But for all his years in the military, McDowell lacked experience commanding troops in combat. And having all those Washington connections was about to land him right in the middle of a series of power struggles between other rivals. That fatal combination culminated in not one, but two career-crushing misadventures: the First and Second Battles of Bull Run.
In Washington, McDowell quickly impressed Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, a fellow Ohioan. When Chase was given responsibility to expand the Regular Army in the opening days of the war, he chose McDowell and two other Army officers to help—placing McDowell in contact with Secretary of War Simon Cameron, who was also impressed with McDowell’s poise.
Ohio Governor William Dennison, a cousin by marriage, seriously considered naming McDowell commander of all Ohio troops. When he bowed to political pressure and gave George B. McClellan command instead, McDowell responded generously, “I congratulate you on the credit which justly attaches to you for your appointment of McClellan to the chief command.”
With the expansion of the Regular Army came the need for brigadier generals. McDowell was promoted to one of these new generalships on May 14, 1861. But his advancement came with potential pitfalls.
The promotion particularly displeased Winfield Scott, the Army’s venerable general-in-chief. Scott wanted the promotion to go to 58-year-old Joseph Mansfield, who commanded the Department of Washington and held superior rank. On May 27, the Department of Northeastern Virginia was created, with McDowell its commander. Twice Scott wrote to McDowell, unsuccessfully urging him to resign, but McDowell refused. He established his headquarters on the grounds of Arlington House, the recently vacated home of Robert E. Lee, just across the Potomac River from Washington.
Developing circumstances intensified McDowell’s struggle with Scott. The old general, a Virginian loyal to the Union, wanted to make a large-scale maneuver down the Mississippi River while blockading Southern ports along the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Furthermore, Scott wanted to wait until the three-month men who had initially enlisted were replaced by three-year soldiers. The Northern populace—and President Abraham Lincoln—had grown impatient, however, and wanted the rebellion crushed immediately. And not without reason; Confederate troops were camped within easy attacking distance of Washington.
On June 3, Scott asked McDowell to devise a plan to attack the Confederates massing at Manassas, just 30 miles south of the capital. McDowell presented that plan to Scott, Lincoln and the president’s cabinet on June 29, and although Scott still opposed any advance into Virginia, the plan was approved.
The Confederates were positioned behind the Potomac River tributary known as Bull Run. McDowell’s force of roughly 35,000 men, with 10,000 in reserve in Washington, would advance, using one of the many fords along Bull Run to flank the Confederates and sever their lines of communication and supply—forcing them into retreat.
But the key to McDowell’s plan was out of his hands. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had 11,000 men in the Shenandoah Valley. Union Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson and his 15,000-man army stationed near Harpers Ferry would have to prevent Johnston from reinforcing the Confederates at Manassas. A Federal victory depended on Patterson’s success in the Valley.
The grand campaign to end the nascent rebellion was slated to begin July 8, but organization and supply problems delayed McDowell until July 16. His command included 35,732 men in four divisions; a fifth division remained behind in Alexandria.
By July 18, portions of McDowell’s command were close enough to pester the Confederates stationed behind Blackburn’s Ford. The Federals launched three separate attacks that day, but each was beaten back.
McDowell spent the next two days getting the remainder of his army into position. Meanwhile Johnston slipped away from the unsuspecting Patterson and, taking advantage of the railroad, had joined General P.G.T. Beauregard’s 22,000 men at Manassas.
McDowell chose to use the mostly unguarded Sudley Ford, north of Beauregard’s left flank, while demonstrating to the east with one division at the stone bridge that crossed Bull Run along the Warrenton Turnpike. Beauregard had actually planned an advance of his own that morning, and had massed most of his army on his right. His thinly guarded left took the blow from the initial Union attack. Heading the Confederate defense here was Colonel Nathan Evans, who, thanks to E. Porter Alexander’s telegraph warning from nearby Manassas Junction, moved most of his small command from the stone bridge to a field behind Sudley Ford. When the Federals arrive, Rebel fire quickly halted them.
Evans’ two under-strength regiments and two field pieces bought enough time for Confederate reinforcements to arrive. More Federal brigades showed up as well, and, at 11 a.m., the Rebels were being pushed back over Henry House Hill. McDowell watched from Matthews Hill as the Confederates fell back in seeming full retreat. As the general rode along his lines, he stood in his stirrups and proclaimed, “Victory! Victory! The day is ours!”
With triumph almost in his grasp, however, McDowell took the time to re-form his regiments and call up artillery—giving the Confederates crucial time to bring in reinforcements, including five regiments from Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah commanded by Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson. About 2 p.m., the Federal artillery deployed on the hill surrounding the Henry House. Jackson’s infantry was posted just beyond the ridgeline, waiting to fire until the opposing artillery’s infantry support arrived. The 11th New York staggered under the Confederate barrage—and a cavalry charge against its right flank and rear—and the Union artillery was left with little support.
At that point Jackson’s 33rd Virginia, clad in blue uniforms, headed for the Federal batteries. The battery commanders, believing them to be their own infantry complement, told their men to hold their fire. Within 70 yards of the guns, the Confederates opened fire, decimating the artillerymen. The gunners abruptly broke along with the fleeing infantrymen. Fresh Federal regiments coming onto the field were demoralized before even firing a shot.
Jackson ordered his remaining regiments to charge. A see-saw fight raged for some time, and McDowell got so busy trying to rally his troops that he lost grasp of the battle, failing to call up additional brigades that might have turned the tide.
By 4:30 p.m., most Federals were in retreat. Exhausted and demoralized, McDowell arrived at his Arlington headquarters late on the morning of July 22. The critiques quickly piled up.
“I witnessed much of the battle,” one observer opined. “Our troops behaved with great bravery but our officers in my mind just were very stupid.” Wrote another, “McDowell showed himself unequal to the command of so large an army.”
Scott ordered all but 15 of McDowell’s regiments back across the Potomac into Washington—out of the general’s control.
Although Lincoln still expressed confidence in McDowell, he cast about for another commander to lead the Army in the East. George McClellan, who had already achieved marginal triumphs in western Virginia, seemed a promising choice. McClellan’s military pedigree was well established. Second in the West Point Class of 1846, he was wounded once and brevetted twice during the Mexican War. He left the Army in the 1850s and served for a few years as vice president of the Illinois Central Railroad. In that role, he encountered Lincoln, the lawyer, on several occasions.
McClellan soon became McDowell’s nemesis, although the antagonism was not apparent at first. On July 29, he asked the president to promote McDowell to major general of volunteers, and McClellan often consulted with his fellow general about the condition of the Federal forces in Virginia. At times they even inspected the lines together, discussing military strategy.
McDowell remained in command of the troops west of the Potomac until August 20, when McClellan issued General Order No. 1 organizing the Army of the Potomac. McDowell was given a small division of two brigades.
At one point, McDowell might have broached the subject of a water-borne assault on Richmond with McClellan. He had presented just such a strategy to Salmon Chase back in May, although nothing had come of it at the time.
Fall dragged into winter, and Northerners grew more impatient. The new year found McClellan sick and seemingly unfit for command. On January 5, members of the recently formed Joint Committee on the Conduct of War met with Lincoln and demanded that McDowell replace McClellan. Bowing to political pressure, Lincoln called McDowell, William B. Franklin and members of his cabinet together for a war council. Lincoln asked McDowell what the general would do with the Army of the Potomac. McDowell replied that he would keep Washington as his base and attack the Confederate supply lines, forcing the Confederates out of their positions at Manassas Junction and Centreville and into the open.
The question was then proposed to Franklin. Knowing something of McClellan’s ideas, Franklin suggested an advance via the lower Chesapeake River was a better approach.
When McClellan heard about this and subsequent meetings, he assumed McDowell was attempting a coup.
McClellan soon revealed to Lincoln that he planned to move his army by boat via the Chesapeake Bay to Urbanna, Va., and then quickly overland to capture Richmond. The president approved the plan, but insisted an adequate defensive force be left in Washington to protect the capital.
McClellan started gathering his forces. Before organizing his corps, however, he waited to see who would perform best as a division commander. But Lincoln, rightly believing the army was too large to handle, made his own selections on March 13. Command of the I Corps would go to Irvin McDowell.
On April 1, McClellan wrote a letter outlining the disposition of the forces he had left to guard Washington. Before the letter reached its destination, however, he had taken a steamer to join his troops now on the Virginia Peninsula.When Lincoln found that the 74,748 men McClellan claimed he had left behind existed largely on paper, he was furious. McClellan had assigned a force of only 26,761 to protect the capital. Since McDowell’s I Corps had yet to board boats for the journey down the Chesapeake, the president detailed the entire unit to stay behind.
Now McClellan was furious. “The order detaching McDowell’s Corps…is the most infamous thing that history has recorded…the idea of depriving a General of 35,000 troops when actually under fire!” he fumed in a letter to his wife.
For the next two months, McDowell found himself caught in the middle. McClellan, who still believed McDowell was conspiring against him, continually clamored for reinforcements. Lincoln refused to leave the capital vulnerable to attack.
Finally on April 18, Lincoln authorized McDowell to move into Fredericksburg. Lincoln next established a Department of the Rappahannock with McDowell as commander. On May 22, he released McDowell’s 41,000 men to join McClellan, provided McDowell kept his force between Richmond and Washington. McClellan was ordered to extend his right flank to connect with McDowell’s troops. Lincoln had always preferred an overland strategy, and by ordering McDowell’s men to stay between the two capitals, he robbed McClellan of his mobility.
Before the first of McDowell’s troops could step off, however, “Stonewall” Jackson attacked Federal forces at Front Royal and Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley. Lincoln rescinded his order for McDowell’s advance and ordered a portion of his force to the Valley to trap Jackson.
Now both McDowell and McClellan were frustrated. “I telegraphed the President that the order was a crushing blow to us all,” McDowell wrote to a friend. “That I could not get to the valley in time to affect Banks’ position. His case would be disposed of one way or the other before I could arrive!”
“I get more sick of them every day,” McClellan wrote his wife, “for every day brings with it only additional proofs of their hypocrisy, knavery & folly…”
McClellan decided to stretch his right flank and sent a corps under Brig. Gen. Fitz-John Porter toward McDowell, leading to the Battle of Hanover Court House on May 27, a Union victory that would be the army’s last advance during the Peninsula Campaign.
If McDowell no longer inspired praise from his superiors, he fared even worse with his men. When his horse fell on him June 18, one of McDowell’s own soldiers wrote that the general “did not seem to get much sympathy. I heard some one propose three cheers for the horse…” A few days later, McDowell was assigned command of the III Corps in the Army of Virginia—a force created to challenge Stonewall east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and draw soldiers away from the main Confederate army. John Pope, junior in rank to McDowell, was given command, with McDowell one of his three corps commanders. McDowell played only a small part in the new army’s first engagement at Cedar Mountain on August 9.
Jackson would frustrate Pope throughout the month of August. Then, on August 24, Robert E. Lee sent his trusted subordinate around the Union army east of the Rappahannock River to destroy Pope’s communication and supply base at Manassas Junction. Jackson reached Manassas practically unfettered August 26, commandeered much-needed supplies and destroyed much of the depot.
Once Pope realized Jackson was there, he jumped at the opportunity to trap him before he could reunite with Lee. Pope ordered McDowell to march from Warrenton to Gainesville, and proceed to Manassas August 27 along with other units in the Army of Virginia and a force detached from McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. McDowell left James Ricketts’ division behind in case more Rebels had followed Jackson through the Thoroughfare Gap. James Longstreet in fact was marching hard in his direction.
McDowell had trouble getting his troops to move, and then took a wrong turn. Upon learning that Rebels were approaching Gainesville, he placed Rufus King in command and rode off to find Pope to report the news. King was soon involved in a fight with portions of Jackson’s force at Brawner’s Farm. Hearing the gunfire, McDowell turned back but got lost in the woods.
That night, McDowell’s officers decided that remaining in their position was an invitation to disaster, and started moving quietly toward Manassas. Ricketts, meanwhile, ran into part of Longstreet’s command near Gainesville, and, deciding his position was untenable, retreated toward Bristoe. The way now lay open for the elements of the Confederate army to reunite.
Pope believed Jackson might have been withdrawing toward the Shenandoah Valley August 27 after a brief raid on the Manassas supply depot, then assumed the encounter with McDowell’s troops at Brawner’s Farm had stopped the retreat cold. He ordered McDowell to hold his position at all costs and planned to attack the next morning, using men under his own command to smash Jackson between them. The next day, Pope learned McDowell’s men were dispersed across several miles. “God damn McDowell,” an officer heard Pope swear, “he’s never where I want him.”
But even without McDowell’s men in position, the attack went ahead. Jackson, however, wasn’t in retreat; the Confederates had carefully selected a strong defensive position along an abandoned railroad right-of-way. Pope’s battle plan placed several corps to attack in front, while McDowell and Fitz-John Porter moved around the Confederate flank and rear. Pope issued a joint order to McDowell and Porter that left both confused. McDowell took a division of troops and returned to Pope, while Porter did nothing. Pope’s main assaulting lines couldn’t penetrate or hold any advantages.
Porter finally got his men going at 3 a.m. August 30, linking up with the rest of the Federal army. Later that morning, McDowell rode out toward the Confederate lines and concluded that Jackson had retreated during the night. Pope got concurring reports from other sources and firmly believed Jackson had indeed departed. Plans for an attack were discarded, and Pope considered how to pursue. McDowell was placed in charge of the operation. But by early afternoon, most Union generals realized the Confederates had not gone anywhere, and enemy soldiers stalked the woods to the south.
Porter led the advance, and soon found himself in a crossfire of small-arms and artillery and began to fall back.
At this point, McDowell fatefully ordered John Reynolds’ division, which held the Federal left, to bolster Porter’s sagging troops. As soon as Reynolds had his men on the move, Longstreet’s Confederates attacked. While a couple of regiments and batteries put up a noble defense, Longstreet’s men overwhelmed the Yankees. Jackson attacked at the same time, and the rout back to Washington was under way.
“The men are very much exasperated against McDowell saying he is a traitor and threatening to shoot him,” wrote a soldier from Michigan.
An officer mortally wounded during the battle complained, “I am one of the victims of Pope’s imbecility and McDowell’s treason.”
And a Confederate prisoner was heard to remark, “McDowell is a fine general: Why don’t you give him the sole command!”
On September 5, McDowell was relieved of command of the army’s III Corps. The next day, he demanded from Lincoln a court of inquiry, which met in November. After 67 days of testimony, McDowell was officially exonerated on February 14, 1863.
McDowell remained in Washington for the next year and a half, serving on a board examining retiring officers, as president of a court investigating cotton frauds, and as a witness in the court-martial of Fitz-John Porter.
On May 24, 1864, he was named commander of the Department of the Pacific and left in July for San Francisco. He admirably administered his department—which stretched from Oregon to the Arizona Territory—subduing hostilities with Indian tribes, combating Confederate spies and smugglers, and preventing a conflict between the United States and France in Mexico. On March 13, 1865, McDowell was breveted for “gallant and meritorious services” at the August 1862 Battle of Cedar Mountain.
Following the war, McDowell’s command was limited to the Department of California. On September 1, 1866, he was mustered out of volunteer service, and on March 31, 1867, was relieved of command of the Department of California, but assumed command of the Department of the East.
McDowell was promoted to major general in the Regular Army in November 1872 and succeeded George G. Meade as commander of the Division of the South in December, a post he held until June 26, 1876, when he returned to California, this time as commander of the Division of the Pacific. He retired on October 15, 1882. But he never really overcame the shadows of the two battles of Bull Run.
Shortly before his death, McDowell met Sir William Howard Russell, a British journalist. Russell recalled that their conversation had drifted toward old comrades and battlefields when McDowell suddenly declared, “Do you remember what day this is? The anniversary of Bull Run! Had I won that battle I should have been the most popular man in America.”