More Ohio Hmmmms

31 05 2007

In my last post I mentioned some of the apparent ties between prominent Ohio families and the possibility that these ties may have assisted some family members in attaining positions of authority.  While surfing the net in my typical aimless manner last night, I ran across a curious tidbit of which I was previously unaware.

Irvin McDowell is today a tragic yet comic figure of nearly Shakespearian proportions.  This was even true during his lifetime.  Possibly the saddest reference to McDowell I think I have ever read was written by John Tidball, and can be found on page 378  of his biography.  After the war, Tidball was stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco and McDowell was in command of the Department of California.  On April 9, 1866, Tidball wrote to his sister:

I very seldom go to the city [San Francisco], but put in my time somehow by walking around looking at my horses and attending to my garden.  The McDowell’s are well.  They live at Point San Jose – half way between here and town.  I see them occasionally.  Although he tries the best he can, he yet does not appear to succeed better than he did in the east.  Children hoot Bull Run at him.  Citizens laugh at him, all because he strains too hard to be popular, and while he makes one doubtful friend, he creates a dozen enemies.

It’s ironic that Tidball is so empathetic to McDowell’s plight, given that much of McDowell’s legacy has been shaped by a physical description attributed to Tidball and quoted, cited, or plagiarized by just about every writer who has ever described McDowell (see page 203 of the above mentioned bio, and keep in mind that Tidball himself was by all accounts a tall, lean, good lookin’ fella):

He had it is true great physical powers, but his figure was not of a comely order.  He was of medium stature, but his body was long in proportion to his legs.  His head, although well formed and large enough, appeared small and bullet-shaped when attached to his fleshy figure by a neck short and thick.  His countenance, always florid from rugged health, was of the Holland type, and his legs although short were in other respects well proportioned to his general figure.  They were attached to his body by broad, rolling hips that worked up and down when he walked.  Notwithstanding all this seeming clumsiness, he was in the waltz, of which he was extremely fond, light of foot and tripped it off with sylph-like grace.  The virtue of temperance he carried to such an extreme that he eschewed not only the beverages that intoxicate but tea and coffee as well.  Yet while so abstemious as to drinking he set no bounds to his eating, for which his equatorial dimensions gave him great capacity.  He cultivated eating to a fine art, and was not only a gourmand, but a bon vivant, being as highly skilled in the preparation of recherché dishes as a Delmonico chef.  Intimately associated with his total abstemiousness in drinking was his abhorrence of tobacco in every shape and form.

Sorry about the long setup, but it was necessary to show how McDowell was generally regarded during his lifetime because that’s a big part of why I found this late night discovery so surprising.

James Abram Garfield, Ohioan, Republican, Civil War general, some say war department spy, U. S. senator, and 20th POTUS, fathered seven children.  The fifth child was born in 1870 and christened Irvin M. Garfield.  That is, Irvin McDowell Garfield.  Young Irvin attended his father’s alma mater Williams College in Massachusetts and had a long law career in Boston before his death in 1951.  I don’t think they ever served together during the war, so what’s the connection between Garfield and McDowell, other than their native state?  I don’t know yet.  I’ll work on it.  But it had to be some strong tie for a public figure like Garfield to elect to “saddle” his progeny with such a notorious label.

To give you some idea of how this style of “research” is akin to chaos, while finding this out I also learned a little about Garfield’s dark horse nomination as the Republican presidential candidate in 1880.  He had gone to the national convention to support the nomination of fellow Ohioan John (brother of W. T.) Sherman.  Prior to that, Garfield had been chosen to fill a seat in the senate, a seat which was filled by John Sherman after Garfield won the presidential nomination.

And by the way, James Garfield was the son of Eliza Ballou Garfield, which makes him a cousin of the sentimental letter writer Sullivan Ballou, killed at First Bull Run.

As Myron Cope might say, “Yoi and Double Yoi!”



4 responses

14 06 2007

I’ve been going around to all the Civil War bloggers to let them know about our new book, the Historic Photos of Gettysburg by John S. Salmon. Tom Churchill of the site has already reviewed it, and I have a link to a book trailer showcasing some of the photographs within the book, If you’d like to post a review online as well, I’d be happy to send you a complimentary copy. The title is done in a large format, 10×10 and all images used are culled from several archives that represent rare or never before seen photos. There are the more famous ones included as well, to round out the pictorial narrative and tell the story of the Battle of Gettysburg and its aftermath, including several reunions and shots of the park and how it’s evolved over the years.

Also, if you are a fan of military history in general, it might interest you to know we have a picture book coming out about Theodore Roosevelt as well, and its book trailer is here:

Thanks, and I hope you don’t mind me dropping you a line to let you know about our book! Talk to you soon. My email address is


29 11 2007
Why McDowell? « Bull Runnings

[…] that many of Ohio’s native sons, including McDowell, became high ranking officers (see here and here).  I’ve understood that McDowell was tight with the Chase family, but I never realized just how […]


24 11 2008
Governor Sprague’s Arm Candy « Bull Runnings

[…] is one of the most popular stories of the battle, thanks in large part to Ken Burns.  As related here, Ballou was a cousin to Civil War general and later U. S. President James Garfield.  According to […]


9 03 2011
Elsewhere in Blogsville « Bull Runnings

[…] to be an interesting series of posts over at Civil War Bookshelf. I’ve discussed before (see here and here, for example) the murky origins of Irvin McDowell’s (left) rise to power in 1861. […]


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