I breakfasted with Mr. Bigelow this morning, to meet General McDowell, who commands the army of the Potomac, now so soon to move. He came in without an aide-de-camp, and on foot, from his quarters in the city. He is a man about forty years of age, square and powerfully built, but with rather a stout and clumsy figure and limbs, a good head covered with close-cut thick dark hair, small light-blue eyes, short nose, large cheeks and jaw, relieved by an iron-gray tuft somewhat of the French type, and affecting in dress the style of our gallant allies. His manner is frank, simple, and agreeable, and he did not hesitate to speak with great openness of the difficulties he had to contend with, and the imperfection of all the arrangements of the army.
As an officer of the regular army he has a thorough contempt for what he calls “political generals” — the men who use their influence with President and Congress to obtain military rank, which in time of war places them before the public in the front of events, and gives them an appearance of leading in the greatest of all political movements. Nor is General McDowell enamored of volunteers, for he served in Mexico, and has from what he saw there formed rather an unfavorable opinion of their capabilities in the field. He is inclined, however, to hold the Southern troops in too little respect; and he told me that the volunteers from the Slave States, who entered the field full of exultation and boastings, did not make good their words, and that they suffered especially from sickness and disease, in consequence of their disorderly habits and dissipation. His regard for old associations was evinced in many questions he asked me about Beauregard, with whom he had been a student at West Point, where the Confederate commander was noted for his studious and reserved habits, and his excellence in feats of strength and athletic exercises.
As proof of the low standard established in his army, he mentioned that some officers of considerable rank were more than suspected of selling rations, and of illicit connections with sutlers for purposes of pecuniary advantage. The General walked back with me as far as my lodgings, and I observed that not one of the many soldiers he passed in the streets saluted him, though his rank was indicated by his velvet collar and cuffs, and a gold star on the shoulder strap.
Having written some letters, I walked out with Captain Johnson and one of the attachés of the British Legation, to the lawn at the back of the White House, and listened to the excellent band of the United States Marines, playing on a kind of dais under the large flag recently hoisted by the President himself, in the garden. The occasion was marked by rather an ominous event. As the President pulled the halyards and the flag floated aloft, a branch of a tree caught the bunting and tore it, so that a number of the stars and stripes were detached and hung dangling beneath the rest of the flag, half detached from the staff.
I dined at Captain Johnson's lodgings next door to mine. Beneath us was a wine and spirit store, and crowds of officers and men flocked indiscriminately to make their purchases, with a good deal of tumult, which increased as the night came on. Later still, there was a great disturbance in the city. A body of New York Zouaves wrecked some houses of bad repute, in one of which a private of the regiment was murdered early this morning. The cavalry patrols were called out and charged the rioters, who were dispersed with difficulty after resistance in which men on both sides were wounded. There is no police, no provost guard. Soldiers wander about the streets, and beg in the fashion of the mendicant in “Gil Bias” for money to get whiskey. My colored gentleman has been led away by the Saturnalia and has taken to gambling in the camps, which are surrounded by hordes of rascally followers and sutlers' servants, and I find myself on the eve of a campaign, without servant, horse, equipment, or means of transport.
SOURCE: William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South, Vol. 1, p. 389-90