United States Armies in the East

May – July 1861

The Department of Northeast Virginia was created on May 27, 1861 to consist of part of Virginia east of the Allegheny Mountains and north of the James River, except an area 60 miles around Fortress Monroe. It was asigned to Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, who assumed command on May 28. McDowell was a staff officer known and favored by several members of the government. But his appointment was opposed by army commander General Winfield Scott and resented by Colonel Joseph Mansfield, the commander of the Department of Washington on whom McDowell was dependent for supplies and transportation.

Although the troops McDowell commanded are sometimes referred to as the “Army of Northeastern Virginia” there is no evidence that the term was used at the time. After the defeat at Bull Run the Department was consolidated into what would become the Army of the Potomac.

Brigadier General Irvin McDowell (pictured as a major general)

Irvin McDowell

Organization of Forces of the Department of Northeastern Virginia:

June 1861July 1861 • August 1861

Timeline of the Department of Northeastern Virginia

May 24, 1861
Federal troops cross the Potomac and occupy Alexandria, Virginia

Union troops under New York Militia General Charles W. Sandford crossed the Potomac from Washington and occupied Alexandria, Virginia, to reduce the threat to Washington D.C. Thirty-five Confederate cavalrymen, the city’s only garrison, were captured without violence, but Colonel Elmer Ellsworth of the 11th New York Infantry Regiment was killed by a citizen after lowering a Confederate flag from the Marshal House Hotel.

May 27 The Department of Northeastern Virginia was created
May 28 Brigadier General Irvin McDowell assumed command
June McDowell built up an army of five divisions, around 30,000 men, from volunteer regiments sent by the Northern states. Many of them were enlisted for only 90 days, severly limiting McDowell’s options. In spite of their lack of training and experience, the Lincoln administration pushed McDowell to launch an attack into Virginia.
July 16 McDowell’s advance began
July 18 McDowell reached Centerviile. A reconnaissance by Tyler’s Division towards Backburn’s Ford resulted in a small engagement.
July 21
Battle of Bull Run (Manassas)

McDowell attacked Confederate positions behind Bull Run. After a day of heavy fighting, the Union attack collapsed as Confederate reinforcements arrived from the Shenandoah Valley. A withdrawal toward Centerville by the inexperienced Union troops turned into a rout back to Washington. The equally exhasuted and disorganized Confederates were unable to pursue.

July 25 The department was merged into the Miltary District of the Potomac under Major General George McClellan, with McDowell staying on in a subordinate posiiton.
August, 1861 The troops of the department were integrated into the Army of the Potomac