Author: Edward Longacre

a retired historian for the Department of Defense. The author of biographies of several Union and Confederate generals, he lives in Newport News

Irvin McDowell (1818–1885)

Irvin McDowell was a Union general during the American Civil War (1861–1865). He commanded the army that was defeated at the First Battle of Manassas on July 21, 1861, the first large land battle of the conflict. Born in Columbus, Ohio, McDowell attended West Point and earned a brevet rank for gallantry at the Battle of Buena Vista (1847) during the Mexican War (1846–1848). Considered to be a competent soldier, McDowell served on the staff of U.S. Army general-in-chief Winfield Scott and at the beginning of the Civil War organized Union troops in Washington, D.C. Pressured by the public and politicians to attack the Confederate capital at Richmond, McDowell led his green troops into disaster at Manassas, which made him the target of criticism and controversy. Repeatedly victimized by poor tactical judgment as well as by events beyond his control, he fought and was again involved in a defeat at the Second Battle of Manassas in August 1862. By the autumn of that year his active-duty career was effectively over and he had begun to fade into obscurity. McDowell remained in the Regular Army until his retirement in 1882 as commander of the Pacific Division. He died in San Francisco, California, in 1885.


Fitzhugh Lee (1835–1905)

Fitzhugh Lee was a Confederate general during the American Civil War (1861–1865) and governor of Virginia (1886–1890). The nephew of Robert E. Lee, “Fitz” Lee commanded the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia during the last months of the conflict. Neither an innovative tactician nor an astute strategist, he achieved modest success during his Confederate service. Thirty years after the war, he became a national hero thanks to his well-publicized promotion of American interests as United States consul general in Havana, Cuba, on the eve of the Spanish-American War (1898). At the time of his death he was hailed as “Our Dear Old Fitz,” a celebrated symbol of postbellum reconciliation.


Nathaniel Prentiss Banks (1816–1894)

Nathaniel Prentiss Banks was a Massachusetts state legislator (1849–1853), a ten-term United States Congressman (1853–1857, 1865–1873, 1875–1879, 1889–1891), Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (1856–1857), governor of Massachusetts (1858–1861), and a Union general during the American Civil War (1861–1865). One of the most prominent political generals of the conflict, Banks lacked military talent and experience but rose to high command on the strength of his public stature and his staunch support of the administration of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, despite having been one of Lincoln’s political rivals in 1860. Banks’s tendency to subordinate military affairs to political ambition, his penchant for grandiose planning without devoting sufficient attention to tactical details, and his inability to admit or correct mistakes ensured that a once-promising career in arms would fall short of expectations. As commander of the Department of the Shenandoah, he was outmaneuvered by Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in 1862, especially on May 25 at the Battle of Winchester. Jackson defeated him again at the Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9, after which Banks was transferred to New Orleans, Louisiana. In the spring of 1864, he participated in the botched Red River Campaign in Texas, ending his field command. Banks returned to Congress after the war and died in Massachusetts in 1894.


Army of the Potomac

The Army of the Potomac was the primary Union fighting force in the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War (1861–1865). Known as “Mr. Lincoln’s Army” for its close association with the sitting United States president, its dual mission was to defeat the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and to safeguard Washington, D.C. Formed in the aftermath of the debacle at First Manassas (1861), the army survived a succession of flawed commanders and battlefield reverses to attain final victory. In the spring of 1862, during the mismanaged Peninsula Campaign, the Army of the Potomac failed to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond. That summer some of its components met defeat in the Second Manassas Campaign. Although it blunted Robert E. Lee‘s September 1862 invasion of Maryland, it gained only a tactical draw against the smaller but superbly led Confederate army. Three months later the army suffered horrific losses at Fredericksburg, and the following May it was routed by Lee at Chancellorsville. In July 1863, however, it gained a critical victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, ending Lee’s second invasion of the North. Beginning early in May 1864, the army methodically advanced against Richmond and equally strategic Petersburg, suffering heavy losses at every turn. Compelled to besiege both cities, the Army of the Potomac eventually forced their evacuation and Lee’s retreat. As a result, on April 9, 1865, realizing that he had been overtaken, Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, effectively ending the war.