The McDowell family has a history in Columbus, Franklinton
The street begins in front of the Gravity Complex on West Broad Street in the Old Quarter of Franklinton, on the west side of downtown Columbus. It is called McDowell Street and heads straight south until it meets the Scioto River. It is one of the longest streets in Franklinton – the original village founded here in 1797 – 15 years before Columbus across the river.
Its length reflects the importance of its name. Several McDowells have lived in Columbus and central Ohio over the past two centuries since the end of the American Revolution. Many of them have disappeared into the past unnoticed; some are worth remembering.
There was Colonel John Adair McDowell, who rode with William Henry Harrison to the Thames in Canada in 1813, defeated the British, their native allies and the charismatic Tecumseh. And there was Abram Irvin McDowell who marched with Colonel John Campbell in 1813 from Fort Greenville in the dead of winter to burn down Native American villages in central Indiana. The 300 returning men suffered near terminal frostbite on the way home.
And then there was Abram’s son, who was given his father’s middle name, Irvin, and became one of Columbus’ best-known McDowells.
Irvin McDowell was born in 1818. By 1823 Abram McDowell had crossed the river to the new state capital of Columbus and built a substantial two-story west-facing house at the northeast corner of Spring Streets and Front. It was here that Abram and his wife raised a large family as he earned his living as clerk, county clerk, and occasional associate of William Neil, King of Stagecoaches.
In 1829 the city gave him a license to build a bath house next to his house. It is not known exactly who came to bathe. In 1842 Abram served as the 15th mayor of Columbus. It was a good life in a good place for the McDowells.
It was here that Irvin McDowell grew up in the company of his family and friends and received a basic education in the private schools of the day. By his late teens, his family felt he needed more education than central Ohio could provide, and he was sent to college at Troyes in France. From there, at age 18, he was admitted to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated as a second lieutenant in 1838. One of his classmates was PGT Beauregard, whom he would meet one day under less friendly conditions.
Initially assigned to the 1st American Artillery, McDowell became a tactical instructor at West Point. In time he became adjutant to General John Wool and served under Wool in the Mexican War. After the war, he held several administrative posts and rose to the rank of major in 1856. Having become an expert in logistics and supply, he served as a staff officer and became well versed in the command of General Winfield Scott. He also found a mentor in 1861 in former Ohio Governor and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the aging and infirm Scott knew he needed a younger successor to lead President Abraham Lincoln’s volunteer army. With the help of lobbying from Chase, McDowell was promoted several ranks past his peers to brigadier general.
Soon McDowell was under intense argument to march the army south, take the rebel capital of Richmond, and end the conflict quickly. McDowell was hesitant. The former drill instructor knew his untrained, ill-equipped, and untested army was fragile at best.
Bowing to the pressure, he developed a complicated battle plan based on keeping a large Confederate force under General Joseph Johnston occupied in the Shenandoah Valley while McDowell defeated another Confederate force at nearby Manassas commanded by Beauregard.
On July 21, 1861, McDowell’s Union army encountered Beauregard’s Confederate army, and the two forces fought fiercely on a hot summer day. For a time it looked like the Union might win, but at a critical moment the tide of battle turned. Johnston’s army had escaped their Union opponents and traveled by train to join the fight. The new reinforcements dismayed the Union attackers who retreated in a confusion that turned into a rout. The result was a resounding defeat for the Union.
A few days later, McDowell was removed from his post and given a division under a new leader named George McClellan. Throughout the rest of the war and after, McDowell served in a variety of commands, eventually serving as commander of the Department of the Pacific in the 1880s peacetime army in San Francisco.
In this role, along with his wife and family, and as an avid gardener, he led the design and construction of a landscaped military installation at the Presidio of that city. Retired in 1882, he continued his work at the Presidio until his death in 1885.
Irvin McDowell is buried in the Presidio Cemetery in San Francisco.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for Community news this week and The Dispatch.