Wednesday, June 29, 2011

150 Years Ago: McDowell's Plan

Irvin McDowell. Library of Congress descriptio...Image via Wikipedia

On June 29, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln called his cabinet and military advisers to the White House to evaluate the plan General Irvin McDowell had recently submitted to the War Department for attacking the Confederate army at Manassas Junction.

McDowell commanded the Department of Northeastern Virginia, with headquarters at Arlington in what had until recently been the home of Robert E. Lee.  Although he was a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Army, McDowell had never led troops in combat.

McDowell worried that his army of green troops was not ready for battle, but he was beginning to feel enormous political pressure.  "Forward to Richmond" would soon be a ceaseless refrain; the people of the North were ready for action.  There was also a time constraint.  When Lincoln had called for 75,000 militia after Fort Sumter, most Americans -- North and South -- had envisioned a very short war.  The initial wave of recruits had been signed to three-month enlistments and they would soon begin expiring.

McDowell came up with a very solid plan.  With 30,000 men and another 10,000 in reserve, he would move south to confront General P. G. T. Beauregard's 24,000-man army at Manassas.  The key was to keep Beauregard from being reinforced by General Joseph E. Johnston's 11,000-man army in the Shenandoah Valley.  The Federal army along the upper Potomac, led by General Robert Patterson, would move south and engage with Johnston, keeping them busy while McDowell took care of Beauregard.

General-in-Chief Winfield Scott was the main dissenting voice.  He told Lincoln he "did not believe in a little war by piece-meal."  His plan for dealing with the rebellion, derisively labeled "the Anaconda Plan," involved blockading the Confederate coast and mounting a campaign down the Mississippi to cut the Confederacy in half.

But Scott's plan would take too long.  Much time would be needed to build up the naval forces and train the troops.  The president, the cabinet, and the public wanted action now.  Scott eventually withdrew his opposition and McDowell's plan was approved.  He was told to begin his advance on July 9.


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