Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James
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McDOWELL, Irvin, soldier, born in Columbus, Ohio, 15 October, 1818; died in San Francisco, California, 4 May, 1885. He received his early education at the College of Troyes, in France, and was graduated at the United States military academy in 1838, becoming 2d lieutenant in the 1st artillery, His first service was on the northern frontier during the Canada border disturbances, in Houlton, Maine, pending the disputed territory controversy. He returned to the academy in 1841, and was assistant instructor of infantry tactics and adjutant until 1845. He was then appointed aide-de-camp to General John E. Wool, and became the acting adjutant-general of that officer's column on its march to Chihuahua, and participated in the battle of Buena Vista, where for his services he was brevetted captain, and on 13 May, 1847, received that rank in the adjutant-general's department. Subsequently he continued with the army of occupation, and was engaged in mustering out and discharging troops until 1848. He then filled the office of assistant adjutantgeneral in the war department in Washington, in New York, and elsewhere, attaining the rank of major on 31 March. 1856. The year 1858-'9 he spent on leave in Europe, and thereafter, until the beginning of the civil war, he was engaged in the duties of the adjutant-general's department in Washington and as aide-de-camp on General Scott's staff, serving as inspector of troops. During the early part of 1861 he was occupied in organizing and mustering volunteers into service at the capital; but on being made brigadier-general, 14 May, 1861, he was assigned to the command of the Department of Northeastern Virginia and of the defences of Washington south of the Potomac. On 29 May, 1861, he was given command of the Army of the Potomac, which consisted of about 30,000 men, who, with the exception of 700 or 800 regulars, were almost entirely raw recruits. With these troops, in response to the public demand for some immediate action, he was ordered, on 16 July, to march against the Confederate army, posted at Manassas Junction under General Beauregard. His plan of campaign had been carefully studied out, and its principal feature was to turn the enemy's left flank while threatening the front, which was well posted behind Bull Run on an elevation that commanded the entire plateau. A preliminary action, without the authority of General McDowell, took place at Blackburn's Ford on the lath, and developed the fact that the Confederates were strongly intrenched. The National troops, unable to carry the masked batteries, fell back to Centreville, where they rested during the two following days. On the morning of the 21st the National army crossed the run and succeeded in throwing the enemy's left into such confusion that the presence of Generals Beauregard and Johnston was necessary to rally their troops, who then re-formed in line on the crest of the hill. A severe struggle for this position ensued, and it was lost and won three times, and about three o'clock in the afternoon it remained in the control of the National forces. But soon after that hour fresh Confederate re-enforcements arrived and completely turned the tide of battle. McDowell's men, who had been on their feet since two o'clock in the morning, who had marched twelve miles to the field and been engaged in heavy fighting since ten o'clock, were now exhausted by fatigue and want of food and water. Unable to withstand the fierce attack of fresh troops, they broke and retired in confusion down the hillside and made a disorderly retreat to Washington. Thus the first great battle of the civil war was fought and lost. According to General Sherman, "it was one of the best-planned battles, but one of the worst fought." Heavy losses of artillery and other war-supplies were experienced as the soldiers fell back on the capital. Both armies were fairly defeated, and whichever had stood fast the other would have run. General Johnston says: "The Confederate army was more disorganized by victory than that of the United States by defeat." While the plan was excellent and had received the approval of the commanding general, still much difficulty was experienced from the fact that the time of many of the regiments had expired and the men refused positively to serve any longer. Indeed, 4,000 men marched to the rear to the sound of the enemy's guns, and the defeat of the National troops was due to Confederate re-enforcements arriving under General E. Kirby Smith, who were supposed to be held in check by a force under General Robert Patterson in the Shenandoah valley General McDowell was then given charge of the 1st corps, Army of the Potomac, having been superseded in the chief command by General McClellan. This corps under his command was soon afterward detached from the main army and designated as the Army of the Rappahannock. Meanwhile he was made major-general of volunteers on 14 March, 1862. In the summer of 1862 there were four independent commands in Virginia, and in quick succession they were attacked with such force that concentration became necessary, and the Army of Virginia was formed under General John Pope and the command of the 3d corps was given to General McDowell. The campaign of northern Virginia followed, and with his command he participated in the battle of Cedar Mountain, the action of Rappahannock Station, and the second battle of Manassas. In the latter engagement General McDowell tenaciously held his old position on Henry Hill until forced to retire. The campaign ended at this point, and, beginning with the retreat from Cedar Mountain on 9 August, with scarcely a half day's intermission, McDowell's corps was either making forced marches, many times through the night and many times without food, or was engaged in battle. Though worn out with fasting, marching, and fighting, his men were neither demoralized nor disorganized, but preserved their discipline to the last. Public opinion persisted in holding him responsible for the defeat at Bull Run, and in consequence no further field-command was intrusted to him during the civil war. He was retired from duty in the field on 6 September, 1862, and, regarding this as a reflection upon him as a soldier, he asked for a court of inquiry, which reported "that the interests of the public service do not require any further investigation into the conduct of Major-General McDowell." During part of 1863 he was president of the court for investigating alleged cotton-frauds, and later he was president of the board for retiring disabled officers. On 1 July, 1864, he was placed in command of the Department of the Pacific, with headquarters in San Francisco, and held that office until 27 July, 1865, after which he had command of the Department of California until 31 March, 1868. Meanwhile he was brevetted major-general in the United States army and mustered out of the volunteer service on 1 September, 1866. In July, 1868, he was assigned to the command of the Department of the East, and on 25 November, 1872, was promoted to major-general. Soon after this he succeeded General George G. Meade as commander of the Division of the South, and remained until 30 June, 1876, after which he returned to San Francisco in charge of the Division of the Pacific until his retirement on 15 October, 1882. General McDowell had great fondness for landscape gardening, and during the last years of his life was one of the park commissioners of San Francisco, in which capacity he constructed a park out of the neglected Presidio reservation and laid out drives that command fine views of the Golden Gate.
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