McDowell, Irvin

Life Span
    Full name
    Irvin McDowell
    Place of Birth
    Birth Date Certainty
    Death Date Certainty
    Sectional choice
    Free State
    No. of Spouses
    No. of Children
    Abram Irvin McDowell (father), Eliza Selden Lord (mother), Helen Burden (wife, 1849),
    West Point (US Military Academy)
    Other Education
    Collège de Troyes, France
    US military (Pre-Civil War)
    Union Army
    US military (Post-Civil War)

    Irvin McDowell (American National Biography)

    When the Civil War began, McDowell was a brevet major and again served on General Scott's staff. McDowell was a man of physical energy, wide interests, and strong opinions with no obvious vices and practically no personal charm or ordinary good manners. He had powerful patrons, especially Salmon P. Chase, but no observable qualifications for high command. In late May 1861 he was given the command of the Union forces in the Department of Northeastern Virginia with expectations of an early offensive. While McDowell took steps to organize his "army," the Confederates took up positions along Bull Run, about five miles north of Manassas, Virginia. Their commander was P.G.T. Beauregard, McDowell's classmate and the victor at Fort Sumter. Elements of both armies faced off near Winchester, the Confederates under Joseph E. Johnston and the Federals under Robert Patterson. In order to prevent Johnston from reinforcing Beauregard, Patterson should have attacked or at least pressed his opponent, or he might have marched his forces to support McDowell. He did neither, although Scott's orders clearly directed him to occupy Johnston. McDowell planned to outflank Beauregard and force him out of his fixed positions along Bull Run, a sensible enough plan, assuming energetic leadership, effective staff work, and experienced soldiers in the ranks. Also, Patterson would have to contain Johnston. These happy circumstances did not occur, and McDowell, for all his outward show of confidence, doubted that he could make the plan work, mainly because his soldiers were without experience or proper training.
    John T. Hubbell, "McDowell, Irvin," American National Biography Online, February 2000,

    Irvin McDowell (Dictionary of United States History)

    McDowell, Irvin (1818-1885), graduated at West Point in 1838 and served, like so many other West-Pointers, in the Mexican War. In 1861 he was appointed brigadier-general, and placed in charge of the Army of the Potomac. His plans for the first battle of Bull Run were admittedly excellent, but nothing could check the demoralization of the green troops. His reputation as a general was unjustly involved in the collapse of the army, and he was never again intrusted with high command. He was a corps commander in Virginia in 1862, fought at the battles of Cedar Mountain and second Bull Run; after the war he was a commander of various military departments, was promoted major-general in 1872, and retired in 1882.
    J. Franklin Jameson, “McDowell, Irvin,” Dictionary of United States History, 1492-1895 (Boston: Puritan Publishing Co., 1894), 388.

    Irvin McDowell (The Americana)

    McDowell, Irvin, American soldier: b. near Columbus, Ohio, 15 Oct. 1818; d. San Francisco, Cal., 5 May 1885. He studied in France and was graduated from West Point in 1838. During the Canadian troubles he was stationed on the Niagara and on the Maine frontiers, and in 1841 served at West Point as assistant instructor in tactics, becoming adjutant in 1845. In 1845 he went to Mexico as aide-de-camp to Gen. Wood and for gallant conduct at Buena Vista in 1847 was promoted brevet captain, shortly afterward attaining the rank of assistant adjutant-general. Subsequently he was stationed at the War Department in Washington and in 1856 was raised to the rank of brevet-major. He was on Gen. Wood's staff at the outbreak of the Civil War and assisted in inspecting and organizing the volunteer troops at Washington. In May 1861 he was made brigadier-general of the volunteers and given command of the Army of the Potomac. Constrained by the impatience of the North, McDowell moved in July to meet the enemy and despite his carefully laid plan met a disastrous defeat at Bull Run, 21 July 1861, owing to the imperfect organization of his raw recruits Shortly after McClellan was given command of the army and McDowell was retained at the head of one of its divisions. In 1862 he was promoted major-general of volunteers and placed in command of the First corps, which became the Army of the Rappahannock, stationed to guard Washington. In August 1862 he received command of the Third corps of the Army of Virginia and fought under Gen. Pope at the battles of Cedar Mountain, Rappahannock Station, and the second battle of Bull Run, where he performed especially good service. He was removed from the field in September 1862. Considering this action of the War Department a direct reflection upon his military services, he asked for an investigation, the result of which was favorable to him. In July 1864 he was placed in command of the Department of the Pacific Coast, and in March 1865 was made brevet major-general in recognition of his gallant services at Cedar Mountain. In 1872 he succeeded Gen. Meade as major-general in the regular army. The last years of his life were spent in California.
    Frederick Converse Beach, ed., “McDowell, Irvin,” The Americana: A Universal Reference Library (New York: Scientific American Compiling Department, 1912).

    Irvin McDowell (New York Times)


    Major-Gen. Irvin McDowell died in San Francisco at 12 o’clock Monday night at the age of 67 years. Three years ago Gen. McDowell resigned his commission after a checkered career of 40 years in the service of the United States. It began with his entrance into the West Point Military Academy in 1834, when he was 16 years old, and included service on the Northern frontier during the Canada border disturbances, on the Maine frontier pending the disputed Territory controversy, in the Mexican war under Gen. Wool, and the civil war. Naturally the present generation would know more of Gen. McDowell in the latter relation, but even when the war broke out he was little known. He had been graduated from the Academy, for which an education in France had fitted him for admission in 1838, as Brevet Second Lieutenant of the First Artillery, and for two years had served on the Northern border. Four years’ service at the Academy as Assistant Instructor of Infantry Tactics brought him to 1845, with the rank of Adjutant. In October of that year he was made aide-de-camp to Gen. Wool, and in 1847 was brevetted Captain for gallant and meritorious conduct in the battle of Buena Vista.
    The year 1848 found him Assistance Adjutant-General at the War Department, and for the next three or four years he was stationed in this city. Then for a time he was in the Department of Texas. Until 1860 he alternated between New York and Texas, spending a year in Europe in the meantime. Twenty-four years ago, when Fort Sumter was fired on, Gen. McDowell was a Major on Gen. Scott’s staff. The 1st of June following found him, then 48 years old, in command of an army of volunteers upon which fell the defense of Washington. His rank was that of Brigadier-General. His troops were raw and undisciplined, and Gen. McDowell himself was scarcely fitted by experience for the important duties devolving upon him. Attention was concentrated upon the point held by Gen. McDowell, and his faults and mistakes, arising more from the character of material with which he had to oppose the advance of the Confederates than from incapacity, were the subject of close scrutiny and much indiscriminate criticism. The disastrous battle of Bull Run emphasized what his critics deemed his incompetency, and upon him was laid much of the onus of the defeat. The judgment of time attributes the defeat less to Gen. McDowell’s lack of ability than to the operation of forces which no man of his inexperience and with the army under his control could have overcome.
    Gen. McDowell was superseded and McClellan was given the organization of a new army. McDowell was given the command of one of its divisions. In March, 1862 as a Major-General of volunteers he was raised to the head of the First Corps. In August he was assigned to a like position in the Third Corps, Army of Virginia, and during Pope’s campaign in Northern Virginia he was engaged at Cedar Mountain and the second Bull Run. The misfortune and evil fate which had pursued him in his first command remained with him still. He lost his first pitched battle, and the criticisms against him were renewed. While the active part of the Army of the Potomac was driving Magruder back and keeping Johnston and Lee in check McDowell was retained upon the Rappahannock to guard the Federal city. Then, when a chance to see some fighting occurred, and McDowell was pressing toward Porter, he was sent off after Jackson, who was hanging along Banks’s line and causing him a good deal of trouble.
    When the Government determined to establish a great army above the Rappahannock an accident rendered McDowell helpless for a week or more, and the command of the army, which would probably have gone to him, was given to Pope. Fortune did not favor him any more when Pope was his superior officer than when he himself opposed Beauregard at Manassas and fled at Bull Run. On Sept. 5, 1862, he was relieved of his command, being severely censured for allowing his troops to become separated from McClellan’s in the seven days’ battle. He asked for and obtained a court inquiry, the result of which was worthless. During the remainder of the war he saw no active service. At its close he was brevetted Major-General for gallant and meritorious services at the battle of Cedar Mountain. He was then in command of the Department of the Pacific, and subsequently held for a year the command of the Department of California. From the time till 1882, when he retired, he was employed in various military and geographical works. He was made a Major-General in the regular army in 1872.
    Gen. McDowell was not popular as a public man, but in private life he made a great many friends. A curious fact concerning him was that he was credited with being addicted to the use of liquor through a nervous trouble which caused his face to flush and speech to grow thick when excited. Another characteristic was his inability to remember face and names. He was hospitable and greatly given to entertaining his friends. Although never able to excite great enthusiasm in his subordinates he was always on the alert for their comfort. He was fond of music and painting. His family relations were of the pleasant character and his private life beyond reproach. He bore his misfortunes with dignity and composure. He had been in failing health for some time.
    “Death of Gen. M’Dowell,” New York Times, May 6, 1885, p. 5: 3.
    Chicago Style Entry Link
    Altshuler, Constance Wynn. "Men and Brothers." Journal of Arizona History 19, no. 3 (1978): 315-322. view record
    Harper, Robert S. Irvin McDowell and the Battle of Bull Run. Columbus: Ohio Civil War Centennial Commission, 1961. view record
    Hennessy, John J. Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. view record
    Longacre, Edward G. "Fortune's Fool." Civil War Times Illustrated 18, no. 2 (1979): 20-31. view record
    Van Winden, Kathe. "The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln: Its Effect in California." Journal of the West 4, no. 2 (1965): 211-230. view record
    How to Cite This Page: "McDowell, Irvin," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College,