What If…Spartacus Had a Piper Cub?

13 09 2010

Jonathan Soffe has this interesting item, raising the question: What if McDowell had an observation balloon at Bull Run?


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10 responses

13 09 2010
Dick Stanley

If Lee had AIR cavalry at Gettysburg, it would have been over a lot quicker.

14 09 2010
Craig Swain

Given that the same federal staff made little use of the information gathered from the balloon rides later on (the Falls Church Line, Edwards Ferry/Balls Bluff, and the Peninsula), can’t see the balloons at Manassas making a difference.

But had one been shot down, Harper’s Weekly could have run a Forbes sketch captioned “Oh, the humanity!”

14 09 2010
Susan Evelyn McDowell Cole

A balloon may not have made a difference. General McDowell could not recognize names and faces, a neurological deficit known as visual agnosia. As a McDowell I have the same weird neurological deficit. The interpretation of visual data in three dimensional space is weird with this condition.

For example, when I was being worked up for cancer I looked at my doctor and thought that he had the strangest graying pattern in his hair that I had ever seen. To me it looked like he had a big gray square in his black hair. After surgery and treatment I realized that he actually had salt and pepper gray hair.

My vision returned to normal after cancer treatment and no one knows why. Visual agnosia is not usually a condition tha goes away. I live in the Phoenix, Arizona area and everything around here is named after General Irwin McDowell. Scottsdale celebrates Irwin McDowell’s birthday every year.

14 09 2010
Harry Smeltzer

Hi Susan – good hearing from you again. That’s a really interesting story and one that I’ve not heard before. Is this something that is passed down orally in your family, or do you have some documentary evidence of McDowell’s condition?

I hesitate to mention this, you being a descendant and all, but despite what his headstone in the Presidio says, all my reading tells me McDowell’s first name was Irvin, a deriviative of the family name Irvine with whom the McDowells had mixed (there’s even an Irvine McDowell Park in Richmond, Kentucky which I’ve never been able to link to the family). Of course a family bible could prove me wrong.

15 09 2010
Susan Evelyn McDowell Cole


I read a book called the Civil War 100 By Robert Wooster which mentions General McDowell’s inability to recognize names and faces. When I was diagnosed with visual agnosia my doctor referred me to further reading by Oliver Sachs M.D. on neurological deficits. The first chapter of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat deals with visual agnosia in a professor of music. Dr. Sachs was then a Professor of Clinical Neurology at Temple University and has since moved on to Columbia University and Oprah. My oncologist went to medical school at Temple University so he was familiar with Dr. Sach’s work.

McDowell comes from the Gaelic word Mhic Dubh Ghail, which means son of a dark stanger. It originates from from 795 AD when a Viking longboat attacked what what eventually became the Viking colony of Dublin, from the Gaelic Dubh Linn, dark water. The Vikings were searovers and pirates but eventually conquered Ireland and ruled it for three hundred years. The Vikings learned their boatcraft from the Scots and the British. The Viking ships at first were fairly unseaworthy so they would run up rivers, attack Catholic monastaries, kill all the monks, and steal all the gold and silver. The British tolerated this for about three hundred years before they threw the Vikings out.

Mhic dubh ghail gave rise to the names McDowell, McDougal, Doyle, Dole with various spellings, probably because of census takers. McDowell can be spelled MacDowell, McDowell, McDowall, etc. The Dole Fruit Company comes from the McDowell family name.

The Viking McDowells had intermarried with much of the Irish population and those who were peaceful were not pushed out of Ireland. Those who chose to pursue their Viking ways moved to the west coast of Scotland, where there were a lot of islands to hide pirate ships. The name McDowell was dropped for unknown reasons and the Vikings began referring to themselves as the Erin Viene, which means the people of the west. Erin Viene was later shortened to Irving, which again was spelled many ways. There is Irving, Ervin, Irwin, etc.

The Scots pursued many alliances in their pursuit of a united Scotland. The Scots typically married their daughters off to the Kings of England and of Norway and they also used the Vikings when they needed something dirty done.

The Erin Viene, or Irvings, became landed gentry and actually became one of the lines of the kings of Scotland. Alexanders one though iv of Irving served as Kings until one died without an heir. Next in line was a Norweigian princess named Margaret, known as the Maid of Norway. Edward I of England sought to betroth the young Margraret to his son but she died at the tender age of seven.

Next in line was John Balliol, who became King John I of Scotland. Edward I had a real problem with King John, whose mother was a McDowell and who was the daughter of one the daughters who had been married off to a king of England. King John I had as strong a claim to the throne of England as Edward I, so Edward I threw John I in prison. Thus enter the rebellion of the Scots and the historical inacuracies of Braveheart.

Irwin McDowell was descended from both the McDowells and the Irvings. I spell it that way because I see it spelled that way more often than any other way.

I have read many battle accounts looking for some clue that General McDowell may have suffered from a head injury and or seizures and have found none. I have had epilepsy since I was a child and I am currently treated by a specialist in Epilepsy at Barrows Neurological Institute. I asked him once if visual agnosia was hereditary.

He replied, “Damned if I know.”

Hope that answers all of your questions.

Susan Evelyn McDowell Cole

15 09 2010
Harry Smeltzer

Wow, Susan. That’s a lot. Thanks for all the info on clan McDowell.

I go with Irvin because that’s what the West Point records have and also because that’s apparently how he signed his name.

You know, on the day of the battle McDowell was apparently laid low for a time in the morning, the result, so they say, of his having consumed a whole watermellon the evening before (he had a notoriously prodigious appetite). But maybe it was something else?

16 09 2010
Susan Evelyn McDowell Cole

Well, Harry, the McDowells are notorious for being teetotalers but they sure do like to eat. When pregnant with my son Brian I could not get enough watermelon to eat. The Vikings did not consume alcohol. Their drinks were based on honey because they did not have enough land to establish vinyards and produce wine.

My son Brian turned down an appointment to West Point. He said the Army knows how to make everything but peace and peace is what he wants. He now works for the University of Phoenix.

Susan Evelyn McDowell Cole

16 09 2010
Harry Smeltzer

Susan, I wasn’t implying that alcahol had anything to do with McDowell’s illness – as you point out, he was a notorious tee-totaler, and Tidballs description of him makes not of that and his prodigious appetite. My comment alluded to the possibility of an epileptic seizure. IIRC, one description of him that morning said that he was prostrate at the side of the road on a blanket.

No army makes anything. They break things and kill people, and history shows that when they’re used, that’s how they’re used best.

17 09 2010
Susan Evelyn McDowell Cole

Well said, Harry, and that is why I am hooked on your blog. I have found no evidence that General McDowell had a seizure disorder. Military head injuries are the number one cause of seizures. Being found by the side of the road prostrate could be the result of a heat stroke, a heart attack, or any number of conditions. When I lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, I ran the Epilepsy Support Group for six years so I learned a lot about epilepsy.

General McDowell came from the Scottish side of the McDowell clan and his family was a loyalist to the Crown of England. His family actually left America during the Revolutionary War and returned when the war was over. Now the Irish McDowells are a different matter. They did fight in the American War for Independence and tended to fight on the Confederate side of the Civil War.

The Irish Republican Army was one of the first terrorist organizations. They were making up tactics never taught at Westpoint. Many never saw the Civil War coming.

General McDowell had about 35000 troops at Bull Run but only 700 riflemen. The troops he had were lucky to get socks and boots. McDowell knew he was unprepared and still he pressed on. My opinion is that the South initially won because initially they had better tactics and were stealing supplies and bribing when necessary. It took awhile before things could turn around for the North.

I like McDowell. Anyone who could take the desert of Phoenix and turn it into a lush valley showed foresight and planning. There was nothing that was disabled about General McDowell. To me he is a symbol of how things can turn around. If a few engineering changes could make Phoenix a great place to live, then I can continue to consider change.

In case you are wondering, I have a degree in Biology and a Masters in Business Administration and Health Adminstration. I am thinking bio-engineering changes that can improve our lives.

Susan Evelyn McDowell Cole

24 09 2010
Larry Corcoran


I think Crazy Cat was a dabbler. Forgot about the daschund and Agarn’s Germanic hat. Any relevant Wrangler Jane?


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