Irwin McDowell: Forgotten No More

By Gene Schmiel

Major General Irvin McDowell commanded the largest U.S. army in American history to that time at the Civil War’s first major battle, First Bull Run, on 21 July 1861. The Union defeat there and his key role in the Union Army’s debacle at Second Bull Run in late August 1862 resulted in him never again holding a battlefield command and his rapid relegation into historical obscurity. When the Army’s Commanding General, General William T. Sherman, gave a speech in Ohio soon after the war extolling the many Ohio-born generals who led the Union to victory, he did not include the Ohio-born McDowell[1] Perhaps it should not be surprising that the first biography of McDowell was published only in 2023.[2]

Despite rising to the rank of major general, Irvin McDowell’s forty-eight-year career with the U.S. Army was marked by his actions in two battlefield defeats during the Civil War that ended his role as a battlefield commander and relegated him to obscurity. (Library of Congress)

McDowell spent forty-eight years in the U.S. Army, beginning with entry into the U.S. Military Academy in 1834 and ending with his retirement in 1882. Except for those few days on the battlefields of Manassas, where he made critical mistakes, his military career was undeniably a success. As a staff member and West Point instructor before the Civil War, and as an administrator afterward, he was dutiful, diligent, and capable, and he ultimately rose to the rank of major general.

At the start of the Civil War, McDowell was serving on the staff of Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, the Army’s commanding general. Scott had reservations with McDowell’s abilities to lead troops in battle when he was chosen to lead Union forces against the Rebels in northern Virginia in the summer of 1861. (National Archives)

The questions then arise: what made Irvin McDowell who he was on the battlefield? What were the roots of his failures; and, just as importantly, should not the record show that even at those defeats, McDowell was always well-intentioned and did some things right? Eminent historian James McPherson called him “a hard-luck general for whom nothing went right.”[3] Others described him as “unfortunate,” “luckless,” and “Fortune’s Fool.”[4] Those judgments, however, implicitly make external factors the reason for his failures. In reality, McDowell’s battlefield missteps were a product of certain personality traits, including impulsivity in times of stress; disinclination to delegate responsibility; and inattentiveness.

McDowell crafted a sound operational plan for what became the First Battle of Bull Run on 21 July 1861, but his decision to pause after initially routing the Rebels and subsequent piecemeal attacks allowed the Confederates to regroup and launch a counterattack that drove the Federals back towards Washington in disarray. (Capture of Ricketts’ Battery, by Sidney E. King, National Park Service)

In 1834 McDowell began his West Point cadetship, and the first evidence of his character quirks emerged there. While a student, he was popular and well-liked, but he could be aloof and standoffish. Ulysses S. Grant, one of his students at West Point, said of him, “No one could know him without liking him.” Grant would add, counter-intuitively, “McDowell never was what you would call a popular man.” According to others, McDowell had no magnetism and found it difficult to remember names and faces.[5]

Nevertheless, within the Army establishment, he was perceived to have a strong military aptitude and, until the Civil War began, McDowell seemed destined for high-level leadership in the Army. In 1845 McDowell was selected for a prestigious position on Brigadier General John Wool’s staff. While McDowell served in the Mexican War, he had no combat role in that conflict. However, in an incident that exemplified McDowell’s impulsivity under stress, he once volunteered to investigate after hearing shots nearby and rashly “dashed off at a gallop.” Then Wool heard a “frightful yell” and soon found “the hapless McDowell sitting in a large prickly cactus patch” into which the reckless staffer had ridden. [6] Afterward, in a sign that Army leadership still saw him as a potential leader, McDowell was on the staff of Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, the Army’s commanding general, for most of the years before the Civil War. Furthermore, in another indication that the Army was preparing him for command, McDowell was sent to Europe in 1858 for a year to study modern military doctrine and practices.

When the Civil War began in April 1861, the forty-two-year-old McDowell, serving on Scott’s staff in Washington, was a leading candidate to take command of what would be the largest army ever assembled in the United States. He had several advantages: he had made the Army a career; he was well-known to Scott; and he had a powerful advocate in Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. Nevertheless, even after he was chosen, Scott wondered if McDowell, who had never led troops in battle, was up to the sizeable task before him—defeat the Confederate forces massing nearby at Manassas Junction, Virginia, along Bull Run and then take the Rebel capital of Richmond.

McDowell’s 35,000-man army moved into the Virginia countryside on July 16. Composed mainly of ninety-day volunteers and only a few Army regulars, it was hardly battle-ready. McDowell believed he needed four to five months to prepare his army, but President Abraham Lincoln, noting that both sides were equally “green,” ordered the advance. In his battle planning and for much of the short campaign, McDowell would do many things well and almost come out victorious. Early on, however, he made a mistake which underlined his impetuosity. On 18 July, he rode off to personally reconnoiter the Confederate right flank without telling his staff where he was going, or why. While McDowell was gone, Brigadier General Daniel Tyler disobeyed orders and attacked at Blackburn’s Ford. At the time, the inattentive McDowell was nowhere to be found.

McDowell now decided to do a flanking maneuver in the opposite direction, which proved to be very effective. His attack on the morning of 21 July on his West Point classmate Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard’s left flank sent the Confederates, after stout resistance, skedaddling to the south. Early that afternoon, seeing the Rebels fleeing in disarray, and “flushed with success, he rode along the line shouting ‘Victory! Victory! The day is ours.”[7] However, he made another mistake. Instead of following up his advantage, McDowell had his men cease operations for about two hours in the early afternoon. Perhaps he thought that by driving the Rebels back so forcefully, he had already won the battle. Also, his green troops were undoubtedly worn from the rigors of battle on that very hot day.

After McDowell’s defeat at First Bull Run, Major General George B. McClellan, shown here with McDowell, assumed command of the Union forces around the nation’s capital and designated them the Army of the Potomac. (Library of Congress)

The delay gave the Confederates time to prepare an effective counterattack, partially led by Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson, who gained his nickname, “Stonewall,” that day. The exhausted Union troops were soon confronted with a massive wave of Confederates. McDowell tried but failed to stem the tide, and apparent victory quickly dissolved into a panicked rout. Without even waiting to hear McDowell’s report, Scott replaced McDowell with Major General George B. McClellan soon after the defeat.[8]

As reports of the debacle along Bull Run and his men’s panicked retreat became widespread, McDowell would be the object of blame and finger-pointing. Always the good soldier, he dutifully accepted his demotion, kept his head down, and was supportive of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in spring 1862. Nevertheless, the latter’s suspicions that McDowell was plotting to return to power further harmed McDowell’s reputation. That suspicion was enhanced when McDowell, promoted to major general in March 1862 and given command of I Corps, was ordered to stay in Fredericksburg to guard against a Confederate attack on Washington rather than to join McClellan outside Richmond. McDowell objected, but to no avail. He unwittingly caused further problems for his reputation during his tenure in Fredericksburg in April and May 1862. McDowell would be criticized by both Union troops and the Northern press for his lenient treatment of Confederates, leading to unfounded rumors about his true loyalties.[9]

McDowell stands on the steps of Arlington House, the former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, with his staff in 1862. (Library of Congress)

A vivid example of the vicious and unwarranted backbiting was chronicled by Colonel David Strother about a meeting at Major General Nathaniel Banks’s headquarters on 18 May 1862:

The mistakes and confusion on this line are attributed to McDowell’s cowardice or jealousy. It has been through his representation that the authorities in Washington have been alarmed in regard to an advance on that city by the Confederates. He has kept 40,000 men idle near Fredericksburg, thwarting McClellan’s plans, weakening and discouraging the Government and its defenders. His conduct has been most contemptible and explains Bull Run.[10]

Major General John Pope was recalled from the Western Theater in 1862 to command the newly formed Army of Virginia. McDowell served under Pope, commanding the army’s III Corps. (Library of Congress)

McDowell returned to battlefield command after Major General John Pope was named commander the Army of Virginia in June 1862. McDowell would now lead III Corps and be Pope’s de facto deputy during that summer’s Manassas (Second Bull Run) Campaign. He was with Pope in Warrenton, Virginia, in late August when General Robert E. Lee made his audacious decision to send half of his army under Jackson behind Union lines. When Pope learned on 26 August that Jackson was at Manassas Junction, he saw it as his chance to “bag” Jackson before the rest of Lee’s army arrived. Jackson, however, left Manassas Junction quickly and, by 27 August, he was near the same battlefield where Union and Confederate forces had fought a year before. Pope presumed Jackson was staying put, and his fixation with Jackson led him to disbelieve reports that the arrival of the other half of Lee’s army under Major General James Longstreet was imminent.

On the afternoon of 20 August 1862 during the Second Battle of Bull Run, Confederate Lieutenant General launched a massive attack against the weakened Union left. McDowell, who partially created the desperate situation by ordering Union troops off Chinn Ridge, helped to organize a defensive stand Henry Hill that saved Pope’s army from destruction. (Map by Hal Jespersen,

As a result, on 27 August, Pope sent orders to McDowell, then situated several miles west of Gainesville, to move toward Manassas Junction to attack Jackson’s wing of the Army of Northern Virginia (which was not there).[11] Earlier, McDowell had received reports about advancing infantry from the west, so he deduced that Pope’s order was problematic. Even as he prepared to comply, McDowell made a sensible decision. He sent troops to Thoroughfare Gap, through which Longstreet would have to pass through, to act as a deterrent to the advancing Rebels.[12]

As McDowell was advancing with Brigadier General Rufus King’s division along the Warrenton Turnpike toward Groveton early on August 28, his forward element was fired upon by some of Jackson’s troops.[13] Not knowing that Jackson was in fact massed on his front, McDowell saw this as just a minor skirmish. Then he made one of his worst blunders. He decided impulsively that he had to consult with Pope personally because the latter seemingly did not know the whereabouts of the Rebel army. However, McDowell was unsure where Pope was at that time. Further, McDowell did not leave behind orders about what to do if he did not return promptly. Nevertheless, at 1800, he and a few staff members rode off on a task which he should have delegated. It was dark that evening when he arrived at Manassas Junction. However, Pope had moved his headquarters several miles away. McDowell then tried to return to his own forces, but he became lost in the darkness. He ended up sleeping in what had been then-Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston’s headquarters during First Bull Run.

Early on 29 August, Pope ordered Major General Fitz John Porter, whose V Corps had come up from the Peninsula, to link his men with King’s division and move toward Jackson. Soon afterward, the wayward McDowell showed up at Porter’s headquarters, where each received Pope’s infamous “Joint Order.” This order’s confused wording could have been interpreted to mean that they should advance, retreat, or stay put, while also giving them the freedom to adapt if circumstances required it. From that moment on, these two men and their actions that day would be forever linked in Civil War history. Their reputations in their own time and in history would be focused on the words they would utter (or said they had uttered) and the decisions they made (or said they had made) during the next several hours.

On 30 August, Porter would finally attack Jackson’s right, even as Longstreet readied his forces on Porter’s left. When Porter reported that he was in difficult straits, McDowell rashly made an understandable but misguided decision. He ordered Brigadier General John Reynolds to move his troops, the only ones of any consequence facing Longstreet at the time, from Chinn Ridge to bolster Porter.[17] Reynolds had told Pope that significant Confederate forces were on the Union left, but Pope had not believed him. Reynolds knew that a Rebel attack in his front at Chinn Ridge was likely. Making a mistake almost as grave as McDowell’s, he complied with the order but did not advise McDowell of his concerns.

Defeated Union forces retreat towards Centreville on the evening of 30 August 1862 during the closing actions of Second Bull Run. (Library of Congress)

At about 1600, with Reynolds’s men moving north, the Union left had about 2,500 scattered men left on or near Chinn Ridge facing Longstreet’s 25,000-plus Confederates.[18] Longstreet’s initial assault smashed the Union units, and the way was open to sweeping Union forces from the field. At this critical moment, the key to protecting Pope’s army from a complete rout would be to set up a strong defensive line along Henry Hill, a prominent location during First Bull Run. McDowell, finally realizing his error as he saw the Rebels advancing, knew that he had to buy time. Riding relentlessly across and through Union lines, he ordered Reynolds and other scattered elements of the Union forces to Henry Hill. By 1800, he was successful in emplacing four brigades there along with some artillery. These men and others arriving later held off the Confederate onslaught and protected the Union retreat.

That afternoon, through his indefatigable exertions in forming this defensive line, McDowell played the critical role in saving Pope’s army from an even worse defeat. It was his finest hour and the greatest military achievement of his career. The irony is that it was his ordering Reynolds off Chinn Ridge that helped create this desperate situation in the first place. In a letter to his wife about these events, McDowell was self-righteously defensive. He asserted that he was most responsible for preventing the army from being devastated but he did not mention his role in creating the problem:

As to the battle I did my full share, and more than my share…I prevented a disaster. But for my command, on the left the army would have been destroyed, instead of being able to retire at its own leisure after night![19]

After the debacle at Second Bull Run, Pope initiated a court-martial against V Corps commander Major General Fitz John Porter to shift blame for the defeat. At the same time, the Army conducted an official inquiry into McDowell’s conduct during the battle. (Library of Congress)

After Second Bull Run, just as after First Bull Run, laying blame on McDowell accelerated. Some in the ranks accused him bitterly not only of incompetence, but also of treason because whenever he was on the battlefield, the Union forces suffered defeat. McDowell wanted an opportunity to clear his name, and the Army ordered an official inquiry into his conduct. At the same time, Pope, seeking to avoid blame, initiated a court-martial against Major General Porter, primarily for his decision not to attack on 29 August. The charges included Porter’s pre-battle insubordinate remarks in official telegrams denigrating Pope’s leadership and competence.

Porter (standing, center) testifies at his court-martial in December 1862. Porter was found guilty on 10 January 1863 and dismissed from the Army eleven days later. (Sketch by Alfred R. Waud, Library of Congress)

These two events, Porter’s court-martial and McDowell’s inquiry, would take place contemporaneously in late 1862 and early 1863. The actions of the two men during the Second Bull Run would be scrutinized publicly, and each would testify in his own and the other’s judicial proceedings. McDowell’s path to obscurity and historical judgment as a failure would be paved as much by these events as by his performance on the battlefield.

McDowell’s court of inquiry was pedestrian, but it did include testimony calling his conduct into question. While the court decreed that there was no need for formal action against him, it censured his rash action at Groveton on 28-29 August: “…to separate himself from his command at a critical time, without any order of his superior officer and without any imperative necessity…the separation, of which this court has expressed its disapproval, was inconsiderate and unauthorized, but was not induced by any unworthy motive.” In the end, McDowell “won” his case, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. [20]

Meanwhile, at Porter’s court-martial, McDowell was in a peculiar position. He was implicitly on trial, for if Porter were not guilty, then the next logical target would be McDowell. At the same time, he was a key prosecution witness. McDowell’s apparent self-protective solution to this dilemma was to obfuscate, avoid, or evade certain issues if he could. If pushed to make a damning admission, he would instead either say he did not remember or gave rambling, contradictory, or even incredible responses. Two historians assessed that McDowell’s approach “was perjury by selective amnesia” and that he was caught in at least one lie and several distortions. Those analyses are a bit strong, but they ring true to some extent. [21]

Regarding the Joint Order, when asked if he had ordered Porter to make an attack on 29 August, McDowell replied, “I left General Porter with the belief and understanding that he would put his force in [make an advance].” Later, when asked by the defense whether “you directed him [Porter] to attack the enemy’s right flank and rear,” McDowell responded, “To that effect, yes sir.” There is no evidence that he made such an order.

Porter testified that he had not received any attack orders from McDowell. Furthermore, Porter would claim that an attack would have been disastrous with Longstreet on his front and flank. He testified that he had sent several messages to McDowell explaining his approach, but McDowell testified that he did not remember receiving these messages. When asked his views about Longstreet’s being on the field, McDowell implausibly said, “I did not know anything about Longstreet’s or Jackson’s corps.” When asked, “…was there any considerable force of the enemy in front of General Porter’s corps” on 29 August, McDowell responded vaguely, “I have no positive knowledge on that point; I have not supposed that there was.” Those answers were, to be kind, not credible.

Porter would be convicted and dismissed from the Army by his court-martial. In his final statement, he pointed to McDowell’s testimony as the most damaging to his case. He wrote, “His testimony, taken as a whole, has astonished me beyond measure. I feel that it has done me more harm and more wrong…than has been done to me by all the rest of the testimony of the prosecution put together.” He concluded with a searing denunciation of McDowell:

Unable, as he testifies, by habit of mind, accurately to remember the divisions of time, he has plainly confused in his testimony, I will charitably hope, not without some efforts, though unsuccessful, at accurate reflection, the situations, the sayings, and the doings of different days…I have demolished his testimony before you, and with it the whole prosecution falls, and the accusation is left to the condemnation and derision of all just men.[22]

After the two court proceedings, McDowell’s reputation within the Army and in the public eye was significantly damaged. The unspoken verdict was that McDowell had made serious mistakes and that he could not be trusted with a battlefield command. In addition, his testimony had made him look like someone incredibly forgetful or a prevaricator, or perhaps both. However, since he did not resign, McDowell had to be employed within the Army. He subsequently held a series of administrative, often obscure, military assignments, and he disappeared from the public eye. In May 1863, President Lincoln appointed McDowell to be “President of [the] Court for investigating alleged cotton frauds,” a position he held until July. Next, he headed the board for retiring disabled officers until May 1864, when he was transferred to command of the Department of the Pacific, based in San Francisco. In June 1865, McDowell was transferred to the Department of California, a position he held until early 1868.

In California, McDowell dealt with issues related to the final days of the war as well as with conflicts with Indians and illegal shipment of military equipment to supporters and opponents of Emperor Maximilian in Mexico. In April 1865, he happily wrote to California Governor Frederick Low that because “of the decisive victories in the East, I have the honor to request that the requisition made on you for a regiment of volunteer infantry, the Ninth, may be suspended until further orders.” Regarding Mexico, McDowell assiduously implemented the U.S. policy of neutrality and strict denial of arms exports.[23] His actions were loudly protested by both the French and the Mexicans, but the issue became moot when French Emperor Napoleon III ceased supporting Maximilian, who would be captured and executed by rebels in June 1867.[24]

McDowell was transferred to command the Department of the East in March 1868, and soon after he was promoted, by seniority, to major general in the Regular Army. In December 1872, he moved to the Division and Department of the South, headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, and would command there until June 1876. He was again assigned to San Francisco to command the Division of the Pacific, a position he would hold until he was mandatorily retired on 15 October 1882, his sixty-fourth birthday.[25] Much of McDowell’s official responsibilities there focused on conflicts with various Indian tribes, as the latter’s ability to resist the tidal wave of history declined rapidly. McDowell noted in a report in 1878 that a recent campaign “…was a very fatiguing one, and caused much loss of life and property to the inhabitants, the troops, and the Indians.” He concluded, “The latter have been subdued.” [26]

In 1879, a commission led by Major General John M. Schofield recommended that Porter’s court-martial be annulled in its entirety, but Congress would not do so until 1886, a year after McDowell died. (Library of Congress)

While serving in San Francisco, McDowell was likely looking forward to a peaceful retirement. Thus, he was unpleasantly surprised in early 1878 when President Rutherford B. Hayes, who had served as a general officer i the Civil War, ordered a military commission under Major General John Schofield to re-examine the Porter case publicly to assess if there should be a reconsideration of the conviction. Hayes’s decision was partly the result of an intensive multi-year campaign by Porter, even as John Pope and, to a lesser extent, McDowell, had lobbied hard within the Army and publicly against Porter’s claims. Now, as McDowell would learn to his dismay, Porter’s skilled lawyers were armed with extensive exculpatory evidence and testimony. The latter included a lengthy letter from Robert E. Lee and personal testimony at the proceedings by James Longstreet which verified Porter’s account of the events of 29 August 1862 at Second Bull Run. Also, some senior generals, including former President Grant, having taken another look at the evidence, publicly supported reconsideration. [27]

The atmosphere at this commission’s proceedings when McDowell was questioned by Porter’s lawyers was, not surprisingly, hostile and antagonistic. In response, McDowell took the same self-protective, defensive approach as at the court-martial, though on occasion he also took the offensive. He would obfuscate or avoid and evade certain issues if he could. If he were pushed to make a damning admission, he would instead say he did not remember or give rambling responses and engage in semantic sparring. He also asserted that having testified about these matters before, he should not have to do so again, although the tribunal did not agree.[28]

At one point McDowell testified emotionally, “This whole campaign has been a nightmare for me…I shut it out of my mind as well as I could…right after it I was accused of being a drunkard and of being a traitor. I had the whole country howling after me. I was relieved from my command…I have been very harshly, very bitterly assailed and my opinion controverted.” When Porter’s lawyer speciously said that his only objective was to defend his client, McDowell snapped, “Yes, and I have a purpose to take care of myself, that you shall not put me in a false position if I can help it.” McDowell said at one point, “I should judge myself pretty well on trial.”

During testimony about the events of 29 August, Porter’s attorney, Rufus Choate, pressed McDowell repeatedly to admit that he knew Longstreet was on Porter’s flank and front on 29 August, which justified Porter’s inaction. In response, McDowell engaged in semantic sparring. He admitted that he knew Confederate forces were arriving in the area around Gainesville, but repeatedly denied that he knew specifically that Longstreet or Jackson was in a specific place at a specific time.

As the disdain between the two men became palpable, Choate asked McDowell a hypothetical question: would it have been problematic for Porter to attack Jackson’s right at 1600 on 29 August, if a large force were on his left? McDowell equivocated, but then tried to turn the tables. He said Porter should have made some tentative attempts to discern the size, nature, and location of the enemy; to do nothing would not be in compliance with his orders, and McDowell claimed that that was what Porter had done, nothing. He continued, “If the main contest were equally balanced, and under those circumstances an attack [against Jackson] by 10,000 men would have been vigorously made, it certainly would have turned the scale in our favor.” Choate responded that McDowell seemed “very zealous to argue the case against Porter.” McDowell responded simply, “I am arguing against you.”[29]

Choate then focused on McDowell’s surprising admission earlier in the proceedings that he had recently found in his records the three messages which Porter had sent to him the afternoon of 29 August. These were the missives which Porter claimed proved that his inaction was justified, and which McDowell had said he had not remembered. Suspicious, and exhibiting incredulity, Choate asked why he did not introduce them at the court-martial. McDowell responded that he apparently had had them for sixteen years, but “I was not aware that I had them.” The two then sparred over how McDowell had failed to notice these key documents. McDowell simply repeated that he did not know about them until prompted to search for them. McDowell said he resented Choate’s inference that he had deliberately suppressed the documents during the court-martial.

Choate then asked whether McDowell understood that the message from Porter time-stamped 1800 proved that Porter could not have received Pope’s 1630 attack order before sunset. McDowell, seeing that Choate had scored a major point using a document he himself (McDowell) had provided, evaded the question, responding merely that he had paid no particular attention at the time to a document from a person “no longer under my command.”[30]

Choate then asked McDowell many more questions about aspects of the events of 29 August, which McDowell repeatedly evaded in answering. After a while, an exasperated McDowell responded, “You put words in my mouth and try to have me make admissions which I do not make.” Finally, after more verbal sparring, Schofield declared McDowell’s examination closed.[31] However, by that point, Porter’s lawyers had effectively documented that Porter was justified in not attacking and that an obfuscating McDowell was not a reliable witness.

In the tribunal’s final session, Porter’s team further eviscerated the government’s case, echoing Porter’s final argument in the original court-martial. The lawyers efficiently undercut all of McDowell’s statements and claims and substantiated that McDowell either did not understand what happened on 29 August or was deliberately muddying the waters. They mocked McDowell’s protestations of forgetfulness. They suggested that both he and Pope had “collusive blindness,” a condition wherein, “in the homely phrase, none are so blind as who will not see.”

The Schofield commission issued its decision on 19 March 1879. As one historian put it, it gave “Porter everything he could have hoped for.” It unanimously recommended to President Hayes that the decision in Porter’s court-martial be annulled in its entirety. Even though the decision did not refer to McDowell per se, the board explicitly took Porter’s word on every issue. It thereby implicitly yet forcefully put on the record that it did not take McDowell’s word on any issue. In sum, these proceedings proved to be yet another nightmare for Irvin McDowell. [32]

Little is known of McDowell’s reaction to the decision, although he was likely pleased that for many years, intense opposition in Congress and within the Army blocked any formal action to implement the board’s report. Very likely, as before, McDowell decided to put this new element of his personal nightmare behind him. He retired in 1882, and he and his wife lived in San Francisco until his death in 1885. Congress would formally exonerate Porter in 1886, so McDowell would not live to see the final resolution of the case.

Irvin McDowell was a true, loyal, and dutiful soldier who was not always placed in positions that utilized his many talents as a military bureaucrat and planner. He lacked the skills of a battlefield commander, and he made critical errors at key moments. He always wanted to do the “right thing,” but he often lacked the judgment to know what that was. Both the Union Army and McDowell himself would have been better served if he had remained behind the scenes and far from the battlefield. However, history would deem otherwise, and both the Union Army and McDowell would suffer the consequences on the battlefields of Manassas. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, Irvin McDowell remains a pivotal figure in Civil War history—in other words, he should be forgotten no more.