|1861 Union Map of Northern Virginia (Library of Congress)|
When war broke out with Mexico, then First Lieutenant McDowell became a top staff officer for John Wool, a war of 1812 hero who had been the U.S. Army's Inspector General and commanding officer of all Eastern troops before leading a division to join Zachary Taylor's army in northern Mexico. Wool, with McDowell, arrived in time to reinforce Taylor's army just before Mexico's General Santa Anna (of Alamo fame) came looking for him. Taylor had put Wool too far forward, and Wool had failed to take the proper defensive precautions, and Santa Anna almost made him pay. But one of Wool's regiments of volunteers from Mississippi, led by Jefferson Davis, had arrived in the right place at the right time and the Battle of Buena Vista went down in history as a lopsided victory of less than 5,000 Americans over 16,000 Mexicans.
It was Lt. McDowell who was responsible for translating Wool's vision into concrete actions for subordinates, and he was brevetted captain for Buena Vista. After the war, he traveled to Washington, to the Winder Building across the street from the War Department, to join the Bureau of the Adjutant General and stayed there until May 1861, diligently making the army run. Despite being from the same state as military patron-extraordinaire, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, by all accounts Winfield Scott had asked McDowell to head the forces that had just seized Alexandria out of respect for his professional abilities.
His personality shows through in his official reports. McDowell's reports are formal, professional, and just a tad bit stiff. They have none of Beauregard's theatricality, Robert Patterson's timidity, or Charles Stone's thinly-veiled criticisms. They provide the impression of a consummate professional and are almost technocratic in their zeal for details. In short, he is exactly the top field commander that the showy, political, philosophical Scott needed to implement his big picture ideas.
Scott hadn't been disappointed. Unlike the ever-flighty Robert Patterson, daily trying Scott's nerves with his inability to move decisively on Harper's Ferry, McDowell was competently training and organizing his 30,000-some men into an army, with all the deliberation of a career bureaucrat. The unfortunate incident at Vienna aside (which was really the fault of the expedition's commanding officer disregarding orders), McDowell was making all the right military moves to prepare for challenging Beauregard.
Scott really had no interest in the "On the Richmond" fever that was gripping the North, he favored a slow blockade of the South to up the pressure until cooler heads prevailed (a low-conflict strategy that would become known as the "Anaconda Plan"), but moving the Confederates further south would earn the capital some breathing room and allow better connections to support the ambitious young George McClellan making huge gains in the western Virginia mountains. He could do it by removing the Confederates from any of three positions: 1) combining McClellan and Patterson to force Joe Johnston out of the Harper's Ferry area, 2) combining Patterson and Stone to capture Leesburg and Loudon County, or 3) using McDowell's advantage in size over Beauregard to capture Manassas Junction. Turning the Confederates out of any one of the three positions would make the other two impossible to hold (because it would be easy to move a Northern army behind them and cut off their supplies from Richmond).
Scott kept all three options open and sent messages to their commanders to that effect, but given that two of them relied on the increasingly disappointing Patterson decided to place his bets on McDowell (Stone had been and would continue to advocate the capture of Leesburg in his reports and beg for communication from Patterson about it). So sometime in the third week of June - historians agree it was most likely June 24 - Scott asked McDowell to make a plan for capturing Manassas Junction.
|McDowell's understanding of the situation June 24, 1861 (very nearly accurate).|
However, McDowell reasoned, "if General J.E. Johnston's force is kept engaged by Major-General Patterson's force, and Major-General Butler occupies the force in his vicinity [Newport News], I think they will not bring up more than ten thousand [additional] men. So we must calculate on having to do with about thirty-five thousand men."
McDowell continued, methodically:
The position at Manassas may be reached by four routes: First by the Leesburg stone road [US 15?], Georgetown turnpike [VA 123], and Loudon and Hampshire Railroad [W&OD Trail], via Falls Church and Vienna; second by way of the Little River turnpike [US 50] and Fairfax Court-House; third by way of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad [CSX Rail]; fourth by way of the road south of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad [US 1?].
Leaving out a fifth route from Dumfries to Brentsville as impractical, he continued to carefully describe the land and condition of each route, before settling on a recommendation. "Leaving small garrisons in the defensive works, I propose to move against Manassas with a force of 30,000 of all arms, organized in three columns, with a reserve of 10,000." The first two columns would move parallel to drive out the Confederate tripwire, one group down the line from Vienna to Fairfax Court-House to Centreville (down roads that form today's U.S. Route 29), and the other down Little River turnpike (today's VA Route 236 and U.S. Route 50).
The third group would travel by rail down the O&A tracks to Centreville (along the same right of way that still goes from Alexandria to Manassas, owned by CSX), helping to repair damaged tracks along the way, which would also help with getting supplies and the reserves to the main force. From Centreville he would cross Bull Run ("I am told it is fordable at almost any place") and come up on the side or behind Beauregard's prepared defenses.
McDowell was well aware of his troops deficiencies and, ever the staff officer, worked on a solution. "For the most part our regiments are exceedingly raw and the few of them, with few exceptions, not over steady in line, they be organized into as many small fixed brigades as the number of regular [meaning professional] colonels will admit." His plan also included specific instructions for how to ready a supply train from Alexandria to support his men. He also asked for additional artillery "on account of the confidence it gives new troops."
McDowell's plan of June 24 is thorough and sound, contrary to the haphazard "on to Richmond" enthusiasm of much of the country, and its subsequent coloring of the historical record. "If they are well led," McDowell commented on his men to conclude his recommendation, "I think they will [advance steadily], and with every chance of success."