Chase and McDowell

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Secretary Chase was responsible for placing General Irvin McDowell in command of the Union forces in northern Virginia in 1861. Even Wikipedia accepts this. The Wikipedia page for McDowell states that he “was promoted to brigadier general in the regular army on May 14, 1861, and was given command of the Army of Northeastern Virginia on May 27. The promotion was partly because of the influence of his mentor, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase.” I am not sure, however, how true this truth really is.

As best I can tell, Chase and McDowell did not know one another before the Civil War; there is no correspondence between them before 1861. The first evidence of a connection is a May 14, 1861, memorandum, prepared by McDowell, and now in the Chase Papers, setting out his thoughts about how to attack the rebel forces in and near Manassas, Virginia. There is no letter from Chase to Lincoln, or to anyone else, urging that McDowell be promoted to brigadier general or given command in northern Virginia. In late May 1861, when McDowell was given the command, the newspapers did not describe McDowell as a Chase protégé. There was no correspondence between Chase and McDowell in June or July 1861.

McDowell was in command of the Union forces in the first major battle of the Civil War, at Bull Run, near Manassas, on July 21, 1861. On August 19, the New York Herald accused Chase of trying to pin the blame for the Manassas disaster on General Winfield Scott. “Scott was willing that McDowell should be placed at the head of a division, but not the entire force. Secretary Chase insisted that McDowell was the man for that position and carried his point with the cabinet; thus General Scott was overruled and there is where the responsibility rests.” The Cincinnati Commercial responded that although Chase may have favored McDowell’s promotion, since he was “a personal friend and an Ohioan,” the decision to promote McDowell was made by Scott.

We do not have a Chase diary for most of 1861, but diary entries in early 1862 show that Chase was involved in promoting McDowell to major general. On January 11, for example, Chase notes a conversation with an aide to General McClellan in which he urged that McClellan should “call into his counsels the most experienced and able men in the army, and should insist on the appointment of McDowell as Major-General at once.” On March 14, when the vote was taken by the Senate in closed session on McDowell’s promotion, an Ohio senator shared the details with Chase, who carefully noted how each senator had voted. Chase and others visited McDowell in the field this spring and Chase wrote to McDowell from time to time, encouraging him.

There were many more newspaper reports, in 1862 than 1861, of a Chase-McDowell connection. The Chicago Times, a rabid Democratic paper, claimed that McDowell was a nephew of Chase, who wanted to see McDowell rather than McClellan in command of all the Union armies. The New York World, another Democratic paper, blamed Chase and McDowell for the Union defeat at second Manassas in late August 1862. “General McDowell was originally appointed and has since been retained in command, through the personal influence of Secretary Chase. To that gentleman, therefore, is the country indebted for the disgrace of the first, and infamy of the second battle of Bull Run.” The New York Herald published a long critique of Chase on October 8, in the course of which it said that it was Chase’s influence “which secured to the incompetent General McDowell the command of our army at the first battle of Bull run and precipitated an onward movement.”

Chase noticed these newspaper attacks and commented in a few letters. In one letter, in September 1861, Chase wrote that McDowell was “one of the officers whom I took into counsel when required by the President to draw up the order for the new regular Volunteers in May of [last] year. I found him intelligent and disposed to avoid all extravagances, and strictly honest and hostile to every form of committee. I liked him therefore. My support was firm to his appointment as brigadier, though I presume he would have been appointed without it. I have never seen any cause to withdraw the confidence I have in him.”

I am wrestling with how to introduce McDowell to the reader in the Chase book without writing a five-paragraph digression on this question. Hence this blog post, in part to help me organize my thoughts as I write the book. Still writing 1861, expect it to take at least another two weeks.