Sunday, December 20, 2009

General McDowell


It's not very 'Christmassy' but this is what I've been working on for the latest page of my website,  It's titled "A Change In Plans."  I've followed the new web page 'introduction' with some comments about General Irvin McDowell.  I promise a 'holiday' post before the season passes.

"A Change In Plans" (May 12-25, 1862).

President Lincoln’s relationship with General George B. McClellan deteriorated in early 1862 over McClellan’s apparent inaction.  Lincoln favored an assault on Confederate fortifications close by at Manassas. General McClellan believed Manassas was too strong to attack.

In January the newly formed Committee on the Conduct of the War, a political body hostile to McClellan, put pressure on Lincoln to learn the General's plans or force him into action.  McClellan remained silent.  On January 13th McClellan reluctantly attended a cabinet meeting and sullenly stated that he knew what he was doing, the President couldn’t be trusted to keep a secret, and that the army of the west would move soon.

     In February the general finally revealed his strategy to Lincoln.  He planned a massive advance upon Richmond, by way of Urbanna, before it could be re-inforced by the Confederate army.  Lincoln was skeptical and still preferred an immediate assault on Manassas.

     On March 8th, a week after General Bank’s advanced into the Shenandoah Valley from Williamsport, Md., the Confederate force near Washington abandoned Manassas and moved their defenses south to the line of the Rappahannock River closer to Richmond. Washington troops occupied Manassas and embarrassingly revealed the position had been held with fake guns, and a much smaller force than estimated; 36,000 men. Lincoln was furious.  McClellan’s force was 120,000 strong.  McClellan was demoted from General in Chief to Commander of the Army of the Potomac. 

     McClellan’s new plan, endorsed by his Corps commanders, was to sail around the Rebel defenses to the Peninsula and besiege Richmond, the Confederate Captital, with his huge army of 150,000 men.  Lincoln agreed but insisted McClellan provide 40,000 troops for the defense of Washington. Lincoln painfully remembered the two weeks in April, 1861, when Washington was cut off from the army, undefended, and vulnerable to a Confederate assault.

     McClellan complied but the troops reserved for the defense of Washington were spread out; 19,000 in Washington, 10,000 at Manassas, 8,000 at Warrenton (including the 13th Mass)  and 35,000 in the Shenandoah Valley. Lincoln’s advisers didn’t understand the strategy and McClellan had angrily left Washington in early April without explaining it. Lincoln’s loss of faith in his leadership bothered the General who correctly viewed the political forces in Washington as his enemies.  McClellan’s political support failed when he needed it most.  Seeing only 19,000 ill-equipped troops around Washington, the President withheld General Irvin McDowell’s corps of 35,000 men from McClellan to guard the capital.  Total troops withheld by the President reduced McClellan’s invading force down from the intended 150,000 men to 100,000 men. General McClellan thought his plan ruined and his chances for success greatly reduced even though he still outnumbered the Rebels by huge margins.**

     By mid May General McDowell was moving his newly reinforced Corps of 41,000 troops, including the 13th Mass, to link up with McClellan’s army outside Richmond.

     “It was understood that McDowell was to move his corps along the Fredericksburg and Richmond Railroad on the 24th of May, connecting, if possible, with the right wing of McClellan’s army at or near Hanover Court-House, and by turning the left flank of the enemy, prevent his receiving reinforcements from the direction of Gordonsville. This plan had been carefully considered and matured by McDowell, who had great faith in its success.”  (Three Years in the Army, by C. E. Davis, Jr.)

     General Shields 10,000 men were also en route to Fredericksburg to join McDowell, (detached from General Bank’s force in the Shenandoah Valley).

     Confederate General Lee anticipated and feared this massive build up of Union troops around Richmond, and wrote Stonewall Jackson to create a diversion in the Shenandoah Valley to draw off some of McDowell’s army.  Lee sent General Ewell to the Valley to re-enforce Jackson.  The diversion worked.

     Banks small force of 9000 men was divided at 3 outposts.  Jackson attacked and defeated one of these at Front Royal on May 23rd.  The next day President Lincoln ordered General McDowell to send 20,000 troops to the valley in hopes of catching Jackson. This change in plans greatly distressed General McDowell.   He protested that much would be lost and little gained.  General Banks was beyond his help and the best thing McDowell could do was continue towards Richmond to threaten Confederate forces there.  Nonetheless, McDowell complied with Lincoln’s order.  The 13th Mass, in Hartsuff’s Brigade was included in the force diverted to Front Royal.

     These political machinations and movements were beyond the scope of the men in the 13th Mass.  All they saw was the increased hardship imposed on them by General McDowell’s orders; the loss of baggage wagons and camp equipments that made life more comfortable, and constant drilling with full gear in temperatures near 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  They compared the progress made on other war fronts with the supposed inaction of McDowell whom they labeled Mc-Do-Nothing. He was credited with each new hardship and they developed an intense dislike for him."

Some Comments on McDowell (for the blog)

     In a post made earlier this year, another blogger queried his readers which Union General deserves a new biography.  One respondent reminded readers that General Irvin McDowell never had a biography written.

In my limited knowledge of him, the first impression is that he was a poor field commander.  And when I take a closer look, my second impression is that he was a poor field commander.  But I've read interesting things about him and certainly think he deserves a biography.  After all, he was a regular army officer who remained loyal to the Government and commanded the first Union army in battle, when called upon to do so.  He withstood the dislike of his superior officers and his subordinates. His plan for the assault at First Bull Run was sound, but he was forced into action knowing his army was not trained well enough for battle, which had serious consequences for the outcome.

In May, 1862, his plans to link with McClellan were fouled by orders from the War Department to proceed to Front Royal in hopes of getting Jackson. A strategy he felt was wrong-headed and which turned out to be so.  General John Pope seemed to be the only commander who had faith in McDowell, which is like saying Moe had faith in Larry.

      I can't understand when at the battle of 2nd Bull Run, on August 29th 1862, he failed to inform Gen'l. Pope that Longstreet's army had reached Thoroughfare Gap on the 28th, allowing for a junction of Longstreet's army with Jackson's army.  McDowell even shared Pope's impression that the Confederates were retreating on the evening of the 29th.

     On the 30th McDowell made one of the biggest tactical errors in the war, when he ordered General John F. Reynold's Division north of the Warrenton Turnpike to re-inforce the center of General John Pope's Union line, thereby leaving the entire left flank practically undefended.  Confederate General's Lee and Longstreet had  planned an assault on the Union left and McDowell provided the perfect conditions for it.  It was one of the grand charges of the war.  When Longstreet began his massive advance, McDowell acted quickly to correct his error while his superior General Pope still wondered if he had enough troops on the right and center.  It was General McDowell's quick action that saved Pope's army from being surrounded and annihilated.  General McDowell lead re-inforcements, artillery and the nearest brigades he could find, to Chinn Ridge to stall Longstreet's attack.  Pope was able to fall back to high ground and save his army.  Still McDowell was twice routed at Bull Run and shared the blame with Pope for the Union disaster.

He was even accused of treason by his own men. When he took a tumble from his horse it was a 13th Mass soldier (of course) who wise-cracked "three cheers for the horse."   Some claimed his unusually tall hat was a signal to the Rebels and that wherever the 'hat' appeared defeat and disaster followed."*  He was so slandered by his own subordinate officers, that after the battle he called for a court of inquiry which exhonerated him. (McDowell and his staff in 1862.  The 'hat' is standing, center).

I read of a gathering of soldiers years after the war in which General McDowell was present, an officer proposed a toast to him as an apology for wrongs done during the war.  McDowell modestly stood and said he never worried that the record of his service would not be set right, in time.

Had he won the battle of first Bull Run he would have been a national hero.  The lack of a biography is a lasting testament to his unpopularity.  Its been nearly 150 years (!), maybe its time to consider one.  General Longstreet's biography was titled "From Manassas to Appomattox."  McDowell's biography could be called "From Manassas to 2nd Manassas."  (possible book cover design).

*Quotes referenced from the book "Return to Bull Run" by John J. Hennessy.
**Referenced from Larry Tagg's "The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln."


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  2. It's my understanding that the infamous "hat" that McDowell sometimes wore was a strange straw helmet with a spike on top. I believe Harry Smeltzer's Bull Runnings blog had some material on the hat a couple of years ago. In the photo Mcdowell is wearing a forage cap; people of the Victorian era were very particular about headgear and probably wouldn't have called a cap a "hat." That style of cap is known among uniform researchers as the McDowell pattern. I don't mean to criticize your blog; I've been enjoying it for awhile now and I'm always interested in material about the Union 1st Corps.

  3. Will,
    no worries. Thanks for the comment. I knew the tall kepi was called 'McDowell'style and assumed his was just unusually tall. --I'm not sure how popular the tall kepi was. I thought McDowell was one of the few who favored it. There is often someone more knowlegable than me when I write this stuff, (excepting the 13th) but I try to be v. careful. Thanks for the info on the 'hat.' I will try to look it up !

  4. I found this reference to McDowell's hat in "Return to Bull Run" by John J. Hennessy, p.7-8: "Some men even questioned Mcdowell's loyalty, suggesting that the prominent hat he wore, "which looked like an esqimaux canoe on his head, wrong side up," served as a covert signal to the enemy that he was present and "all was well." Such assertions were ridiculous,but the fact remained that he was disliked and largely mistrusted." A footnote adds "For debate over McDowell's obnoxious hat see the National Tribune, issues of November 12, 1891, March 31, 1892 snd April 14, 1892.