Earl Van Dorn was indeed a complex character, a volatile mixture of pride and lust. In my study of him, I found him to be both admirable and detestable, yet I could never bring myself to loathe the man. After all, in the end he paid quite dearly for his discretions.  He was a man possessed by an insatiable appetite for glory and an incurable penchant for the ladies. His death at the hands of an enraged Dr. Peters was inevitable. This piece of historical literature reveals the nasty truth behind this famous murder.                            

A Southern Temptress

Jessie Helen McKissack Peters was the epitome of the Southern Belle - a real life Scarlet O’Hara - an incredible beauty with a devastating charm, adored by men and despised by women. Though rich and educated, her privileged life did little to protect her, as she was plagued throughout her days by a number of tragedies. Her early years were marked by the untimely death of her mother – a devastating blow to the young Jessie and perhaps the reason for her strong personality and unrelenting spirit. She was a survivor in every sense of the word.  Jessie Helen McKissack Peters was the epitome of the Southern Belle - a real life Scarlet O’Hara - an incredible beauty with a devastating charm, adored by men and despised by women. Though rich and educated, her privileged life did little to protect her, as she was plagued throughout her days by a number of tragedies. Her early years were marked by the untimely death of her mother – a devastating blow to the young Jessie and perhaps the reason for her strong personality and unrelenting spirit. She was a survivor in every sense of the word, especially after the death of father, when 16-year-old Jessie is rumored to have married a young man who met a tragic end shortly after the marriage. Maybe it was this loss that prompted Jessie to marry her cousin Dr. George Peters, a strict man who was 25 years her senior. Whatever the real reason for the marriage, Jessie and George were able to keep the money in the family.  Still, all the money in the world couldn’t keep Jessie from seeking out a little excitement. This is exactly how the handsome Van Dorn came into her life.  

The Young and the Restless


Clara Polk Peters is perhaps one of the more elusive characters in the Van Dorn affair. When I think of Clara, I imagine a young doe-eyed girl with a very big heart, a quiet girl desperate for attention. After all, she was the only girl in a family of boys, her mother having died when she was six years old. Her reputation prior to Van Dorn’s arrival in early 1863 is that of a gentle girl, more eager to please than anything else. In letters and diaries of hometown Bolivar friends, Clara is often referred to as a “lovely girl,” her voice that of a “songbird.” It is her gentleness, however, that seems most glaring in these references, and it is that gentleness that explains all too well how she fell prey to the gregarious Van Dorn.   

Dr. George Peters

Dr. Peters is one of the more complex figures in this motley cast of characters. Though he is a successful doctor, a savvy businessman, and an elected government official, he is an absolute a failure in his personal life – at least in his relationships with the ladies in his family. On a few occasions he appears to be in control of his feisty young bride, especially in the early days, but Jessie moves quickly into the drivers seat, beating him with her charm and beauty. While he is undoubtedly savvy, even ruthless, in his business dealings, he lacks the toughness of a man like Earl Van Dorn or Nathan Bedford Forrest, as evidenced in a letter written by Jessie in 1862, in which she takes on her brother-in-law Nathaniel Cheairs. “George will not … but I will…” she warns him. Her obvious lack of respect for the doctor is clear at this point and appears to have remained so throughout their married life.  His relationship with his daughter Clara appears equally as complicated though not at all as strained as his relationship with Jessie. Though Peters is a typical widower and detached father, he still longs for Clara’s affection and respect, and goes to great pains to care for her after Van Dorn’s death. Not until I understood these relationships was I able to comprehend how Dr. Peters committed such a bold crime, how he came to shoot a Confederate General in his headquarters in broad daylight. 

Jessie Peters

Jessie Peters, shown here in her 70's, survived the rest of the war alone with her two small children. George filed for divorce shortly after Thomas' suicide in 1866, charging the following: "I was deserted by my wife on May 7, 1863," the date of Van Dorn's murder. George and Jessie remarried shortly after Clara entered the convent in July 1869, but that seems to be out of necessity alone, for George remained in Arkansas, while Jessie resided in their Memphis home.  Upon George's death in 1889, legend has it Jessie reluctantly donned her mourning attire, commenting that she "never cared my for George, but {she} owed him this much."  

With the arrival of the new century, Jessie would find herself surrounded by her remaining children - Kate Chalmers and Robert E. Lee – the products of her reunion with the doctor. And, of course, there was the dark eyed Medora, whose chiseled features – strikingly similar to the handsome Van Dorn – were no doubt a haunting reminder of the War, and buggy rides – and Clara.

For whatever reason, very little research exists regarding Jessie’s personal life. There are no surviving photos of a young Jessie, an unbelievable fact considering her renowned beauty and wealth. What has survived – a few letters and a lone photo of the aged beauty – reveals an incredibly modern woman with an extraordinary capacity for surviving. Jessie Peters was truly one of the most remarkable women of the Civil War.           

A Casualty of Love and War

Thomas McNeal Peters is the most tragic of characters in the entire Peters-Van Dorn Affair. At the onset of the War, he is handsome and intelligent, a young man bound for greatness - first in his class at Ole Miss, and a loyal supporter of the Southern Cause. But it isn’t long before tragedy, also dressed in the guise of love, strikes young Thomas Peters. For him, however, Cupid’s arrow strikes a tad lower than the heart, piercing a much more delicate organ (sorry – I couldn’t resist!)  And so this once great young man is forced to join the countless, less-genteel fellows ravaged by the French Pox – better known as Syphilis. Although diseases of the genitalia were quite common during the Civil War, the shame and embarrassment associated with such an affliction was no less severe than it is today – not to mention the severity of the symptoms, which must have been a hell!! (And don’t even get me started on the treatments administered by Civil War surgeons! Yikes!)   

 Yet, despite his lack of discretion and his debilitating illness, he remained a loyal Confederate, even rejoining the Army in 1864 after his extended absence. I actually believe if not for his recorded affliction - and his timely absence from the area - Thomas would have been deemed an accomplice in Van Dorn’s assassination. And so he was indeed lucky in this one instance.   But as in all tragedies, someone must suffer, fall, and ultimately die, and Thomas Peters does just that. First, there’s the syphilis thing, then his father kills Van Dorn; after that, his sister joins a convent, and finally his sweetheart marries his best friend. (see marriage record in Research)  Alas, it’s easy to see why he chose to put an end to his life.. .O, untimely death…    

The Case for Clara

Though research has never revealed a smoking gun, the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming that Clara is the reason for the General’s death. Early mention of Clara’s name in the Card written by Van Dorn’s staff is the first indication, but it is an 1863 letter from David Fentress to his mother Maud that very specifically addresses the subject of “Van Dorn’s seduction of Dr. Peters’ daughter” (see the Card and letter in research) Then in the years immediately after the war, Clara is mentioned several times in the diary of Sallie Wendel Fentress, another Bolivar family friend. In these entries, Clara appears a desperate girl, tortured by her own guilty conscience, grief-stricken by the loss of innocence. At times, Sallie evens questions poor Clara’s sanity. And if that’s not enough evidence, Clara’s voluntary exit from the secular world into the cloistered confines of a convent speaks for itself (see Clara’s original declaration of intent to enter the convent) Add a little “baby born a mere 8 ½ months after the General’s death,” and Voila! 

Smoking gun not necessary.    

Medora Wharton Peters

Medora Wharton Peters (2nd from left) was born on January 26,1864, a mere 8 1/2 months after the General's murder. She spent several years as a student of the Visitation Academy in St. Louis, where Clara Peters served as choir sister. According to monastery archivist Lisa Chassaing, Medora was known as the sister of Clara Peters during her years there. She graduated from the academy in June of 1879, at the age of sixteen. Upon leaving St. Louis, she moved to Arkansas and assumed a place within the Peters family for the first time, as she appears in an 1880 census as the daughter of George and Jessie Peters.  Medora’s absence in previous census records gives credence to the local legend in Spring Hill, Tennessee, that a Peters’ child born during the war years spent her early life in the care of a convent. Medora most likely went to live with George and Jessie out of necessity alone; since she had no plans of becoming a nun, she would have left the Visitation Academy upon graduation.  

Medora remained with the Peters family until October 1884, when she married Henry J. Lenow, son of a prominent Memphis businessman. Over the course of their forty-year marriage, Medora and Henry had thirteen children. Perhaps the absence of a family during her formative years fueled her desire to have such a large number of children. 

Medora and her children remained in Memphis and stayed in touch with Jessie, or “Grand” as the grandchildren called her.  Although Jessie and Medora maintained their public relationship as mother and daughter throughout their lives, little is known of their true affections for each other. Was their relationship mere pretense, or did they in fact share a common bond? Medora’s presence as an heir in Jessie’s will seems to indicate there was at least some affection between the two.   

As for Medora and Clara, neither of them ever publically declared their relationship as mother and daughter, nor did any member of the Peters or Lenow families. Medora died on October 26, 1931, at the age of sixty-seven and was buried alongside George and Jessie in the Peters’ plot at Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee. Though the world knew her as the daughter of George and Jessie Peters, her death certificate reads “Unknown” in the section listing the deceased’s mother and father.  

Then, sometime in the late 1980’s, in an apparent effort to remove the stigma of the Van Dorn murder, a member of the Peters-Lenow family had a new stone placed at the Memphis cemetery to mark Medora’s grave. The birth date cut into the marble stone: January 26, 1865—exactly one year later than Medora’s actual birth date, and a date that precludes Van Dorn’s involvement. Was this the perpetuation of a century-old lie, or mere respect for the dead?  Nearly 150 years later, the truth surrounding the murder of General Earl Van Dorn remains clouded, one tragic affair forever buried in the past…      


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