Traveling west across the Broad Street bridge to the Franklinton neighborhood across the Scioto River from downtown Columbus, one will soon encounter a north-south thoroughfare called McDowell Street. This is not a story about this street in the oldest part of downtown Columbus - the part that dates to 1797. It is about one of the people who gave the street its name.
Traveling west across the Broad Street bridge to the Franklinton neighborhood across the Scioto River from downtown Columbus, one will soon encounter a north-south thoroughfare called McDowell Street. This is not a story about this street in the oldest part of downtown Columbus — the part that dates to 1797. It is about one of the people who gave the street its name.
To Civil War buffs, the name of Irvin McDowell will be reasonably well known. After the outbreak of what Southerners always delight in calling "the late unpleasantness" — or more to the point, the "War of Northern Aggression" — the commanding general of America's armies had a small problem. General Winfield Scott, "Old Fuss and Feathers," had fought his way through every conflict the United States had seen since the War of 1812. By 1861, he was old, tired and desperately in need of a combat commander.
He offered the job to Robert E. Lee, in his view the best soldier in the country, but Lee turned him down — reluctantly but firmly — and fought for the South. Scott turned next to the best soldier from the ranks that he knew: Irvin McDowell.
McDowell would lead the Union Army into its first great battle, The Battle of First Manassas if you are a Southerner or the First Battle of Bull Run if you are a Northerner, and lose it. He would fight on in a subordinate role with the commanding generals who would follow and end his career in the far west.
But this story is not about Irvin McDowell who, after growing up here, really spent little time in Columbus.
This story is about his father and the McDowells who gave the street in Franklinton its name.
I have been intrigued by Abram McDowell since I first came across him a number of years ago. He was one of the first people I had read about locally who did not spell his name the same way Abraham Lincoln spelled his. As it turned out, it was the same name, and many people named their children Abram in those days. But having learned that, I was now even more interested to learn a little bit more about him and the McDowells.
Abram McDowell came to central Ohio from Kentucky. He came from a large family of McDowells who had migrated into that state early in its history. His brother John Adair McDowell had come to the new community of Franklinton at the forks of the Scioto and Olentangy Rivers early in its history and had become known as a frontier attorney. He was followed by one of his brothers, Abram, who came to Franklinton in 1818.
A number of McDowells pass through Franklinton in those years, but John and Abram are two of the most important.
John developed a successful law practice and served for a time as the Franklin County prosecuting attorney until his death at a relatively early age in 1824. After his death, Abram McDowell became the most significant member of the family in central Ohio. Moving across the river to the newly founded state capital, Abram McDowell became one of the men who made things happen in the new town.
Columbus, founded in 1812 to serve as the state capital of Ohio, is a created city in the middle of the new state. Many of its residents came from the North — from communities like Worthington and its residents from Granby, Connecticut. Many more came from the South, from communities in the Virginia Military District to land set aside west of the Scioto River for Virginians who fought in the Revolution.
Abram McDowell was one of the southerners.
Born in 1791, the year the army of General Arthur St. Clair was virtually annihilated by Native Americans, Abram McDowell grew up in a frontier world. It was a world whose society was transplanted from colonial Virginia and whose culture and mores were those of a people on the edge of constant warfare with Native American enemies.
Abram McDowell grew up "in the saddle." While he missed the Indian Wars of the 1790s, he rode with Kentucky mounted riflemen in many of the key engagements of the War of 1812 in the Midwest.
After his arrival in Columbus, he would serve in a number of public offices including clerk of the Common Pleas Court, clerk of the Supreme Court and county recorder. For one year in 1842, he also served as mayor of Columbus.
While all of these civil posts were important, Abram McDowell was most comfortable when he was leading men in uniform. He would be the second leader of the local militia mounted unit, the Franklin Dragoons, after the death of its first commander, Joseph Vance, in 1824.
Abram McDowell was successful in most of the enterprises he undertook. He was successful because he was strong, energetic and well-connected with the founders of the city. But he was not always well-remembered.
It is not hard to see why. A few recollections:
"Mr. McDowell is still spoken of by old citizens of Columbus as a perfect specimen of the type of Kentucky gentleman of the old school. But he was a victim of the convivial habits of those times, and though he was highly respected, his last days were not happyÉ He was an intense aristocrat, priding himself on his culture, his social position, his refinement, and keeping haughtily aloof from the large mass whom he held to be beneath him."
Another account described Colonel McDowell in a slightly different way:
"He is represented as being a Kentucky gentleman of the old school, aristocratic in all of his notions, refined and educated, but regarded by many as haughty in his manners, and perhaps, on that very account, never acquiring wealth."
Abram Irvin McDowell died in 1844 and is buried in Green Lawn Cemetery.
Perhaps learning from the experience of his father and becoming a bit more of a diplomat as well as a soldier, Irvin McDowell grew up with five siblings in the house across the river from Franklinton in what would later be downtown Columbus. The house is built high, perhaps in fear of the floods which encompassed the town across the river.
Like its builder, it was a sturdy house and worthy of respect.
Ed Lentz writes a history column for ThisWeek.