McDowell: good man 'born to bad luck'

Profile: The Union commander at Bull Run was a well-studied tactician with little battlefield experience

First Bull Run/ Manassas

August 01, 1999|By Jacqueline Durett | Jacqueline Durett,Special to the Sun

Union commander Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell achieved quite a bit of notoriety during the Civil War -- but his fame came from a trail of bad luck and rumors that began when he lost the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861.

Amid a Union rush to find army leaders after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, Maj. Irvin McDowell, 42, was appointed brigadier general May 14, 1861. He had been held in high esteem by both President Abraham Lincoln and Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott. the Army's commanding officer.

McDowell, who was born Oct. 15, 1818, in Columbus, Ohio, was raised and educated in France, where he received military training. He came back to the United States to attend West Point, graduating in 1838.

"He had been a well-studied tactician," affirmed Jim Burgess, museum technician at the Manassas National Battlefield Park in Manassas, Va.

With Wool in Mexico

From 1841 to 1845, McDowell was an instructor at West Point, teaching tactics to many men who would later be his foes on the Civil War's battlefields. He then served on Brig. Gen. John E. Wool's staff during the Mexican War and received a temporary, or brevet, promotion to captain for gallantry at Buena Vista.

During the interwar years he was in the adjutant general's department. But McDowell's rise in the Civil War came not only from his ability, but from his association with Scott, who had known him since his graduation from West Point. McDowell had been serving in Washington with Scott at the time of his appointment.

"General Scott had an effect on McDowell's promotion to brigadier general," said Don Wilson of the Ruth E. Lloyd Information Center at the Central Community Library in Manassas. "They seemed to have had a close relationship."

McDowell was not perceived as the most polished of gentlemen, despite his impressive physical stature. A young officer of engineers did not describe him in a positive light after having had dinner with him; he said McDowell was "fully six feet tall, deep chested, strong limbed, clear-eyed, and in every respect a fine and impressive soldier, but at dinner he was such a Gargantuan feeder and so absorbed in the dishes before him that he had but little time for conversation."

Those who had fostered McDowell's military advancement noted this strong physical nature and personality, and projected success for him in the war. He is described by Brevet Maj. Gen. James B. Fry, who at Bull Run served as captain and adjutant general on McDowell's staff, as possessing "great physical powers -- full of energy and patriotism [and] outspoken in his opinions -- he was chosen for advancement on account of his record, his ability, and his vigor."

Historian Bruce Catton, though, writes that McDowell's early career in the war wasn't as easy as it sounds: "[Maj. Gen. John] Pope made McDowell his first lieutenant and leaned on him heavily, but cursed him behind his back."

McDowell's Civil War-era ranking rises and falls, reaching its peak at Bull Run, where he commanded all Union armies south of the Potomac. His assignment at the onset of the war was modest; he had been a major since 1856.

Heading for Bull Run

But on May 14, 1861, McDowell was promoted to brigadier general and given the responsibility for commanding all Union troops south of the Potomac, despite the fact that in 23 years of service he had never commanded units of any size on the battlefield, Wilson said. He was subsequently given his first order, which became the Battle of Bull Run. Adding to the strain on McDowell, preparations were rushed because men enlisted on three-month terms were about to be discharged.

The force that McDowell would engage in battle was based at Manassas, the part of the "Alexandria line" where the Orange and Alexandria Railroad met the Manassas Gap Railroad. Bull Run, three miles north of Manassas, was the line of defense. In preparation for the battle, McDowell commanded 5,000 fewer troops than the 40,000 he had hoped to have.

Burgess said, "It was the first time an army of that size had been commanded in the region." McDowell had a plan of action centered on the Bull Run stream and an attack on Confederate Brig. Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard's flank. He was supposed to carry out his plan on July 8.

But because of what Fry calls "government machinery [that] worked slowly and jealously," the rest of the troops did not get to him until July 16. For the battle he commanded five divisions. McDowell was hopeful.

'Born to bad luck'

According to author Herman Hattaway, he invited newspaper correspondents to accompany the army. In addition, Hattaway wrote, "Large numbers of other citizens and assorted dignitaries also helped themselves to what they considered an open invitation."

But, as Burgess said, "McDowell was the sort of unfortunate person to be the wrong person in the right place."

Catton agrees, writing, "McDowell, a good man and a capable general, was one of those soldiers born to bad luck."

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