Why McDowell?

29 11 2007


winfield-scott.jpg  salmon-chase-2.jpg  irvin-mcdowell.jpg

Some thoughts have been bouncing around in my noggin regarding Winfield Scott (above, left) and his cranky behavior in the days leading up to Bull Run.  It seems to me he was giving some inconsistent direction to his commanders in the field, Patterson and McDowell.  I know the popular notion is that Patterson alone was to blame, but Scott alternated in his ideas of which man’s force was going to be the focus of the action in Virginia, and he failed to make sure everyone was on the same page.  And McDowell complained that he wasn’t receiving much cooperation from Washington, particularly when it came to getting wagons for his army.

I think there were at least two factors affecting Scott at this time.  First, he was suffering from chronic gout.  I get gout attacks about once a year, and as anyone who has experienced them can tell you they make you miserable with a capital M.  Every change in position is accompanied by pain, literally from your toes to the top of your head.  You can’t imagine that your condition will ever improve.  Your judgement is clouded, to say the least, and friends and family learn pretty quickly to keep their distance.  I can’t imagine how Scott dealt with the pain over an extended period.  I have to think that gout alone would have impaired his decision making.

Also, as I read more and more about the antebellum army I find that the most important thing to regular officers was rank and seniority.  As I recounted here, John Tidball noted that [p]romotion is the lifeblood of the soldier and anyone who disregards it is not worthy of the name.  Based on my reading, I know that Scott was no exception to this rule, and I think this was another contributor to his foul mood.  He must have been pretty hacked off that a brevet major, who had only attained the regular rank of 1st lieutenant, had been elevated over his objection to command the largest army ever assembled on the continent.  And I imagine he couldn’t have been too happy about who was behind Irvin McDowell’s (above, right) rise to prominence.

While Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, was Scott’s superior on the org chart, it became apparent early on that he was in over his head.  But the war department was nonetheless being run, and the man doing much of the running was Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase (above, center).  During these days he was known as General Chase.  Chase was a former Ohio governor and senator, and it was during this time 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 tight.  While some historians have theorized that McDowell came to Chase’s attention during the early days of the war as an effective member of Scott’s staff, Irvin came from a family prominent in Ohio politics – his father was once mayor of Columbus.  And Peg Lamphier describes McDowell as a “family friend” on page 26 of Kate Chase & William Sprague, notes on page 62 that the cost of Kate’s Tiffany bridal tiara rose from $5,500 to $6,500 as a result of modifications made to it by family friend General McDowell, and says on page 73 that an ill Kate Chase-Sprague recovered at the McDowell home in Buttermilk Falls, NY in March 1864. 

Now, don’t get me wrong: I think McDowell possessed a good deal of common sense, as demonstrated here in his assessment of the situation in his plans for the advance on Manassas, and later in his perceptive understanding of the consequences of the proposed redeployment of his 1st Corps to the Shenandoah Valley in the Spring of 1862. But it sounds like there is more to the appointment of McDowell to the command of the Dept. of Northeastern Virginia than serendipity or noteworthy performance as a staff officer.

So, Scott is pretty much bed-or chaise-ridden with gout, and he’s witnessing not only the disregard for his own staffing preferences but the violation of the sanctity of seniority by political forces outside the army and even the War Department.  How did these factors influence his thought processes and his decision making during these critical days? 


26 11 2007

I’m back from a long Thanksgiving weekend in the Philly/Delaware vicinity.  We attended a family wedding in Wilmington (that DuPont Country Club is pretty darn swanky).  I took a stroll in the Wilmington and Brandywine cemetery, and stumbled on a little Civil War section tucked back by the on ramp to I-95. We also hit some of the sites in Philadelphia, including the standards (Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Betsy Ross House, you get the picture), and the new National Constitution Center, which you should make time to see.

Rene over at Wig-Wags is doing a nice job documenting her journey through the Civil War and academia, so I’m adding her to the blogroll.  Check it out.

David Woodbury has some interesting stuff up on Irvin McDowell at his blog that is worth your time; be sure to read Drew’s comment.  It’s sure to raise the hackles on those hypersensitive Grant fanboys (you know who you are).

In the workout room at the Sheraton Suites they had a few extra copies of a Newsweek magazine with a cover story on those fancy (and expensive) e-book readers.  The one being marketed by Amazon.com is featured.  I think I’ll have some comments on this phenomenon later.

I had an unusually high number of hits on the blog on Monday, considering I really haven’t made a new post in awhile.  It looks like my page with links to online books and articles gets a lot of activity.  Check out this link to an article from Military Images Magazine about the March, 1862 photos of the battlefield taken by George N. Barnard.  The article was co-authored by Manassas Museum Specialist Jim Burgess, who has been a good friend to this blog.

By the President of the United States of America: A Proclamation

21 11 2007

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed. Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

Governor Sprague’s Arm Candy

15 11 2007

chasesprague2.jpgYesterday I received in the mail Kate Chase & William Sprague: Politics and Gender in a Civil War Marriage, by Peg A. Lamphier (2003).  In the summer of 1861 Sprague was Governor of Rhode Island, and as chief executive of the state he joined the 1st and 2nd RI infantry regiments in the field at Fist Bull Run. Sprague played a prominent role there, accompanying Barnard on the recon of the 19th, directing artillery and having a horse shot out from under him during the battle of the 21st.  He’s even depicted here in this Alfred Waud rendering of Burnside directing his troops (that’s Sprague on the white horse – click the thumbnail for a larger view):



But the most significant conquest for Sprague may just have been the winning of the hand of Kate, the daughter of Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase.  Here’s a photo of her as a young girl, when she was better known to her dad’s poker buddies as Lolita: 

I’ll  have more to say about the book after I read it (it’s next on my list, as soon as I finish off this nearly unreadable biography of Slocum), but the long and short of it is that the marriage (the wedding was the social event of the season in 1863) did not canonchet.jpgend well.  Sprague was an unfaithful horn-dog from the get-go, and Kate apparently strayed with New York politico Roscoe Conkling, with whom she was caught red handed by a shotgun-toting Sprague at the 65 room family hacienda, Canonchet (at left via Rhode Island’s South County Museum).  Kate was granted a divorce in 1882, and died in relative obscurity and dire straits in Washington in 1899. Here’s a link to her New York Times obituary.  

Glancing through the book, I came across one of those damned threads again.  Kate’s divorce petition is included as Appendix A.  In it she includes a very long list of the individual women with whom Sprague had been unfaithful during the course of the marriage, beginning in its very first year.  One passage stands out:

…with one Fannie Adams, in March 1876, at Providence aforementioned, at the house of one Ann M. Ballou,  commonly called Maria Ballou, said house being a house of prostitution. 

ballou.jpgOf course, Major Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd RI (left) and his letter home on the eve of First Bull Run 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 this site, by 1876 the Ballou family had been in Rhode Island for over 230 years, so I imagine there were Ballous aplenty in Providence.  Still, I have to wonder what was the relationship between the Martyred Major and Madame Maria.  I checked the index in Robin Young’s biography of Sullivan, but saw no reference to Ann or Maria.  We’ll see where this leads, if anywhere.  And just to get this back on the track of politician arm candy, I wonder if there is any link between Sullivan’s family and the Ballou (Cat) pictured below?  


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These Just In

8 11 2007


As mentioned here, I’ve accumulated a few books over the past few weeks.  Twenty-nine, to be exact, not counting the four I received for a magazine review.  So for no particular reason, I’m going to list those purchases here, grouped by the categories I use in my library.  I’m not going to provide links to them; by now you probably know how to find them on the web yourself.  Publication year is of the first edition – some of these are reprints.

If you have read any of these or have any comments, let fly.  Maybe this will be a conversation starter.

Abolition, Emancipation, Slavery:

Confederate Emancipation, Bruce Levine, 2006 – Southern plans to free and arm slaves during the Civil War

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Frederick Douglass, 1845

Nothing but Freedom, Eric Foner, 1983 – Emancipation and its legacy

Patriotic Treason, Evan Carton, 2006 – John Brown and the soul of America

Battles and Campaigns:

Antietam Hospitals, John Schildt, 1987 – The story of the hospitals set up in the aftermath and vicinity of the Battle of Antietam

The Battle of Glorieta Pass, Thomas Edrington & John Taylor, 1998 – The story of the New Mexico battle of March, 1862

History and Tour Guide of the Antietam Battlefield, Editors of Blue & Gray Magazine, 1995 – Tour guide


Winfield Scott Hancock, Gettysburg Hero, Perry D. Jamieson, 2003

Commands, Strategy and Tactics:

The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction, Mark E. Neely, Jr., 2007 – The destructiveness of the Civil War in a comparative context

Trench Warfare under Grant & Lee, Earl J. Hess, 2007 – Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaigns

Community History:

Confederate Charleston, Robert N. Rosen, 1994 – An illustrated history of the city and the people during the Civil War

Pennsylvania Civil War Trails, Tom Huntington, 2007 – The guide to Pennsylvania battle sites, monuments, museums & towns

Diaries and Letters:

Echoes, Benjamin A. Fordyce (Lydia P. Hecht, editor), 1996 – Letters of a Quaker surgeon of the 160th NY

Germans in the Civil War, Walter Kamphoefner & Wolfgang Helrich, editors, 2006 translation of a 2002 German publication – Letters from German immigrant soldiers home to family and friends in Germany

Maryland Voices of the Civil War, Charles W. Mitchell, editor, 2007 – Diaries, letters & newspaper accounts chronicling the experiences of Marylanders in the Civil War

Meade’s Army, Theodore Lyman (David W.Lowe, editor), 2007 – The private notebooks of George Meade’s ADC


Spies & Spymasters of the Civil War, Donald E. Markle, 1994


Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley, Jennifer Fleischner, 2003 – The friendship between Mary Todd and a former slave employed in the White House


Gangrene and Glory, Frank R. Freemon, 1998, Medical care during the Civil War


Personal Memoirs of John H. Brinton, John H.Brinton, 1914 – A Union surgeon and cousin of George B. McClellan

A Rebel Cavalryman, John N. Opie, 1899 – A Confederate who was present at Bull Run


From Cape Charles to Cape Fear, Robert M. Browning, 1993   – The North Atlantic blockading squadron during the Civil War

The Last Shot, Lynn Schooler, 2005 – The story of the CSS Shenandoah

Union Jacks, Michael J.Bennet, 2004 – Yankee sailors in the Civil War


Andersonville: The Last Depot, William Marvel, 1994

Special Studies:

The Civil War in the Western Territories, Ray C. Colton, 1959 – The war in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah

The Collapse of the Confederacy, Charles H. Wesley, 1937

Unit Histories:

Headquarters in the Brush, Darl L. Stephenson, 2001 – Blazer’s Independent Union Scouts

In Camp and Battle with the Washington Artillery of New Orleans, William Miller Owen, 1885 – The story of the famous Confederate artillery unit

The House of Meade

8 11 2007

Reader Pete Peterson commented that he recently drove past the home of George Gordon Meade at 19th & Delancey  in Philadelphia while passing through the city.

I took these photos a few years ago (click on the thumbnail for a full size image): 

meade2.jpg  meade1.jpg meade3.jpg

The house (now an apartment building) was a gift of the city to the Meades. It sits right around the corner from the former Civil War Library and Museum on Pine St (today it’s the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum), where you can find Meade’s uniform, sword, the stuffed head of his horse, Old Baldy, and this portrait:


Meade died in this house on November 6, 1872.  Here’s a link to a New York Times article on his funeral procession through the city.  I’ll be in Philly this weekend for the Penn State-Temple game.

America’s Civil War January 2008

7 11 2007

acw-200801-1.jpgMy good friend Tonia Smith (better known to countless millions as Teej) has a feature article in the current issue of America’s Civil War magazine.  She’s been working a long time on the story of a somewhat obscure Confederate heroine, “Aunt Abby” House.  Check it out on your news stand this week.


6 11 2007


garp.jpgRene Tyree, who Walt Garp would call a gradual student in military history, has a new blog, Wig-Wags.  I’m not adding it to the blog roll just yet.  We’ll wait a little while and see what she has to offer, but it’s looking good so far.

Rene has set up her blog to keep the mass of information coming from [her] coursework and research organized and to plug into the rich conversations in the blogosphere on this topic [the Civil War].  Good luck with that…just remember there’s a lot of bad and beware [that’s Cat Stevens, but good advice nonetheless].

I see too that Rene, like me, is using her blog as something more and setting up some pages for various sorts of information (biographies, etc).  I think we’ll be seeing more of this in the sphere as time goes on.

The current image in the Wig-Wags banner – keeping in mind these things change – is a photo of the Union signal station on Elk Ridge during the 1862 Maryland Campaign.  The officer in the photo has been identified and a CDV of him located.  You can see the CDV and read the story on the Save Historic Antietam Foundation (SHAF) website.

Other Blog, Same Topic

4 11 2007

Brooks Simpson at Civil Warriors sent this link to his May 15, 2006 article that addresses the paucity of analysis of the war in the east from summer 1863 to spring 1864, as discussed here.  Check it out – read the comments to Simpson’s article and you’ll find one by me, pre-Bull Runnings.

Books Out the Wazoo

2 11 2007


Somehow over the past month or so I’ve managed to buy about 30 more civil war books.  I haven’t entered them into my library spreadsheet yet.  Maybe when I get done with that I’ll give a recap of the purchases next week.

Also in are four books I need to review for America’s Civil War by Nov. 10th.  Not to worry…I don’t have to read them cover to cover.  My job is to write Reviews in Brief, informational reviews that describe what the books are about, maybe a little info on the authors and some historiography of the topics covered.  You can look for my reviews in the March issue due out at the end of December or beginning of July.

bellavia2.jpgI also just finished an off-topic book, House to House: An Epic Memoir of War, by David Bellavia and John Bruning.  (I may have mentioned before that I think too much familiarity with the modern military and modern combat can be something of a detriment in the study of Civil War armies and operations, and since I’m not a veteran myself this opinion sometimes gets me in hot water with friends who are.  But I remain unshaken.)  Bellavia turns in a gritty account of the infantry in Iraq, specifically the Second Battle of Fallujah.  While I don’t think it rises to the literary level of E. B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed, on some levels it may be a little more brutally honest; perhaps that’s possible because of the mutation of sensibilities over the years.  Victorian mores prevented the real Civil War from ever getting into the books.  While there is probably no way to accurately convey the experience of combat on the printed page, Bellavia gets us closer.