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Irvin McDowell

October 15, 1818–May 4, 1885

Irvin McDowell was a prominent Union general during the American Civil War and a career army officer. He commanded the Army of Northeastern Virginia during the First Battle of Bull Run and was relieved of his command after this Union defeat.

Irvin McDowell was born at Columbus, Ohio on October 15, 1818, the son of Abram Irvin McDowell and Eliza Seldon McDowell. He received his early education at the College de Troyes in France, before entering the United States Military Academy in 1834, at the age of sixteen. McDowell graduated from the Academy in 1838, twenty-third in his class. One of McDowell’s classmates at West Point was P.G.T. Beauregard, his future adversary at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861).

After graduating from the academy, McDowell entered the U.S. Army as a brevet second lieutenant with the First Artillery on July 1, 1838. He was promoted to the full rank of second lieutenant six days later and stationed on the Maine frontier. In 1841, McDowell was recalled to West Point, where he served as an assistant instructor of infantry from 1841 to 1845. During his tenure at the academy, McDowell was promoted to first lieutenant on October 7, 1842.

In October 1846, McDowell was appointed as aide-de-camp to Brigadier General John E. Wool. During the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), McDowell served as acting adjutant-general for Wool’s forces in Mexico. He was promoted to brevet captain on February 23, 1847, for gallant and meritorious conduct at the Battle of Buena Vista (February 23, 1847). At the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, McDowell remained in Mexico with the army of occupation until July 1848. Between that date and the outbreak of the American Civil War, he served in various administrative roles in Texas, New York, and Washington, DC. McDowell was promoted to brevet major on May 13, 1847.

When the Civil War began, McDowell was assigned to Washington with the task mustering volunteer soldiers. On May 14, 1861, McDowell was promoted to brigadier general, and he was selected to command the newly created Department of Northeastern Virginia on May 27. As public expectations mounted for the swelling Union forces in the capital to “do something” before the terms of 100-day volunteers expired, northern leaders pressed McDowell to launch an offensive against the Confederates in Northern Virginia with ill-prepared troops. On July 16, 1861, McDowell led about 35,000 untested Union soldiers (commonly, but not officially, known as the Army of Northeastern Virginia) out of Washington to confront the equally untried Confederate Army of the Potomac. The armies met on July 21, along Bull Run, near Manassas, Virginia. The; Battle of Bull Run I had a promising beginning for McDowell’s army that morning, but when Rebel reinforcements from General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah arrived by rail during the afternoon, a Federal retreat turned into a rout. Fortunately for McDowell, the Confederates were too disorganized to pursue and possibly capture Washington.

When President Abraham Lincoln turned to Major General George B. McClellan to reorganize Union forces in the East following the disaster at Bull Run, McClellan named Franklin as a division commander in the newly-created Army of the Potomac in September 1861. By the spring of 1862, President Lincoln had drafted his own reorganization plan for the Army of the Potomac. On March 8, he issued War Order No. 2, consolidating the army’s divisions into five corps. Lincoln went on to name McDowell, Brigadier General Edwin V. Sumner, Brigadier General S. P. Heintzelman, Brigadier General Erasmus D. Keyes, and Major General Nathaniel P. Banks to command the five corps respectively. Dutifully, on March 13, 1862 a disgruntled McClellan issued General Order No. 101 (Army of the Potomac), confirming the President’s selections.

When McClellan embarked on his Peninsula Campaign in March 1862, McDowell’s corps was detached from the main army and left behind to guard against possible Confederate threats against the capital. On April 14, McDowell’s detached corps was re-designated the independent Army of the Rappahannock. Shortly thereafter, on May 14, McDowell was promoted to major general of volunteers. Three months later, on August 12, McDowell’s army was combined with two others to form the Army of Virginia. McDowell expected to lead the new army, but Major General John Pope was selected instead.

On August 28, 1862, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia attacked Pope’s new army near Manassas, Virginia. The Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28-20, 1862) was another Union disaster, and once again, McDowell received much of the blame. On September 6, he was relieved of field duty. A military court of inquiry later exonerated McDowell, but he remained unpopular with the public and was never given another field command during the war. Throughout the remainder of the conflict, McDowell filled various administrative posts. Near the conclusion of the war, he was promoted to brevet major general in the regular army on March 13, 1865.

After the Civil War, McDowell was transferred to California, where he commanded the Department of the Pacific and later the Department of California. On September 1, 1866, he was mustered out of volunteer service, but he continued to serve in the regular army in California until 1868. After holding various administrative posts in the East and South, McDowell was promoted to major general on November 25, 1872, and re-deployed to California. McDowell retired from active service in the U.S. Army on October 15, 1882. After retirement, McDowell served as a park commissioner in San Francisco, California.

Irvin McDowell died of pyloric disease of the stomach in San Francisco on May 4, 1885. He was buried in San Francisco National Cemetery, San Francisco, California.

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