American Civil War: Major General Irvin McDowell

Irvin McDowell

National Archives & Records Administration

The son of Abram and Eliza McDowell, Irvin McDowell was born at Columbus, OH on October 15, 1818. A distant relation of cavalryman John Buford, he received his early education locally. At the suggestion of his French tutor, McDowell applied to and was accepted at the College de Troyes in France. Commencing his studies abroad in 1833, he returned home the following year after receiving an appointment to the US Military Academy. Returning to the United States, McDowell entered West Point in 1834.

West Point

A classmate of P.G.T. Beauregard, William Hardee, Edward "Allegheny" Johnson, and Andrew J. Smith, McDowell proved a middling student and graduated fours years later ranked 23rd in a class of 44. Receiving a commission as a second lieutenant, McDowell was posted to the 1st US Artillery along the Canadian border in Maine. In 1841, he returned to the academy to serve as an assistant instructor of military tactics and later served as the school's adjutant. While at West Point, McDowell married Helen Burden of Troy, NY. The couple would later have four children, three of whom survived to adulthood.

Mexican-American War

With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846, McDowell left West Point to serve on Brigadier General John Wool's staff. Joining the campaign in northern Mexico, McDowell participated in Wool's Chihuahua Expedition. Marching into Mexico, the 2,000-man force captured the towns of Monclova and Parras de la Fuenta before joining Major General Zachary Taylor's army. prior to the Battle of Buena Vista. Attacked by General Antonio López de Santa Anna on February 23, 1847, Taylor's badly outnumbered force repulsed the Mexicans.

Distinguishing himself in the fighting, McDowell earned a brevet promotion to captain. Recognized as a skilled staff officer, he finished the war as assistant adjutant general for the Army of Occupation. Returning north, McDowell spent much of the next dozen years in staff roles and the Adjutant General's office. Promoted to major in 1856, McDowell developed close relationships with Major General Winfield Scott and Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston.

The Civil War Begins

With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and the resulting secession crisis, McDowell assumed a position as the military advisor to Governor Salmon P. Chase of Ohio. When Chase departed to become US Secretary of the Treasury, he continued in a similar role with new the governor, William Dennison. This saw him oversee the state's defenses as well as direct recruitment efforts. As volunteers were recruited, Dennison sought to place McDowell in command of the state's troops but was forced by political pressure to give the post to George McClellan.

In Washington, Scott, the US Army's commanding general, designed a plan for defeating the Confederacy. Dubbed the "Anaconda Plan," it called for a naval blockade of the South and a thrust down the Mississippi River. Scott planned to assign McDowell to lead the Union army in the west but Chase's influence and other circumstances prevented this. Instead, McDowell was promoted to brigadier general on May 14, 1861, and placed in command of the forces gathering around the District of Columbia.

McDowell's Plan

Harassed by politicians who desired a quick victory, McDowell argued to Lincoln and his superiors that he was an administrator and not a field commander. Additionally, he stressed that his men lacked sufficient training and experience to mount an offensive. These protests were dismissed and on July 16, 1861, McDowell led the Army of Northeastern Virginia into the field against a Confederate force commanded by Beauregard which was located near Manassas Junction. Enduring severe heat, the Union troops reached Centreville two days later.

McDowell initially planned to mount a diversionary attack against the Confederates along Bull Run with two columns while a third swung south around the Confederate right flank to cut their line of retreat to Richmond. Searching for the Confederate flank, he sent Brigadier General Daniel Tyler's division south on July 18. Pushing forward, they encountered enemy forces led by Brigadier General James Longstreet at Blackburn's Ford. In the resulting fighting, Tyler was repulsed and his column was forced to withdraw. Frustrated in his attempt to turn the Confederate right, McDowell altered his plan and began efforts against the enemy's left.

Complex Changes

His new plan called for Tyler's division to shift west along the Warrenton Turnpike and conduct a diversionary attack across the Stone Bridge over Bull Run. As this moved forward, the divisions of Brigadier Generals David Hunter and Samuel P. Heintzelman would swing north, cross Bull Run at Sudley Springs Ford, and descend on the Confederate rear. Despite having crafted an intelligent plan, McDowell's attack was soon hampered by poor scouting and the overall inexperience of his men.

Failure at Bull Run

While Tyler's men arrived at the Stone Bridge around 6:00 AM, the flanking columns were hours behind due to poor roads leading to Sudley Springs. McDowell's efforts were further frustrated as Beauregard began receiving reinforcements via the Manassas Gap Railroad from Johnston's army in the Shenandoah Valley. This was due to inactivity on the part of Union Major General Robert Patterson who, after a victory at Hoke's Run earlier in the month, failed to pin Johnston's men in place. With Patterson's 18,000 men sitting idle, Johnston felt safe shifting his men east.

Opening the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, McDowell initially had success and pushed back the Confederate defenders. Losing the initiative, he mounted several piecemeal attacks but gained little ground. Counterattacking, Beauregard succeeded in shattering the Union line and began driving McDowell's men from the field. Unable to rally his men, the Union commander deployed forces to defend the road to Centreville and fell back. Retiring to the Washington defenses, McDowell was replaced by McClellan on July 26. As McClellan began constructing the Army of the Potomac, the defeated general received command of a division.


In the spring of 1862, McDowell assumed command of the army's I Corps with the rank of major general. As McClellan began shifting the army south for the Peninsula Campaign, Lincoln required that sufficient troops be left to defend Washington. This task fell to McDowell's corps which assumed a position near Fredericksburg, VA and was redesignated the Department of the Rappahannock on April 4. With his campaign inching forward on the Peninsula, McClellan requested that McDowell march overland to join him. While Lincoln initially agreed, the actions of Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley led to the cancellation of this order. Instead, McDowell was directed to hold his position and send reinforcements from his command to the valley.

Back to Bull Run

With McClellan's campaign stalling in late June, the Army of Virginia was created with Major General John Pope in command. Drawn from Union troops in northern Virginia, it included McDowell's men which became the army's III Corps. On August 9, Jackson, whose men were moving north from the Peninsula, engaged part of Pope's army at the Battle of Cedar Mountain. After a back and forth fight, the Confederates won a victory and forced Union troops from the field. Following the defeat, McDowell sent part of his command to cover the retreat of Major General Nathaniel Banks' corps. Later that month, McDowell's troops played a key role in the Union loss at the Second Battle of Manassas.

Porter & Later War

In the course of the fighting, McDowell failed to forward critical information to Pope in a timely manner and made a series of poor decisions. As a result, he ceded command of III Corps on September 5. Though initially blamed for the Union loss, McDowell largely escaped official censure by testifying against Major General Fitz John Porter later that fall. A close ally of the recently-relieved McClellan, Porter was effectively scapegoated for the defeat. Despite this escape, McDowell did not receive another command until being appointed to lead the Department of the Pacific on July 1, 1864. He remained on the West Coast for the rest of the war.

Later Life

Remaining in the army after the war, McDowell assumed command of the Department of the East in July 1868. In that post until late 1872, he received a promotion to major general in the regular army. Departing New York, McDowell replaced Major General George G. Meade as head of the Division of the South and held the position for four years. Made commander of the Division of the Pacific in 1876, he stayed in the post until his retirement on October 15, 1882. During his tenure, Porter succeeded in obtaining a Board of Review for his actions at Second Manassas. Issuing its report in 1878, the board recommended a pardon for Porter and was harshly critical of McDowell's performance during the battle. Entering civilian life, McDowell served as Parks Commissioner for San Francisco until his death on May 4, 1885. He was buried at San Francisco National Cemetery.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Irvin McDowell." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General Irvin McDowell. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Irvin McDowell." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).