On July 21, 1861, the Civil War began to be a very long war, indeed. And one of the major figures who helped define that day was a native of Columbus.

On July 21, 1861, the Civil War began to be a very long war, indeed. And one of the major figures who helped define that day was a native of Columbus.

As the commander of the Union Army of Northeastern Virginia, Gen. Irvin McDowell had spent the previous several months desperately trying to make an army out of a horde of enthusiastic volunteers. Under tremendous pressure to defeat a rebellious South, McDowell had moved out of Washington, D. C., with his quickly trained and even more quickly equipped army to "crush the Rebels."

He almost did just that.

This was not a job that Irvin McDowell really wanted. And it certainly was not the one he trained for when he left to join the army more than 30 years before. Born in Columbus in 1818, McDowell grew up in a simple New England saltbox house at the northwest corner of Front and Spring streets. At the time, the house was in the woods some distance from the center of town and nestled against the creek that passed by and gave Spring Street its name. Until 1834, one crossed the creek at High Street on a wooden bridge.

Columbus was not very large when Irvin McDowell was a boy. Founded in 1812 to be the new state capital, the village only had a few hundred residents at the end of the War of 1812. Prominent among them were Abram Irvin McDowell and his wife, Eliza.

Abram McDowell held a number of public offices and made a success of himself in a variety of enterprises. But the McDowells had come from the more sophisticated society of Kentucky and Virginia, and hoped that their children would also be able to rise above the frontier world of central Ohio.

With that intent, they sent young Irvin off to school in Troyes, France, for several years. With Abram McDowell's political influence, an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was obtained for Irvin to further his education.

It should be noted that the American army was quite small in these years and West Point was essentially a training ground for civil engineers. In a growing America, one could make a nice living as a civil engineer after a period of military service. On the other hand, the military itself still carried a certain social cachet, as well.

Irvin McDowell chose to stay in the army. Graduating in 1838, he was posted as a second lieutenant in the artillery. After serving four years as a tactics instructor at West Point, he served on the staff of Gen. John Wool during the Mexican War and was cited for bravery at the Battle of Buena Vista.

After the Mexican War, McDowell served for a number of years as a brevet major in the adjutant general's office. He acquired a reputation as a solid, dependable officer and an excellent military administrator. In 1861, his talents would be put to the test.

The election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 on a Republican pledge to oppose the extension of slavery to the territories had led to the attempted secession of a number of southern states over the next several months. Political and persuasive attempts to bring the rebellious South back into the Union ended with the fall of Fort Sumter at Charleston, S.C.

Not recognizing the South as independent, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers for three months to defeat "combinations too powerful to suppress" by normal means. In other words, the president hoped a citizen army could swiftly repress those rebellious southerners.

The commander of America's army was Gen. Winfield Scott, who had fought bravely in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War and had served in the army for more than 50 years. He had literally written the book that was used to train America's soldiers.

But he was also old and tired and sick and knew that he needed a younger combat commander. He hoped to get his protg, Robert E. Lee, to take the job. But Lee returned to his native Virginia and fought for the South.

At that point, Scott turned to Irvin McDowell, who had recently been promoted to brigadier general with the help of his political mentor, former Ohio governor and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase.

The response of the North to the war had been enthusiastic. More than 15,000 men arrived in Columbus to enlist in the first few days of the war. Over the next several months, the men were armed, uniformed, trained and marched away to war. By mid-July 1861, Irvin McDowell's Army of Northeastern Virginia, including two regiments of Ohio infantry, was on the move.

McDowell did not think his army was ready, and said so. But three-month enlistments were about to expire and he was under pressure from the president, the Congress and the country to defeat the rebels and be done with it.

So McDowell marched his army south toward Richmond, Va. Awaiting his arrival was a Confederate Army roughly equal in size. On July 21, 1861, the two met near Manassas, Va., at a little stream called Bull Run. On a brutally hot day and observed by many tourists who had driven out from Washington to watch the battle, the two armies fought well - considering neither army had really been in battle before. Ultimately, the Confederates fought a better end game and the Union Army retreated in disarray.

To say the least, most people in the North were shocked. A local Columbus paper recorded the scene:

"An immense, surging crowd assembled in front of our office. All expected the enemy would soon be ours and the oppression and gloom of war gave way to sunshine and joy. But at noon came dispatches announcing disaster, and a most despondent gloom settled over their faces and a pall seemed to settle on their spirits. But in the evening, a feeling of determination and revengeful resistance was aroused such as words cannot describe. 'I feel like going myself!' was the exclamation of everyone who spoke."

Sensing that more troops might be needed, President Lincoln had called for 300,000 more men a few weeks before the battle. By early August, they were assembling at a number of encampments in and around Columbus. This war, it was now well understood, was going to last for quite some time.

Irvin McDowell lost his command of the large army but acted as a division and corps commander through the rest of the conflict. In 1864, McDowell was given command of the Department of the West and served in the West for the rest of his career. He retired with the rank of major general in 1882 and died three years later. He is generally credited with the creation of the Presidio military base in San Francisco.