Born in New Jersey, Van Cleve attended West Point, graduating 24th out of 33 in the class of 1831. Receiving his commission in the infantry, he served until 1836 in the Western frontier. After retiring from the military, he farmed in Michigan and Minnesota and worked as a teacher, engineer and surveyor. Van Cleve was an engineer in the service of the state of Michigan in 1855, and then United States Surveyor of Public Lands in Minnesota.
In 1856, he was engaged in livestock raising. When the war began, Van Cleve volunteered for service in the infantry and because of his West Point education and military expertise was accepted for duty. Initially, he was commissioned in July 1861 as colonel of the 2nd Minnesota Regiment. The unit fought in the battle of Logan’s Cross Roads, also known as the Battle of Fishing Springs or Mill Springs.
While a relatively minor battle, Logan’s Cross Roads was the second largest conflict in Kentucky (only Perryville had more bloodshed). It was much celebrated in the popular press, as the first significant Union victory, but was soon eclipsed by Ulysses S. Grant's victories at Forts Henry and Donelson.
He met his wife Charlotte Ouisconsin Clark, at Fort Winnebago, while both her father and Van Cleve were stationed there. She would write the book, “Three Score Years and Ten, Life-Long Memories of Fort Snelling, and Other Parts of the West,” about the early days of Fort Snelling and her travels through the pioneer midwest. She was the first white woman born in the Wisconsin Territory in the settlement of Prairie du Chien.
Charlotte was considered a strong agent of social change who wrote and spoke out against slavery, for women’s rights and was even elected to public office in Minnesota.
By March 1862, Van Cleve was promoted to brigader general and assumed command of the 14th Brigade of Thomas L. Crittenden’s Division in July 1862. He held that post through the Perryville, Stones River, Tullahoma and Chickamauga campaigns.
Van Cleve didn’t fight at Perryville, but his unit saw action at Stones River. Wounded on Dec. 31, he was compelled to leave the battlefield the following day. His men had already crossed Stones River and formed a battle line a mile and a half from the river when they received word of the early Confederate attack crushing the Yankee lines on the opposite side of the army. The already soaked Union troops were forced to withdraw across the river again and were soon caught in the push by Confederates. Van Cleve was wounded in the leg and removed from combat.
He didn’t return until the crucial battle of Chickamauga where he received major blame for the Union loss. At Chickamauga, Van Cleve’s troops panicked and scattered from the field after Confederate Gen. James Longstreet broke through the Union line. He failed to hold the position as his troops ran, taking Van Cleve and other officers with them until they reached Chattanooga. After Chickamauga, recriminations against Union officers began with Van Cleve fairing poorly. Calls for his removal began and intensified with reports that Van Cleve broke down and cried for his retreating troops.
Van Cleve was relived from duty, and an investigation began. Ultimately, he was cleared of any wrongdoing, but his usefulness in active command was ended. He was not removed from the Union army, but he was never allowed a combat leadership position again. He commanded the post of Murfreesboro from November 1863 to January 1864 and Nashville from January to July 1864. Van Cleve commanded the defenses of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad for the final year of the war.
When Confederate forces led by Gen. John Bell Hood moved back into the area in November 1864, Van Cleve was allowed to continue the job of post administrator, while Maj. Gen. Lovell Rousseau was placed in charge of the military response. Van Cleve retired from the army after the war, returning to private life in Minnesota. He held the office of postmaster and eventually was named state adjutant general. He died in Minneapolis, Minn. and is buried there in Lakewood Cemetery.
His home there was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Van Cleve had his favorite horse buried in the front yard of that house before he died.