Book Review: Searching for Irvin McDowell: The Civil War’s Forgotten General


by Frank P. Simione Jr.

El Dorado Hills, Ca.: Savas Beatie, 2023. Pp. xiv, 240. Illus., maps, appends., notes, biblio., index. $22.95 paper. ISBN: 1611216206

The Enigmatic General McDowell

Irvin McDowell is one of the lesser known Union generals, chiefly remembered – not fondly – for his command in Virginia early in the Civil War, when he presided over the disaster at First Bull Run. His plan for the battle was very imaginative, and might have worked, with trained troops; but the army lacked training, seasoning, and experience and was unable to execute it. Although replaced as the Union's top commander in the East, McDowell continued to play a major role during most of the disastrous Peninsula and Second Bull Run campaigns in 1862, but was then shunted aside, holding various regional commands, and faded from view. When he died in 1885, his name was misspelled on his headstone.

The authors' aim in this book is to address why McDowell was chosen for what was the most important post in the Union army, what brought about the disaster at Bull Run on July 21, 1861 that so damaged his career, and how these events helped shape the rest of the man's career. They note that General-in Chief Winfield Scott – among others – doubted McDowell was up to the task, preferring another officer, but that Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase (who himself initially favored George B. McClellan), had much to do with securing his appointment to command in Virginia on the onset of the war.

The authors cover in considerable detail McDowell’s actions at First Bull Run, during the planning for and execution of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, and during the Second Bull Run Campaign, in none of which did he shine. In fact, they conclude that McDowell's actions during various battles were inadequate. He often committed insufficient numbers of troops to certain actions, his orders were often difficult to comprehend without his direct explanation, and at times he could become overly excited, emotional, and could display a terrible temper, concluding that his personality did not lend itself to inspiring officers and soldiers to want to follow him into battle.

The authors take a look at McDowel's role in the long running controversy over the performance of Maj. Gen. Fitz-John Porter at Second Bull Run, which led to the latter man's expulsion from the army, a matter reversed by a special commission in 1878. They conclude that McDowell's testimony against Porter revealed the “inner Irvin McDowell,” a man who, deep down, knew he had done poorly at Second Bull Run but, as he said, “I shut it out of my mind as best I could.” His role in the controversy hurt McDowell's reputation within the army and with the administration.

The authors make several conclusions that are hard to argue with. Firstly, McDowell should bear some of blame for the Union failures at both battles of Bull Run. They suggest that he would have been better off staying as a staff officer or military bureaucrat than as a field commander who needed make important decisions quickly.

This reviewer recommends Searching for Irvin McDowell, which give both serious students and lay historians new insights into McDowell’s life and service.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His most recent previous reviews here include When Hell Came To Sharpsburg, Lost Causes, Six Miles From Charleston, Five Minutes to Hell, "If We Are Striking for Pennsylvania", James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior, Cedar Mountain to Antietam, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, Count the Dead, All Roads Led To Gettysburg, Unhappy Catastrophes, The Heart of Hell, The Whartons' War, Gettysburg’s Southern Front , Civil War Monuments and Memorials, The Tale Untwisted, The Confederate Military Forces in the Trans-Mississippi West, The Civilian War, The Carnage was Fearful, The Civil Wars of Joseph E. Johnston, Confederate States Army, Vol. I, Navigating Liberty: Black Refugees and Antislavery Reformers in the Civil War South, Gettysburg In Color, Vol 1, "The Bullets Flew Like Hail", and John Brown's Raid.



Note: Searching For Irvin McDowell is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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