July 27, 1861: A change of command

Digital Originals

(WHTM) — The Civil War was getting off to a bad start for the Union. On July 21, 1861, Union and Confederate armies met in their first major clash, called the Battle of the Bull Run by the North, and the Battle of Manassas by the South.

By either name, it was a disaster for the North. The battle ended for the Union in a disorganized retreat that degenerated into a rout Southerners called “The Great Skedaddle.” Most of the blame was placed on the Union Commander, Brigadier General Irvin McDowell.

McDowell was a professional soldier; he graduated from West Point and served in the Mexican-American War. He spent most of his career as a staff officer to higher-ranking officers, becoming an expert in logistics and supply matters.

When the Civil War began McDowell was promoted to Brigadier General, and on May 27th, 1861 given command of the Army of Northeastern Virginia, the Union force stationed around Washington D.C. War fever was high; the rallying cry was “On to Richmond!” and McDowell was under heavy political pressure to launch an attack. McDowell knew his men were not really ready for combat; but he also knew many of the men enlisted for only ninety days and would be going home soon, so it was now or never. As already noted, it did not go well.

On July 27th, Abraham Lincoln replaced McDowell with General George B. McClellan. McClellan was also a West Point graduate and also served in the Mexican-American War. (He also designed the saddle that American cavalry soldiers would use from the Civil War until the cavalry mechanized in World War 2.) It fell to McClellan to pick up the pieces of the Army of Northeastern Virginia and organize it into the Army of the Potomac, the name it bore for the rest of the war. McDowell became commander of the reorganized army’s First Corps.

Both men had spotty careers during the war. While even his detractors agree McClellan was a master at organizing and training his troops, he suffered from what Abraham Lincoln referred to as “the slows.” Lincoln finally sent McClellan to the showers after he muffed a golden opportunity to destroy Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Antietam. (The President would have to endure a few more lackluster commanders before he put Ulysses S. Grant in charge.)

McDowell would hold several commands and ended up being blamed for the loss at the second battle of Manassas. He would retire from the army in 1882, and die in 1885.

McClellan would run against Lincoln in the Presidential campaign of 1864, and lose; Won a term as Governor of New Jersey in 1878; died in 1885.

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