The January 2010 issue of America’s Civil War magazine features an article by author and fellow blogger Michael Hardy, Irvin McDowell: The Most Unpopular Man in America. Let me start by saying that Mr. Hardy is a fine writer, and this article is a good read. Not a lot gets written about McDowell (see here), and anything that starts a discussion of the man is a good thing. However, since some of the opinions or characterizations in the article are generally at odds with my own as stated here on several occasions, I think I’m obliged to address them. I’ll add that I’m at odds with just about everybody over these issues, not just Mr. Hardy.
I: McDowell’s Rank
Mr. Hardy writes that McDowell’s promotion to brigadier general displeased Winfield Scott; that Scott would have preferred the promotion went to Joseph Mansfield, and that Mansfield held a rank superior to McDowell. All-in-all, these facts are true, but their juxtaposition 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 were the only things. As a 1st lieutenant and brevet major who never had a field command, McDowell was very low on the army’s totem pole. Mansfield, for example, had been a full colonel since 1853. I think Scott’s problems with McDowell’s elevation make a little more sense in light of this fact.
II: McDowell’s Connections
Mr. Hardy also writes that in the early days of the Lincoln administration, McDowell “quickly impressed Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, a fellow Ohioan.” As I discussed here, I’m not sure that this “impression” was as serendipitous as is generally assumed. McDowell’s grandfather was a politico in Kentucky, his father had been mayor of Columbus, and McDowell himself had attended the U. S. Military Academy, indicating some political influence or connection. As Mr. Hardy points out, McDowell was also a cousin by marriage of Ohio Governor William Dennison. Later, McDowell would take an active role in preparations for the marriage of Chase’s daughter Kate to Rhode Island Governor William Sprague, and later still Ohioan James Garfield would name a son after McDowell. I think pre-war political connections and the role they may have played in McDowell’s meteoric rise in 1861 need to be examined more closely.
III: McDowell’s Plan
This is the big one. Mr. Hardy, like most every other person who has written about First Bull Run before him, casts McDowell in the passive role of a man whose plans were undone by circumstances beyond his control:
But the key to McDowell’s plan was out of his hands. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had 11,000 men in the Shenandoah Valley. Union Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson and his 15,000 man army stationed near Harpers Ferry would have to prevent Johnston from reinforcing the Confederates at Manassas. A Federal victory depended on Patterson’s success in the Valley.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably know that this summary of McDowell’s plan is one with which I disagree vehemently. The reason for its amazing staying power in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary can be found in the various testimonies before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War and in the Committee’s report (find it all here). “What?”, you ask, “Are you saying Johnston’s arrival did not spell defeat for the Federal forces?” No, what I’m saying is that McDowell’s plan, while assuming Patterson’s success, did not depend on it; because, as I explained here, the plan also assumed that all available CSA forces would be forwarded to the Bull Run line, bringing the force there to 35,000 troops. That’s maybe a little more than McDowell actually wound up facing, including Johnston. (In addition, after reading McDowell’s plan you’ll see that it neither anticipated nor depended on celerity as attendant to success.)
These issues aside, I think the article is good and raises some interesting points. Check it out.
Photo from this site.