At the time of the Civil War, Irvin McDowell’s family was loaded with military and political connections. His cousin-in-law was the famed John Buford who played a role in the battle at Gettysburg, and his younger brother, John Adair McDowell, also joined the army but did not achieve the same level of renown as the rest of his family.
Irvin McDowell was born October 15th, 1818 to Abram Irvin McDowell and Eliza Seldon McDowell in Columbus Ohio. He was one of three children born to the couple. He attended College de Troyes in France before coming back to America to graduate from West Point in 1838 at the age of 20. Ironically, one of his classmates was P.G.T Beauregard, whom he would later face in battle in the summer of 1861.
Upon graduation, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and posted to the 1st U.S. Artillery along the United States-Canadian border in Maine. Like many other future generals, he later taught at the military school he graduated from. His days were filled with instructing about tactics before the Mexican War broke out. Also like many other future officers and generals in the Civil War, he played a role in the border conflict. He was first the aide-de-camp to General John E. Wool, who would later become the oldest general on either side of the Civil War. Before that, McDowell followed Wool when he was assigned command of the Center Division and led the Chihuahuan Expedition, which resulted in the capture of Saltillo. Like his general, McDowell received a promotion at the battle of Buena Vista when they joined up with Zachary Taylor’s troops. He was brevetted captain while Wool was awarded a major general rank. By the end of the conflict, he was the Assistant Adjutant General for the Army of Occupation.
After the war, McDowell didn’t return to West Point, but served as a staff officer for the Adjutant General’s department between 1848 and 1861. All the while, he sharpened his knowledge of statistics and supplies, but was never given charge of any troops or put in any sort of command. In 1856, he was given the rank of major. In that time, he had another close interaction with another of his future enemies, Joseph Johnston, and served under his staff for a time.
Back home in Ohio, his father became mayor in 1842, but only served for a year. Abram passed away in 1844
After the firing upon Fort Sumter and the official start of the war, McDowell was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General as a result of political connections to the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase – who also happened to be the Governor of Ohio. McDowell played a part in the early planning for Ohio’s defenses and the handling of the recruits. He had been considered for the command of all the Ohio soldiers, but through political maneuvering, the job was given to George McClellan instead. This might have been one of the first foreshadowing events of his military career, as McClellan would replace him in another department later that year.
General Winfield Scott, the highest-ranking officer in the Union Army, planned a great deal of the first several months of the Civil War. His Anaconda Plan was designed to put a strangle hold on the Confederacy and starve out its troops by blockading supplies via oceanic shipments. That didn’t stop them from receiving supplies over the Mississippi, and Scott had his eyes on McDowell to take the important river in the western theater. Plans fell through, however, and McDowell was put over the army in Washington D.C.
McDowell had a few disagreements about the arrangement. The first being that he was only a seasoned staff officer and supply man. He knew numbers and statistics, tactics and procedure, but little in practice since he hadn’t taken command before. Secondly, he argued that the troops were inexperienced and the numbers were insufficient. More were pouring in from the north every day that summer of 1861, but the politicians pushed even harder for an assault upon the Confederacy after Virginia seceded. Scott still held out hope that the first offensive could be made up the Mississippi in early 1862, but the politicians were louder than his hopes. McDowell, with thirty-five thousand green soldiers who may or may not have been battle-tried, were ordered to Centreville and Manassas to take the railroad hub there. The idea was to take over the supply lines directly to Richmond. We know how that ended. See Mayhem at Manassas for an in-depth explanation of the battle.
The defeat at Manassas can be traced back to a few mistakes and unexpected challenges against McDowell. General Patterson, for one, failed to occupy Joseph Johnston in the Shenandoah, which allowed the Confederate general to reinforce McDowell’s old West Point classmate, P.G.T Beauregard at Manassas. This bolstering of their forces didn’t give them the numbers advantage, as the Union army was larger in number, but more of a veterans’ advantage. The forces with Johnston had been contending with Patterson for some time and knew how to fight. As did the men under Beauregard. The Union wasn’t expecting the reinforcements, and their strategy didn’t fully play into this factor. There were also delays in the march from Washington that could have been avoided. The delay gave time for Johnston to come in the back way from the Shenandoah. If the battle had begun just a few days ahead, July 18th instead of the 21st, for example, the results might have been different. The turning-flank strategy that McDowell implemented was proven to be effective time and again throughout the war. In fact, it was something Winfield Scott’s campaign used fourteen years earlier in the Mexican War, which McDowell would have known well. So his methods weren’t in question. His lack of experience in leadership to keep the troops from retreating also gave him a bad mark at this early point in his career.
Alas, because of this defeat, McDowell was taken out of his command over the Army of the Potomac and was replaced by George McClellan, the man who took the Ohio recruit commanding job from him earlier that year. However, he wasn’t totally stripped of his military career. Lincoln continually used him for counseling purposes – a sign of faith that the president still trusted the general after the defeat anyway.
On March 14, 1862, President Lincoln issued an order forming the army into corps and McDowell got command of the I Corps as well as a promotion to major general of volunteers. He was to remain in Washington with a sizable defensive force, while McClellan was making ready for his Peninsula Campaign against Richmond. McDowell might have been sent down to aid McClellan in his efforts, if it weren’t for General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson making a stand for the Shenandoah Valley against Major General Nathaniel Banks. A Federal defeat at Fort Royal against Banks led Lincoln to make a decisive call that might have changed the outcome of the Peninsula Campaign. At 4 p.m. on May 24, he telegraphed to McClellan, “In consequence of General Banks’s critical position I have been compelled to suspend General McDowell’s movements to you. The enemy are making a desperate push upon Harper’s Ferry, and we are trying to throw Frémont’s force and part of McDowell’s in their rear.”
After another defeat at Winchester, forcing the Union out of the valley and across the Potomac, Lincoln took more aggressive command of the army while McClellan was still working on the Peninsula. He wrote to McDowell, “Your object will be to capture the forces of Jackson and Ewell, either in cooperation with General Frémont or in case want of supplies or of transportation interferes with his movement, it is believed that the force with which you move will be sufficient to accomplish the object alone.”
McDowell was not a fan of this idea and wanted to stay on the original plan to join with McClellan’s forces. Lincoln proposed a three-prong trap against Jackson. Banks would re-cross the Potomac, John Fremont would come in from the Alleghany Mountains and cut him off to the west near Harrisonburg, while McDowell would come in from the east and pin him on that side of the Blue Ridge at Fort Royal. It was complex and required a lot of synchronization, which is usually a hit-or-miss sort of endeavor when moving so many people across a vast area. On paper, it sounds perfect. Just not in practice.
Brigadier General James Shields, who had been detached from Banks’ command to McDowell’s, was sent on the trail, to be followed by a second division, commanded by Major General Edward O. C. Ord. Their recapture of Fort Royal was the only part of Lincoln’s plan that played out. Fremont altered his course from Harrisonburg to Moorefield, and the going was slow for him on the terrible roads. Banks refused to move his crippled army and stayed on the safer side of the Potomac until well after June. But Jackson still made it to Strasburg and through a serious of chases, burning bridges, and dividing forces, the Confederate general won control of the valley and was free to make his way to Richmond to defend the capitol. This sent McDowell back to his defensive post at Washington. One part of his corps was sent to reinforce McClellan on the Peninsula, but Brigadier General George A. McCall’s lonely division wasn’t as effective as the entire corps that McClellan needed. McDowell’s detour to the valley is one of the arguing points for McClellan’s failure during the march for Richmond.
Lincoln then decided to throw McDowell into a new army, the Army of Virginia, under Major General John Pope, which comprised the I, II, and III corps of Franz Sigel, Fremont, and McDowell. Another attack was made upon Manassas Junction to prevent a Confederate charge toward Washington. Robert E. Lee was commander of all the Confederate forces in the East after the wounding of Johnston at Seven Pines. His trusted and highly capable “wing” commanders, Jackson and Lieutenant General James Longstreet, brought Lee’s army within thirty-five miles of the Union capital by the end of August in 1862. McDowell would get another chance to fight and redeem himself for his mistake thirteen months prior, even though he was now a subordinate rather than the overall commander. It was well known that McDowell did not like Pope, but agreed to cooperate while they had to.
However, confusion about orders and certain delays on McDowell’s part proved to be the nail in the coffin for the Ohioan general. McDowell’s whereabouts during the battles and in the general vicinity were often miscommunicated, leaving Pope with wrong or inaccurate information. When McDowell’s cousin-in-law, cavalry commander John Buford, gave him reconnaissance about Longstreet’s position, the message wasn’t relayed to Pope until much later in the day. Attack orders were also questioned. Not just ones that were given to McDowell, but some that McDowell gave himself. In the end, the Confederates maintained the railroad hub for the second time and even pressed on to Centreville, as they should have done in the previous year.
The aftermath of the battle for the Union commanders, including McDowell, was pretty horrific. Pope was relieved of his command completely, his army merged with McClellan’s before it was sent up north to repel attacks in Maryland, and several generals were court-martialed or at least investigated for military blunders. One of these men was Major General Fitz John Porter, whom McDowell testified against when he was put on trial for insubordination at the infamous Second Manassas failure. This might have been the only thing to redeem him in the eyes of other Union soldiers and officers, because they came to believe that he was an incompetent commander and possibly in league with the southern rebels.
Shortly after this, McDowell put in a request to Lincoln that he be removed from his command over his corps. He was granted as much and received no new assignment until 1862, when Lincoln put him over the Department of the Pacific. In the meantime, McDowell was put under the microscope for his actions at First and Second Bull Run, but he was cleared of any misconduct. President Lincoln told Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, while visiting the Treasury Department that “the clamor against McDowell was so great that he could not lead his troops unless something was done to restore confidence; and proposed to me to suggest to him the asking for a Court of Inquiry. I told him I had already done so, and would do so again.”
McDowell hopped around departments after the war. Department of California from July 27, 1865 to March 31, 1868, briefly over the Fourth Military Department, the Department of the East from July 16, 1868 – December 16, 1872, succeeded General George G. Meade as commander of the Military Division of the South until June 30, 1876, and then Division of the Pacific from July 1, 1876 until October 5th 1882 when he was forced to retire from his military position. In a turn of karma in 1879, a board of review commissioned by President Rutherford Hayes issued its report recommending a pardon for Porter. In it, McDowell was attributed for much of the loss of the Second Battle of Bull Run. He was depicted as indecisive, uncommunicative, and inept, repeatedly failing to answer Porter’s requests for information, failing to forward intelligence of Longstreet’s positioning to Pope, and neglecting to take command of the left wing of the Union Army as was his duty under the Articles of War.
Despite this, McDowell lived a somewhat peaceful and sedated retirement as a Park Commissioner for San Francisco. Some of his work can be appreciated at the Presidio, a park and former U.S Military Fort on the northern tip of the city, and on some of the roads that overlook the Golden Gate Bridge. He continued in this landscaping vocation until his death from a heart attack on May 4, 1885. Today, he’s buried in San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio of San Francisco.