John Pope was a native Kentuckian, a professional soldier, and given more responsibility than his talents merited.
He’d been an outstanding student at West Point (Class of 1842) and posted to the crème-de-la-crème, the Topographical Engineers. He did well in peacetime, and during the Mexican War, where he won two brevets. He was marked for high places, although his rank hardly reflected it, for he was still a captain fourteen years after graduating.
Proximity to politicians has hurt few military careers. Pope commanded Lincoln’s escort before the 1861 inauguration and was promptly promoted from Captain to Brigadier General of Volunteers. His organizational skills were then put to use in a string of commands in Illinois and Missouri as the Union tried to make armies out of volunteers.
He did well, and was given command of an ‘Army of the Mississippi’ which was not very large but stronger than any nearby Confederate force. He did well, and took New Madrid, Missouri, and Island Number 10 in the river itself. The Confederate forces may have been small, but the significance of the victories was large: Pope had unhinged the Confederate line in western Tennessee. The Navy could now move down the Mississippi, and it took Memphis; in combination with Grant’s victory at Forts Henry and Donelson, Pope had cost the Confederacy most of Tennessee. He commanded one-third of the forces under Halleck in the advance on Corinth, Mississippi, and did nothing wrong while Halleck did little right.
Pope had a reputation at that time, and when McClellan’s reputation was fading after his defeat in the Seven Days Battles, Pope was called east. His first priority was to sort out the scattered forces covering Washington: too many of them had been whipped by Stonewall Jackson. He gathered the forces and simplified administration by combining three departments into one, but he was no hero with his men. One of his first public acts was to bellow that he thought they weren’t as good as the western soldiers. Soon after he declared he would be an active commander, his “headquarters in the saddle”, which led to sarcastic comments that his headquarters were in his hindquarters.
He managed to get Lee’s goat, not by performance on the battlefield, but by further oratory and political decisions, particularly about how to treat disloyal civilians. He had uncomplicated (a less kind word would be naïve) ideas about dealing with secessionists, and was probably second only to Ben Butler in Confederate loathing. Many of his own officers didn’t care for him either, since he regularly told them how much better the western armies were.
His leadership wasn’t up to the test of battle. Jackson beat some of his troops at Cedar Mountain, then Pope totally lost control of the situation and contact with his opponent. Jackson overran Pope’s supply depot, taking what he wanted and burning the rest, then moved deeper into the Union rear and ambushed part of Pope’s army. Lee came up the next day and beat the rest of the Army of Virginia at Second Bull Run.
Pope was busy trying to blame his subordinates, and did get Fitz John Porter fired for failing to follow orders – orders that Porter could see were impossible, but Pope wasn’t there to see for himself. The Army of Virginia was dissolving in a swirl of recriminations, and with Lee moving into Maryland Lincoln had to act. McClellan was brought back, Pope was sent a thousand miles away, to the Department of the Northwest, where he arrived the day before Antietam. Pope did well there, keeping things in order and suppressing the Sioux uprising. He continued in various frontier commands until his retirement in 1886.
Content provided by:
Eicher, John H. & David J. Civil War High Commands. Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 2001.
Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue - Lives of the Union Commanders.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.