Civil War Trust “Hallowed Ground” Spring 2011

14 03 2011

The Spring 2011 issue of Hallowed Ground, the Civil War Trust’s members publication, is out. Happily it focuses on First Bull Run.

There’s plenty of good stuff inside on the battle and the battlefield – see here for the table of contents. NPS historians Greg Wolf and John Reid have pieces on some battlefield detective work and the Centennial reenactment; museum specialist Jim Burgess writes on civilian spectators at the battle, and superintendent Ray Brown has an interesting article on the owner of the Van Pelt house. The folks who work and have worked at the park are the real experts on the battles that were fought here. These articles should not be missed – and yes, they’re all available online for free. While I don’t see it listed, there is supposed to be an interview with yours truly in this issue as well. Perhaps I wound up on the cutting room floor? I’ll let you know once I see the magazine itself.

One article in particular caught my attention: An End to Innocence, The First Battle of Manassas by Bradley Gottfried. Here’s the passage that stuck out:

While Lincoln and his Cabinet members listened, McDowell laid out a plan to attack the 24,000-man Confederate Army under Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, deployed near the winding Bull Run creek about 25 miles southwest of Washington. The general intended to use about 30,000 troops in the effort, marching in three columns, while another 10,000 men were held in reserve. With such numerical superiority, it appeared McDowell would overwhelm his Southern counterpart.

OK, I’ve talked about this in the past and you’re probably sick of hearing it by now. I have met Mr. Gottfried – he’s a good guy. I worked closely with him in proofing his book, The Maps of First Bull Run. But what he has written here conflicts with my understanding of McDowell’s plan. Here’s the text of the portion of McDowell’s plan regarding the force he expected to meet at Manassas (emphasis and brackets mine; you can read the whole thing here):

The secession forces at Manassas Junction and its dependencies are supposed to amount at this time [June 24-25, 1861] to–

Infantry          23,000

Cavalry          1,500

Artillery           500

Total               25,000

We cannot count on keeping secret our intention to overthrow this force. Even if the many parties intrusted with the knowledge of the plan should not disclose or discover it, the necessary preliminary measures for such an expedition would betray it; and they are alive and well informed as to every movement, however slight, we make. They have, moreover, been expecting us to attack their position, and have been preparing for it. When it becomes known positively we are about to march, and they learn in what strength, they will be obliged to call in their disposable forces from all quarters, for they will not be able, if closely pressed, to get away by railroad before we can reach them. If General J. E. Johnston’s force is kept engaged by Major-General Patterson, and Major-General Butler occupies the force now in his vicinity, I think they will not be able to bring up more than ten thousand men. So we must calculate on having to do with about thirty-five thousand men.

And here’s where he described the size of the army with which he proposed to take the field:

Leaving small garrisons in the defensive works, I propose to move against Manassas with a force of thirty thousand of all arms, organized into three columns, with a reserve of ten thousand.

I’ve not yet found any evidence that McDowell expected he would have numerical superiority in his strike against Beauregard. I’ll have more to say on this in an upcoming article in America’s Civil War.

UPDATE 3/15/2011: Let me make this clear for everyone, if for some reason you got a different impression from this post: my problem is with the notion that McDowell’s plan assumed a numerical superiority for his army over that which he expected to face around Manassas. To quote Wilfred Brimley in Absence of Malice: “That’s a lot of horse-puckey. The First Amendment (in this case McDowell’s plan) doesn’t say that.”

McDowell’s plans regarding this are clear, as stated above.



8 responses

15 03 2011
Tracey McIntire

Harry, you are indeed in this issue of Hallowed Ground, on page 25!


15 03 2011
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks Tracey. Mary said she was sending me a copy, but I haven’t received it yet. Once I get it, I’ll have a post discussing the contents in more detail.


15 03 2011
Susan Evelyn McDowell Cole

What I have found in researching General Irvin McDowell is many conflicting statements. I would like to write a biography on him. However, I have one book that says one thing and another that claims something else. What is the truth?

One example is General McDowell’s supposed desire to go to the West. I have found equal opinions on both sides of the question. When I discovered that General McDowell had a son John McDowell who had been born in Iowa I began to believe that General McDowell wanted to stay in the West if only to occasionally see his son John.

I have also found equal disagreement about his belief in his chance of success at Bull Run.

Even the cause of General McDowell’s death is disputed. Most report that he died of a heart attack. According to the Medical Histories of Union Generals by Jack D. Welsh M.D., General McDowell died of cancer of the pyloric end of his stomach.

No biography has ever been written about General Irvin McDowell because there is just too much myth to wade through.


18 03 2011

One could look at it as the sum of “a force of thirty thousand of all arms” and “a reserve of ten thousand” (McDowell’s force) is greater than “about thirty-five thousand men” (what he assumed for the Confederates).

However, even looking at it in this way, there is no basis for Gottfried to use the word “overwhelm”.


18 03 2011
Harry Smeltzer

In no way is Gottfried unique in his characterization of McDowell’s plan – his is the generally accepted interpretation. I contend however that this interpretation is incorrect. And if one looks at McDowell’s plan in three stages, by the 16th of July (stage 2) he already had reduced the size of his army to 30,000 plus a 5,000 reserve, giving him even odds at best if you include the reserve. In the end, the main fighting saw the engagement of only about 18,000 men per side.


19 03 2011
Susan Evelyn McDowell Cole

I concede that your tactical analysis is better than mine. I think that General Irvin McDowell had at best an even fighting chance at Bull Run and he knew it.

Worst of all, McDowell’s father was born in Kentucky, which was a slave state. McDowell’s grandfather was born in Virginia, which was a slave state. McDowell was torn by all the contradictions that the secession of the Southern states signified.

In Phoenix, AZ, Grant and Sherman Streets run a block apart in what used to be elegant boulevards. The south part of the city developed first because it was along the Salt River.

McDowell and Thomas Roads are further north in the part of the city that developed later. Today McDowell and Thomas are the most important roads in the city.

Grant and Sherman Streets lie in ruins in the Barrio.


26 04 2011
Blue & Gray Magazine Vol. XXVII, #5 « Bull Runnings

[…] The magazine and Manassas National Battlefield Park ranger Henry Elliot have produced a fine overview of the campaign, detail of the battle, solid tour guide, and wonderful maps of First Bull Run. Let me get this part out of the way: I disagree with Mr. Elliot’s assertion on page 8 that “McDowell needed to preserve his numerical advantage over Beauregard.” I’ve said it many times before and am comfortable with the fact that I sit way out here by myself in my position: McDowell never thought he would have a numerical superiority – he never thought he would maintain or gain one at any point in his planning, and therefore his plan did not depend on numerical superiority (for my most recent post on this, see here). […]


7 04 2016
Notes on “Early Morning of War” – Part 1 | Bull Runnings

[…] This idea of an expectation of outnumbering and overwhelming the rebels at Manassas is a recurring assumption in First Bull Run literature. But the facts just don’t back it up, as I’ve discussed before. See, for example, this post. […]


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