History is unkind to defeated generals. All most of us recall about Irvin McDowell is that he commanded the Union army at First Bull Run, First Manassas south of the Mason-Dixon line, and was beaten by the Confederates. He had a long and illustrious career in the Army both before and after Bull Run, but none of that matters. He is the defeated general at Bull Run, and after History places that stamp on him, nothing else really matters. In John Brown’s Body, his epic poem on the Civil War, Stephen Vincent Benet has a few words on McDowell that I believe should be remembered.
Six miles away, McDowell had planned his battle
And planned it well, as far as such things can be planned–
A feint at one point, a flanking march at another
To circle Beauregard’s left and crumple it up.
There were Johnston’s eight thousand men to be reckoned with
But Patterson should be holding them, miles away,
And even if they slipped loose from Patterson’s fingers
The thing might still be done.
If you take a flat map
And move wooden blocks upon it strategically,
The thing looks well, the blocks behave as they should.
The science of war is moving live men like blocks.
And getting the blocks into place at a fixed moment.
But it takes time to mold your men into blocks
And flat maps turn into country where creeks and gullies
Hamper your wooden squares. They stick in the brush,
They are tired and rest, they straggle after ripe blackberries,
And you cannot lift them up in your hand and move them.
–A string of blocks curling smoothly around the left
Of another string of blocks and crunching it up–
It is all so clear in the maps, so clear in the mind,
But the orders are slow, the men in the blocks are slow
To move, when they start they take too long on the way–
The General loses his stars and the block-men die
In unstrategic defiance of martial law
Because still used to just being men, not block-parts.
McDowell was neither a fool nor a fighting fool;
He knew his dice, he knew both armies unready,
But congressmen and nation wanted a battle
And he felt their hands on his shoulders, forcing his play.
He knew well enough when he played that he played for his head
As Beauregard and Johnston were playing for theirs,
So he played with the skill he had–and does not lie
Under a cupolaed gloom on Riverside Drive.
Put Grant in his place that day and with those same dice,
Grant might have done little better.
Irvin McDowell, half-forgotten general,
Who tried the game and found no luck in the game
And never got the chance to try it again
But did not backbite the gamblers who found more luck in it
Then or later in double-edged reminiscences;
If any laurel can grow in the sad-colored fields
Between Bull Run and Cub Run and Cat Hairpin Bend
You should have a share of it for your hardworking ghost
Because you played as you could with your cold, forced dice
And neither wasted your men like the fighting fools
Nor posed as an injured Napoleon twenty years later.
Go here for my thoughts on the lessons to be gleaned from Bull Run by observant individuals.