Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Review - "Searching for Irvin McDowell, Forgotten Civil War General" by Simione & Schmiel, w/ Schneider

[Searching for Irvin McDowell, Forgotten Civil War General by Frank P. Simione, Jr. and Gene Schmiel, with E.L. Schneider (Authors, 2021). Softcover, maps, photos, footnotes, appendix section, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiii,244/289. ISBN:9798527312492. $19.99]

Having led the eastern army of the United States in its first major Civil War battle, held a large independent command in northern Virginia during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, and served as John Pope's principal subordinate during the Second Manassas Campaign, Major General Irvin McDowell was the Union high command's most visible connecting thread over the disastrous first sixteen months of the war fought in the East. The reasons behind the continued lack of a comprehensive biography of such a major early-war figure are many, with one of the primary research obstacles being the lack of any significant archive of personal papers (just a handful of McDowell's wartime letters to his wife survive). Though relatively modest in scope and limited in research, Searching for Irvin McDowell, Forgotten Civil War General is nevertheless a respectable attempt at going where no one else has heretofore dared to tread.

In gathering their research material, Frank Simione, Gene Schmiel, and contributor E.L. Schneider did not significantly expand their source targeting horizons beyond government documents and a selection of published primary and secondary materials in book and article format. Absent much in the way of manuscript research and with only tentative investigation of other potentially rich resources such as the nation's voluminous newspaper archives, the analysis presented in the book of General McDowell's leadership qualities and generalship can probably be most accurately described as selective synthesis.

While there is some coverage of McDowell's early life, pre-Civil War military career, and postwar activities (he was a career officer who faced mandatory retirement in 1882), the text's overwhelming focus is on examining the general's conduct during the early-war eastern campaigns from First Bull Run through Second Bull Run. Existing definitive-level accounts of the First and Second Bull Run campaigns and battles have already extensively discussed McDowell's questionable actions and costly mistakes, and this book does not claim to have any new evidence to support any major alteration of how those earlier works portrayed and assessed McDowell's flawed generalship in both campaigns. While McDowell's overall battle plan at First Bull Run was a sound one that could just as easily have succeeded, this volume shows how in both Manassas battles the general committed grave missteps in decision-making and tactics that materially contributed to disastrous defeat. Searching's summary of McDowell's pivotal sins committed at Second Bull Run is basically a recapitulation of the conclusions found in John Hennessy's modern classic Return to Bull Run.

On a more general leadership level, the book persuasively characterizes McDowell as an Old Army staff officer unable to effectively make the transition to field commander in the new volunteer US army. The general possessed a largely aloof and uncharismatic personality that did not inspire confidence among officers and common soldiers alike. As demonstrated at both Bull Run engagements, McDowell tended to lose his composure under the stresses of command. Like many other Civil War generals (especially during the earlier period of the war), McDowell also felt compelled to micromanage tasks better left to staff officers. Whether mistrusting his staff to perform many basic functions was due to his own inability to judge talent or his having incompetent officers thrust upon him is not said. Similar to his behavior off the battlefield, in battle the general too often attended to micro-tactical matters properly considered some level below his own command responsibility.

As the book clearly highlights, good fortune never seemed to shine on McDowell. Just when his large, independent command in Virginia seemed poised to be a decisive factor in the mid-1862 drive on Richmond, his powerful divisions were instead subjected to a decidedly unproductive military-political tug of war between President Lincoln's capital defense and Shenandoah Valley-obsessed leadership in Washington and General McClellan's headquarters on the Peninsula. Parceled out and repeatedly delayed, McDowell's army-sized command never made it to the gates of Richmond. It had no notable impact either in the Valley or on the Peninsula, and McDowell's reputation, regardless of actual culpability, became associated with only another scapegoat-seeking debacle. Apparently, the hapless McDowell, even though he was a clear supporter of combining forces with the Army of the Potomac on the Peninsula, was accused in pro-McClellan circles of being more concerned with retaining independent command and furthering his own ambitions than in assisting the Army of the Potomac. The authors seem to agree with Hennessy that by the end of the Second Bull Run campaign McDowell, for one reason or another, was the chief high-ranking target through which the eastern theater rank and file vented their anger and frustrations. Therefore, it is no surprise that even some of his more sympathetic supporters in Washington viewed McDowell as fatally compromised for another major active leadership role in the war effort.

Like other writers before them, including the aforementioned leading First and Second Manassas expert John Hennessy and Porter biographer William Marvel (this book was written before Marvel's study was published), the authors convincingly portray McDowell as a very poor defense and prosecution witness during his own ill-advised court of inquiry and the infamous Porter court-martial case. This book's analysis certainly agrees with the common argument that McDowell's participation in both proceedings, while clearing him of the most ridiculous accusations of being a traitor or having been drunk at Second Bull Run, did almost nothing to wipe away the stain to his reputation caused by his key involvement in both Bull Run military debacles. Given that history, one might have expected that that a deeply pained McDowell would, like so many other controversial generals, have pounced on the opportunity to publish a Civil War memoir defending his record, but he didn't. The authors of this book speculate that McDowell's reluctance might have stemmed from the fact that he had too frequently cited a lack of memory in deflecting criticism of his own actions at Second Manassas. After he had consistently claimed in court to not remember vital details and events that happened only months before, how would it have appeared to readers if he suddenly could do so decades later? Acerbic reviewers and partisan observers would have had a field day with that. There's no evidence presented to suggest that that line of thinking was part of the general's decision-making process, but it's an interesting possibility to consider.

Overall, Searching for Irvin McDowell does a solid job of establishing the significance of the general's role in the war and in fairly describing and assessing those considerable leadership flaws and battlefield mistakes that have contributed to his enduring low standing among the war's prominent generals.

1 comment:

  1. Drew: Thanks for the review. Regarding research and sources, I can see things from the authors' perspective in this case. As we know, there has never been any evidence of significant, unpublished primary sources on McDowell. They did use the limited known correspondence with his wife. Regarding newspapers, etc., they may have done a "cost benefit" analysis of the possible light that might emerge from doing a deep dive into all of that. Unless something comes to light from the proverbial "attic" (like the voluminous Willcox papers some years ago), this may be as good as we get,


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