History ETDs

Publication Date



Irvin McDowell is an important figure of the Civil War era because the role he played made him a storm center within the Union command structure. His career, therefore, is indicative of certain problems encountered by the North which ultimately prolonged the war. Those command problems, which affected overall federal strategy in the early years of the war, largely centered around four areas: unpreparedness, political intrigue, undefined civil/military functions, and cautious generals. Unpreparedness, the bane of the North's military existence during the early stages of the war, was also a hindrance to McDowell for his talents had previously been restricted almost exclusively to paperwork. The result of this lack of preparedness was McDowell's violation of many of the principles of warfare at the disastrous battle of Bull Run. Political intrigue, another block to cohesive federal strategy, reared its ugly head through constant efforts on the part of the radical Republicans to control the conduct of the war. McDowell, identified with the Radicals through his friendship with their cohort, Secretary of the Treasury Chase, became embroiled in certain of their political maneuverings and, thus, added to the problems inherent within the Union command structure. With regard to undefined civil/military functions, also, McDowell's role as a field commander is indicative of the North's failure to end the war sooner than it did. The most glaring example of this breach of etiquette is Lincoln's policy of formulating strategy and dabbling in tactics in connection with McDoweIl's campaign in the Shenandoah Valley against Stonewall Jackson. The President not only infringed upon the realm of the military due to his lack of confidence in their ability but he also hampered the effectiveness of McDowell's effort against a cagy rebel commander. As a cautious general, too, McDowell was an indicator of command inadequacies, for his indecision, inaction, excuses, and delay at Second Manassas typified the Union policy of fighting a limited war for limited ends with limited means. The balance sheet of McDowell's career as a field commander suggests that unskilled mediocrity, augmented by the pressures of time and circumstance, fused with conditions beyond his control to bring about disastrous results both for him and for the Union cause. Further, by taking advantage of political opportunities when they arose he allowed himself to be willingly thrust foras a pawn on the Radicals' political chessboard. The result was that, although by no means a political lackey, he was not always the master of his own destiny. Thrust into the midst of the conflict almost from its inception, he emerged as a puppet-like figure of controversy around whom many of the Union command problems revolved. His meagre ability as a field com­mander and his involvement with politics---both of which are indicative of factors which prolonged the war because they are not unique to McDowell---could not overcome the fate which the wheel of fortune seems to have spun for him. The siren call of destiny had sum­moned him into obscurity.

Level of Degree


Degree Name


Department Name


First Committee Member (Chair)

George Winston Smith

Second Committee Member

William Miner Dabney

Third Committee Member

Gerald David Nash



Document Type


Included in

History Commons