McDowell’s Stuff

3 04 2009

mcdowellIrvin McDowell remains a murky figure.  Probably the biggest obstacle in learning more about the man is the fact that his personal correspondence and records, what are most commonly referred to as “papers”, were destroyed or otherwise lost after his death.  But while it’s generally accepted that fellow Union general George Thomas destroyed his own papers to prevent the “hawking” of his story, nobody is really sure what happened to McDowell’s stuff.

One of the first studies of Bull Run that I read, R. M. Johnston’s still essential Bull Run: Its Strategy and Tactics (1913), contains this tantalizing tidbit:

I was long in hopes of getting access to some papers left by General McDowell which are said to contain information of importance as to his relations with the authorities at Washington; unfortunately, I was unable to persuade those who have charge of them to let me see them.

Note that Johnston didn’t write that he had heard the papers might exist, or that he was unable to track down or contact the owners, but rather that he knew where they were and who had them, and was denied access.  It sure sounds like there was something out there in 1913.  Where is it now?  Does the answer lay amid Johnston’s own papers, wherever they may be?  Does it lie in other collections, like those of fellow Ohio general and assassinated President James A. Garfield, who named a son after McDowell?  Or perhaps in those of his friends the Chase family, also of Ohio?  Or maybe someplace as mundane as the records of the San Francisco Dept. of Parks and Recreation  (McDowell served as Park Commissioner for the city between his retirement from the army in 1882 and his death in 1885)?

Maybe someday I’ll get an email from some distant McDowell or Garfield or Chase relative, or from some clerk in San Francisco’s city hall, or some archivist somewhere, telling me they have a steamer trunk labeled “Maj. Gen. McDowell” and loaded with old letters and dispatches and diaries and memoirs.  It’s happened before – not to me, but it’s happened.

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13 responses

6 04 2009
Ethan S. Rafuse

There is a small collection at the Chicago Historical Society, the most interesting things I found in them were McDowell’s memos on the Jan 1863 councils of war, which I have brought to the attention of Thomas J. Rowland, who has been working on a McDowell biography.

6 04 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks for the info, Ethan. As you’re well aware, sometimes these papers show up in most unexpected places – the two most famous examples I can think of are Orlando Willcox and William B. Franklin. I’ve found some stuff online recently about the Irvine and McDowell families (very big in Kentucky and Ohio – there’s an Irvine McDowell Park in Richmond, KY). For example, there were a few Samuel McDowells in the line. Here in Pittsburgh we have our own native son Samuel McDowell, who spent the 1960’s and 70’s mowing down batters for the Cleveland Indians and others as “Sudden Sam” McDowell. When he later fell on hard times, his father admonished him: “You’re a McDowell – we always succeed.” Stuff like that makes me wonder if there’s a connection, and if a borderline HOF pitcher has a trunk in his attic down in Florida.

I’m glad to see someone is working on McDowell – I found Rowland’s book on McClellan well reasoned and a good read (though I’m sure it hacked off many traditionalists, particularly Grant fans). It’s a tough row to hoe, though, what with McD being so close-mouthed.

6 04 2009
Chris Evans

If it hasn’t been discussed before, what is your opinion of McDowell’s abilities as a commander? Do you think he was thrown into a impossible situation in 1861 that no General could have done much better? And was his battleplan at First Bull Run seriously flawed? I know its hypothetical, but could he have done much with a victory at Bull Run that left his army in disorganized condition?
Thanks for your opinions on these matters,

6 04 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Well, there’s a lot in there to ponder, Chris. DO I think it was an impossible situation? No, not really. Defeat wasn’t preordained. He had some serious obstacles; while he was a brevet major, he was only a regular 1st Lt., and had spent his career as a staff officer; he didn’t have much of a staff of his own; his superiors (Scott) were less than firmly in his corner; his subordinates were inexperienced; his troops were green and unfamiliar with each other; he had very little cavalry to work with. But many of these problems were shared with the enemy. The rebels, of course, had the advantages of topography and defense on their side.

As for McDowell’s “plan”, I think that is one thing that gets consistently misrepresented. As discussed here before, his plan did not rely on Patterson holding Johnston in the Valley. His plan estimated a Confederate force of 35,000 at Manassas, and that is pretty close to what he ended up facing. In general, his plan was a turning movement. Initially he thought he would operate against the enemy’s right, but he changed it to the left. In execution, he was ill served by his engineer Barnard – poor recon, lousy order of battle (march). Even so, things were still looking good until the lull and the advance of Ricketts and Griffin.

What difference would a victory have made? I don’t enjoy what-ifs, but I think primarily we’re looking at a huge swing in attitude had the rebels been dealt a sound defeat at this stage. That’s a substantial swing in the attitudes on both sides. Combined with the setbacks the Confederacy was suffering in the west, who knows how long the fledgling country would have continued to receive popular support?

6 04 2009
Chris Evans

Thanks Harry,
I think what you said is the best short review of McDowell that I have read and makes the most sense. I think the troops being green played havoc with everyone but as you mentioned the Confederates were just as green. It does seem so early in the war that a decisive Union victory at Bull Run could have been a key to overall victory.
Thanks again,

6 04 2009
Harry Smeltzer

I don’t want to sound like I think the “all green alike” mindset was a good mindset, or that the movement to Manassas was a good idea. I think the “all green” rationale assumed other things to be equal, and they weren’t. The Confederates had topography and objective (defense) on their side. If the Federals had something to offest that, say numbers, perhaps one could argue the soundness of the reasoning. But they didn’t have that advantage and, more important, they weren’t under the impression that they had it either.

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

[…] is a fine writer, and this article is a good read.  Not a lot gets written about McDowell (see here), and anything that gets a discussion of the man going has got to be a good thing.  However since […]

19 01 2010
Brad Forbush

Dear Harry,
I research the 13th Mass Vols. and am building a website dedicated to them. I recently started blogging (13thmassblog) and posted a semi-serious bit about McDowell. A reader commented that you may have written something a while back about the generals unique hat. I did a search here but couldn’t find it. John Hennessy in Return to Bull Run cites the Nat’l Tribune, as a reference for the hat, which I will try to find. Anyway, if you have some info I would appreciate a heads up. Thanks very much. (nice blog).

20 01 2010
Harry Smeltzer


I’ve not written anything here. Howevr, a long while back – maybe even before I started this blog – I did contribute to something Dmitri wrote about the subject over on his site. Go here and scroll down towards the bottom…there are a couple of articles on the subject.

25 06 2010
Tom Rowland

Just thought I would add a comment on this discussion. Encouraged by Ethan Rafuse, I have plans on reviving my McDowell research once I finish an interpretive biography of Franklin Pierce (hopefully off to the publisher by late fall 2010).
Yes, it is very frustrating to discover that there are virtually no existing papers/memoirs from McDowell. (Outside of a handful @ Chicago Historical Society). This is all the more difficult to understand because he was such a meticulous personality & because he had a lot of cause to want his side of the story told (since he was already pilloried by his contemporaries for his shortcomings).
I did establish contact with a remote descendant of the McDowells….who were able to furnish some interesting ancestral information on the McDowell’s in America…but little else.
As for the “McDowell Hat” controversy…..much of the discussion of this is in the National Tribune…..I came across quite a lively discussion of it in several editions from 1892 (30th anniversary of 2nd Bull Run)
The ultimate McDowell story is going to have to be told by mining a host of manuscript sources of folks he interacted with throughout these years. I believe it can be a very worthwhile endeavor….although it will always have the limitations of no McDowell papers.

I see where there is another book (John Waugh’s – on Lincolon & McClellan) out…any reactions?
regards – Tom Rowland

25 06 2010
Harry Smeltzer


Thanks for commenting. I have been contacted by a direct McDowell descendant (see here) – if you’d like to contact her, let me know and I’ll put you in touch.

As for the Waugh book, I have it here in a stack to preview for America’s Civil War. I went straight to the 1864 election stuff, and found (as did this blogger) Waugh’s thoughts on the likelihood of McC being easily influenced by “handlers” had he won the presidency to be off base. McC was a bad politician (personally and publicly) precisely because of his unwillingness to bend, and this was borne out in his later political career.

Good luck with your work on McDowell. I look forward to what you come up with, particularly his political and family connections. I think that needs to be explored in more detail.

26 12 2010
Tom Rowland

Sorry it has taken a while to get back to you and take up your offer to get into contact with the descendant of McDowell. Please ask her to get in touch with me….perhaps she could point me in a positive direction.

I just completed my work on Franklin Pierce & it is off to the publishers….so I would like to pick up in earnest on my McDowell research.

The McDowells’ (Irvin & Helen) had a brood of children….including, I believe, three sons….who survived their father’s death in 1885 in the San Francisco area…I can’t fathom that there aren’t any direct line descendants who might be able to shed life on any family papers or artifacts….

But thanks very much for your offer….this will be a work that will keep me busy for awhile….I always admire how prolific Ethan Rafuse has become in cranking out good publications…..I find my teaching responsibilities & associated work very time-consuming.

26 12 2010
Harry Smeltzer


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