Irvin 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.