Irvin McDowell was born at Columbus, Ohio on October 15, 1818, the son of Abram Irvin McDowell and Eliza Seldon McDowell. He received his early education at the College de Troyes in France before entering the United States Military Academy in 1834, at the age of sixteen. McDowell graduated from the Academy in 1838, twenty-third in his class. One of McDowell’s classmates at West Point was P. G. T. Beauregard, his future adversary at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861).
U.S. Army Officer
After graduating from the academy, McDowell entered the U.S. Army as a brevet second lieutenant with the First Artillery on July 1, 1838. The army promoted McDowell to the full rank of second lieutenant six days later and stationed him on the Maine frontier. In 1841, officials recalled McDowell to West Point, where he served as an assistant instructor of infantry from 1841 to 1845. During his tenure at the academy, the army promoted McDowell to first lieutenant on October 7, 1842.
In October 1846, Brigadier General John E. Wool named McDowell as his aide-de-camp. During the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), McDowell served as acting adjutant-general for Wool’s forces in Mexico. He received a brevet promotion to captain on February 23, 1847, for gallant and meritorious conduct at the Battle of Buena Vista (February 23, 1847).
At the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, McDowell remained in Mexico with the army of occupation until July 1848. Between that date and the outbreak of the American Civil War, he served in various administrative roles in Texas, New York, and Washington, DC. McDowell received another brevet promotion to major on May 13, 1847.
Union Army Officer
When the Civil War began, officials assigned McDowell to Washington, where mustered volunteer soldiers into service. On May 14, 1861, the War Department promoted McDowell to brigadier general of volunteers and selected him to command the newly created Department of Northeastern Virginia on May 27.
First Battle of Bull Run
As public expectations mounted for the swelling Union forces in the capital to “do something” before the terms of 100-day volunteers expired, northern leaders pressed McDowell to launch an offensive against the Confederates in Northern Virginia with ill-prepared troops.
On July 16, 1861, McDowell led about 35,000 untested Union soldiers (commonly, but not officially, known as the Army of Northeastern Virginia) out of Washington to confront the equally untried Confederate Army of the Potomac. The armies met on July 21, along Bull Run, near Manassas, Virginia. The First Battle of Bull Run began well for McDowell’s army that morning, but when Rebel reinforcements from General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah arrived by rail during the afternoon, a federal retreat turned into a rout. Fortunately for McDowell, the disorganized Confederates did not pursue and possibly capture Washington.
Following the disaster at Bull Run, President Abraham Lincoln turned to Major General George B. McClellan to reorganize Union forces in the East. With Lincoln’s approval, McClellan created the Army of the Potomac in September 1861. In the spring of 1862, President Lincoln drafted a plan for reorganizing the Army of the Potomac. On March 8, he issued War Order No. 2, merging the army’s divisions into five corps. Lincoln named McDowell, Brigadier General Edwin V. Sumner, Brigadier General S. P. Heintzelman, Brigadier General Erasmus D. Keyes, and Major General Nathaniel P. Banks to command the five corps. Dutifully, on March 13, 1862, a disgruntled McClellan issued General Order No. 101 (Army of the Potomac), confirming the President’s selections.
Major General Commanding the Army of the Rappahannock
When McClellan embarked on his Peninsula Campaign in March 1862, the War Department detached McDowell’s corps from the main army and left it behind to guard against possible Confederate threats against the capital. On April 14, the officials re-designated McDowell’s corps as the independent Army of the Rappahannock. Shortly thereafter, on May 14, the War Department promoted McDowell to major general of volunteers.
Army of Virginia
Three months later, on August 12, the War Department merged McDowell’s army with two others to form the Army of Virginia. McDowell expected to lead the new army, but Union officials selected Major General John Pope instead.
Second Battle of Bull Run
On August 28, 1862, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia attacked Pope’s new army near Manassas, Virginia. The Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28-20, 1862) was another Union disaster, and once again, McDowell received much of the blame. On September 6, Pope relieved McDowell of field command. A military court of inquiry later exonerated McDowell, but he remained unpopular with the public and never again commanded troops in the field during the war. Throughout the rest of the conflict, McDowell filled various administrative posts. Near the conclusion of the war, McDowell received a brevet promotion to major general in the regular army on March 13, 1865.
Regular Army Assignments
After the Civil War, the army transferred McDowell to California, where he commanded the Department of the Pacific and later the Department of California. On September 1, 1866, McDowell mustered out of volunteer service, but he continued to serve in the regular army in California until 1868. After holding various administrative posts in the East and South, the army promoted McDowell to major general on November 25, 1872, and re-deployed him to California.
McDowell retired from active service in the U.S. Army on October 15, 1882. After retirement, McDowell served as a park commissioner in San Francisco, California.
Irvin McDowell died of pyloric disease of the stomach in San Francisco on May 4, 1885. He was buried in San Francisco National Cemetery, San Francisco, California.