McDowell, Irvin


1884 ALS to a Massachusetts General Hospital official from McDowell, ruminating on his own passing a year before his death


Type: Letter
Description: (1818-1885) Career US Army officer best known for his defeat at First Manassas, or First Battle of Bull Run, 1st large-scale battle of the Civil War. In 1862, he was given command of the Army of the Potomac’s I Corps and fought unsuccessfully against Beauregard’s troops during the 1862 Valley Campaign and was blamed for contributing to the defeat of Federal troops at Second Manassas in August.

USMA 1838, one of his classmates was future foe, P. G. T. Beauregard. McDowell was a West Point tactics instructor before becoming ADC to General John Wool in the Mexican-American War. He was brevetted captain at Buena Vista and served in the Adjutant General’s department after the war, promoted to major in 1856. McDowell generally served as a staff officer to higher-ranking military leaders 1848-61, and developed experience in logistics and supply. He developed a close friendship with General Winfield Scott while serving on his staff and also served under future CSA General Joseph E. Johnston.

Promoted to Regular Army Brigadier General May 14, 1861, he was given command of the Army of Northeastern Virginia on May 27, largely due to his mentor, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. Although he knew his troops were inexperienced and unready, and protested that he was a supply officer, not a field commander, pressure from Washington politicians forced him to launch a premature offensive against CSA forces in No. Virginia. His strategy during First Manassas was imaginative but ambitiously complex, and his troops were not experienced enough to carry it out effectively, resulting in an embarrassing rout.

After the defeat at Bull Run, Major General McClellan was given command of the new Union Army defending Washington, the Army of the Potomac, McDowell named a division commander. On March 14, 1862, Lincoln formed the army into corps and McDowell got command of I Corps and promotion to Major General of Volunteers. When the army set off for the Virginia Peninsula in April, McDowell’s command was detached for duty in the Rappahannock with concern over Stonewall Jackson’s activities in the Shenandoah Valley. Eventually, the 3 independent commands of Generals McDowell, Fremont and Banks were combined into Major General Pope’s Army of Virginia and McDowell led III Corps. Because of his actions at Cedar Mountain, McDowell was eventually brevetted Major General in the Regular Army; however, he was blamed for the subsequent disaster at Second Manassas. He escaped culpability by testifying against Major General Fitz John Porter whom Pope court-martialed for alleged insubordination in that battle. Despite his formal escape, McDowell received no new assignments for the next 2 years.

In July 1864, he was given command of the Department of the Pacific, commanded the Department of California July 27, 1865-March 31, 1868, briefly commanded the Fourth Military Department, then the Department of the East July 16, 1868–Dec. 16, 1872. On Nov. 25, 1872, he was promoted to Major General. On Dec. 16, McDowell succeeded General Meade as commander of the Military Division of the South to June 30, 1876. From July 1, 1876, he commanded the Division of the Pacific. In 1882, Congress imposed a mandatory retirement age of 64; McDowell retired October 14.

In 1879, when a board of review commissioned by President Hayes issued its report recommending a pardon for Fitz John Porter, it attributed much of the loss of the 2nd  Battle of Bull Run to McDowell, depicting him as indecisive, uncommunicative, and inept, repeatedly failing to answer Porter’s requests for information, failing to forward intelligence of Longstreet’s positioning to Pope, and neglecting to take command of the left wing of the Union Army.

McDowell was San Francisco Park Commissioner to his May 4, 1885 death from a heart attack, and built a park in the neglected reservation of the Presidio, laying out drives that commanded views of the Golden Gate. He is buried in the Presidio of San Francisco.

ALS “Irvin McDowell”, four  7 x 4 1/2 pps (both sides of  o1 sheet sheet), San Francisco, April 22 1884, to an unnamed colonel named a “trustee or treasurer” of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. McDowell is saddened to learn that a Dr. Whitteman is to have his hands cut off and fails to see how that will save him except to put off “the evil day!” McDowell states: “How sad it must be to a physician, who knows his case as well as any can tell him, to see death come upon him day by day, inch by inch. It is time I know that every day I live I get nearer my end on earth – but I do not see it and do not feel it.” He praises the colonel and notes he has risen owing to the “high trust you have been called on to fill in your native city [Boston].” With 2 contemporary clipped newspaper obituaries and a 5 ½ x 4 contemporary portrait in uniform mounted on 7 ½ x 5 ½ card.

Condition: Very good

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