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? 



8 responses

6 12 2007
He Hates Thursday! Stay Away from Thursday! « Bull Runnings

[…] I’m testing a theory here.  Civil War Interactive reviews Civil War blogs every Wednesday and Thursday; you can read them by clicking here. There are quite a few Civil War blogs out there, and this is a big and pretty much thankless job, so I don’t want to sound critical.  The last few reviews of my site seem to imply that I’m hardly posting at all, and I admit that there have been other things going on during the past month that have slowed me down.  But I posted three articles in November that were not mentioned at all in the reviews, and two of them are among my favorites (the three posts are The House of Meade, Governor Sprague’s Arm Candy and Why McDowell?). […]


5 04 2008
Second Chance « Bull Runnings

[…] Why McDowell? […]


5 03 2009
JKTarr M.A.

Gore Vidal, in his book LINCOLN, states that McDowell was absolutely opposed to the Union plan of attack at Bull Run Creek, and further, that the army was simply not prepared. He would never have done it if he had not been ordered to by the Comm-in-Chief. We’re all aware of Lincoln’s reasoning, but weak or strong, the only way to find out who was correct, Lincoln or McDowell, was to make the attack. Vidal, at least, feels that McDowell was done some injustice in getting the “loss” because his objections about the “green army” proved to be exactly what lost the first Manassas.


5 03 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Well, I think either you or Vidal have confused McDowell with Scott. The plan was in fact McDowell’s plan, drawn up at the command of the administration over Scott’s objections. And I would not say that the green-ness of the Union army was the reason for the loss, but rather the advantages of terrain and defense enjoyed by the Confederates.


5 11 2009
Irvin McDowell in America’s Civil War Magazine « Bull Runnings

[…] implies that Scott’s objection was born strictly of preference.  As I pointed out here, rank and seniority weren’t the most important things in the antebellum army – they […]


9 03 2011
Elsewhere in Blogsville « Bull Runnings

[…] 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. Dmitri […]


25 05 2017
Mark Williams

Sears in his new book, Lincoln’s Lieutenants, puts some of the blame on Fitz-John Porter, who was Patterson’s Chief of Staff. Porter advocated caution when boldness was called for, as he did also at Antietam.


25 05 2017
Harry Smeltzer

By “blame” I’m guessing you’re referring to Patterson’s failure to hold Johnston longer in the Valley, not anything to do with McDowell’s appointment to command. The cautionary influence of Porter – and George Thomas – on Patterson is often overlooked but has not been completely ignored. For one, Russell Beatie noted it in both his first book on BR and in his first volume on The Army of the Potomac. Beatie also pointed out that Scott specifically advised Patterson (who was not regular army) to heed and rely heavily on the advice of the regular officers in his command.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: