Van Dorn's Historic Raid on Holly Springs

The South Reporter, April 15, 1999, Section 1, Page 5
By Lois Swanee, Museum Curator

General Earl Van Dorn's raid on Holly Springs was the most important event to ever happen here. That day in history so long ago, December 20, 1862, was the turning point of the War Between the States. Grant's sleeping army was aroused to the call of the invading Southerners and caught unawares, in the victor's snare. Grant was so chagrined that no mention is ever made of Van Dorn's raid in the official records or his memoirs. With all his supplies gone, Grant told his army to live off the land and this they did hereafter. The fall of Vicksburg was delayed six months because of it.

Troops from southern Illinois were stationed here in Holly Springs. Van Dorn took them all prisoners after the initial onslaught and then after they had signed an agreement not to fight against the south again, freed them. When Grant arrived back in town, he court-martialed the Illinois troops, saying they had sided with the south. When a gun is at your throat or a sword at your heart, they probably did side with the south.

Van Dorn was brilliant in military strategy and had planned the raid very well. He probably could have been compared to General Forrest if he had lived long enough to show his courage and daring. Van Dorn had been through the battle of Corinth and Pea Ridge and lost, so in December he was without command. Colonel Griffith of Texas was said to have thought of the raid and knowing Van Dorn's capabilities, suggested that Van Dorn be in charge.

From Grenada, it took four days of hard riding in frigid miserable weather for the band of raggy, tattered Confederates to reach Holly Springs. Grant's army was as far down as Coffeeville, so Van Dorn left Grenada and headed toward Pontotoc, where the women ran out to give them food and goodies and cheer them on. It was a sight the men never forgot. There were about 2500 men in this group and they were pestered by the Yankees at their rear, who were trying to decide where they were heading.

Van Dorn had turned eastward and then northward to New Albany, pretending to join Forrest and his troops in Bolivar, Tennessee, Colonel Dickey of the northern army sent a messenger to Grant that Van Dorn was heading north but the messenger got lost. Grant never received the message and later Dickey was fired and sent north, way north, by himself.

Van Dorn's men stopped for a few hours. Some of the soldiers hung their clothes and gunbelts on a fallen tree. During the night, the campfire edged over and caught the tree on fire. The guns began exploding and momentarily, everyone thought the war had hit them. This left Van Dorn's army even more ragged, shoeless, coatless, and probably even gunless. They moved on to Ripley, still fighting the enemy spies following them.

On the night of December 19th, there was no camping. They stopped on this side of Ripley. It was cold and drizzling rain. The men had to stand by their horses to rest. No camp fires were allowed. Toward morning, though still dark, they turned abruptly westward, toward Holly Springs. They left sentries at every house to be sure no one alerted the enemy. The Tennessee unit in Van Dorn's army were to take the town from the north and west, the Missourians were to dismount and walk in to take the infantry, the Texans were to come from the south and the east.

At daybreak, the Confederates came charging into town, giving up the Rebel yell as they galloped up Depot Street (now Van Dorn Street). (A rebel yell was similar to a banshee shriek.) The women came running out of their houses in nightdress with hair flowing in the breeze, cheering the soldiers on. It was a thrilling sight for both the women and the men and it was talked about forevermore.

On the south side of the square, the “band” of the northern army had made a barracks at City Café in the deserted law office of Major Strickland. One of them ran out to see what was happening, nearly got shot, and ran back inside. He put a table up to the door and looked out the transom, and described the dashing general astride the big black horse with sabre drawn – it was Van Dorn.

Inside, one of the band members was named John Hamm. He was the fiddler in the group. He appeared to really hate everything southern. However, there was a widow in Holly Springs who had a niece visiting from Vicksburg and John Hamm went to her house for a lot of entertaining with his fiddle. The band members straggled out and surrendered that early morning of Van Dorn's raid. When Van Dorn saw John Hamm, he said, “John Hamm, what are you doing here?” Hamm went over and whispered in his ear. Van Dorn told them all to go to the depot, as they were prisoners of war. However, they were paroled that day and couldn't fight until after this was over. Later on that day, John Hamm was seen mounted on a horse leaving town with Van Dorn. He yelled to his former band members, “You will have to get a new fiddler, as I'm with my old friends now!” He was a southern spy and the widow helped him and that's how Van Dorn knew when to raid Holly Springs.

At the fairgrounds, which were located beside the railroad trestle bridge on, what is now, West Avenue, the Confederates arrived and a battle ensued between them and the Northerners, who had been sleeping peacefully in pup tents and were just rising to be mustered to roll call when the unwelcome visitors came to town. There was much clashing of swords and gunfire. One account said six men died, another said one died, and another said no one died.

At the depot, there were railroads cars loaded and headed south, ready to go to Vicksburg. These cars were loaded with clothing, food for a vast army, long guns, Colt pistols, ammunitions, etc. These were all destroyed in a series of explosions to the tune of about two million dollars. But first, before the Confederates redressed themselves in coats and boots and blankets, long guns, pistols, and ammunition. Leaving town they would be the best dressed troops in the south. Supplies were offered to the townspeople to take as much as they could use. Everything else was destroyed.

The railroad roundhouse and other buildings, except one, were destroyed. The freight office, and possibly part of the depot building as we know it, still stand today.

On the north side of the square, northern officers were staying in the Magnolia Hotel which covered a half block at North Center Street and College Avenue. This was blown up. On the east side of the square, munitions were being stored in a three-story building where Buford's Furniture and Miller's are today. Dynamite was placed under the building and eye witnesses said when it was set off that building rose intact about ten feet in the air before exploding. Sam Finley (a relative of Margaret Shackleford) was a young boy about twelve and watched this holocaust as it happened. He was hit in the forehead by a flying brick and carried the scar the rest of his life.

To the east of town the foundry armory, which consisted of three long buildings, each two-hundred feet long, were blown up and left only chimneys, brick floors, and the pond which stood for a hundred years when they too were destroyed. The buildings were built for a foundry where farm supplies, wagons and ornamental iron were manufactured. When war began, it was turned into an armory where the first arms for the Confederacy were made. In October of 1862, the armory had seen the Federals coming and moved to Macon, Georgia. When the Federals arrived on November 2, 1862, they had discovered these empty buildings and began supplying them for a hospital. Nobody was in the buildings on this fateful morning and everything with “Yankee” on it was destroyed that day.

When the poorly supplied and ravenous Confederates arrived that morning so long ago, they were amazed to find this beautiful and prosperous town full of supplies, rations, and explosives. Also, the Federals had huge quantities of whiskey and cigars. One eye witness said three-thousand cigars were being smoked at one time by the Southerners, causing a blanket of smoke over the town.

At the close of this all-important day, Van Dorn and his well-suited troops left up the Old Sylvestria Road on the way to Davis Mill (Michigan City) where the surprise element was gone, the Federals were waiting for them – but that's another story.

Note: All information for this article came from Museum files. One source was Dupree's account as he was one of Van Dorn's raiders. Another was Garvin Tate from Texas. Then there's oral history that's been passed down.

Van Dorn Raid
By John Mickle
Editor, 1886-1890

Strange as it may seem, with so many people living here at the time and even with local soldiers participating in the attack, the point of entry of Van Dorn's cavalry into Holly Springs in his famous raid of December, 1862 is still a moot question.

Charles H. Wright (Chancery Clerk 1930) tells that a federal officer who was here at the time, Col. Everett, later a lawyer in Toledo, Ohio, told him that the cavalry came up Church Street, now Van Dorn Avenue, from the Depot.

I am inclined to believe, however, from terrain and the sleeping federals camped at the old fairgrounds across the road from the brick residence of the Experiment Station, that Van Dorn, who camped benight, came west on the Salem Road, destroying before reaching the Salem Bridge, crossing the railroad north of the railroad crossing, and so on to the fairgrounds.

It should be remembered that the Frisco Railroad had not been built, nor was the country so rough as now and could easily be traveled. It is possible that the cavalry Col. Everett saw was a flanking force sent to clear out the town of any straggling federals and to close from the rear on the federals in the fairgrounds.

Col. Everett was here in 1916 to get copies of certain documents in the chancery clerk's office and Mr. Wright walked out to the south porch of the courthouse with him after the business was transacted.

He (Mr. Everett) readily recognized the southwest corner, the Tyson Drug Store and the Strickland Building at the southeast corner of the square. He identified the south block and said the J. K. Shaw Millinery Store and one or two others east of the Rather's Drug store, were the paymaster's headquarters and the sutler's stores.

The paymaster had charge of multiplied thousands of dollars in greenback money to pay off Grant's large army, then moving on Vicksburg on the day of the raid and it was scattered everywhere about the store.

Pardon a personal digression that settles in my mind how far back I can remember. I do not remember the Van Dorn Raid as an event, but it was the only raid that had occurred when the incident happened. I sat uptown one morning with a group of elders; I am now convinced that it was the morning after the raid. We joined a group in one of the stores. The contents were scattered upon the floor. Someone – I have a shadowy belief it was Dr. W. C. Gholson, Sr. – picked up a package from the floor and remarked, “That is their money,” and tossed it back.

Col. Everett told Charlie Wright that he was quartered in the Strickland building and was aroused before day on the morning of the raid by heavy firing and ran to the drug store corner and peeped around. The Confederate cavalry were galloping up Church Street; a bullet clipped a brick above his head and he ran south to the cemetery. Passing through the cemetery, he hid in the heavy wooded country until things grew quieter.

Colonel Everett, on his second visit here, represented Toledo, Ohio defendant in the suit brought by the late Peter S. Anderson, of Memphis, who was heir by entail from his grandfather by the same name.

Peter Anderson I was one of the wealthiest men in Holly Springs in the ante-bellum days. His home was on the block of land on College Avenue on which stands the two Rogers' homes.

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