Saturday, December 12, 2009

John Pope

A recent post by James Durney at TOCWOC about Second Manassas got me thinking about John Pope. I read Peter Cozzens's biography of him, General John Pope: A Life for the Nation, several years ago, and have had a soft spot for Pope ever since. I thought I'd put together a post saying a few kind words about him.

For those of you who don't know him, the general line on Pope is that he was an arrogant blowhard who got his comeuppance. Brought east by Lincoln to replace George McClellan after the Peninsula Campaign, Pope issued a famous order castigating his predecessor and his predecessor's troops (many of which Pope was now inheriting), as defensively-minded defeatists:
Let us understand each other. I have come to you from the West, where we have always seen the backs of our enemies; from an army whose business it has been to seek the adversary and to beat him when he was found; whose policy has been attack and not defense. In but one instance has the enemy been able to place our Western armies in defensive attitude. I presume that I have been called here to pursue the same system and to lead you against the enemy. It is my purpose to do so, and that speedily. I am sure you long for an opportunity to win the distinction you are capable of achieving. That opportunity I shall endeavor to give you. Meantime I desire you to dismiss from your minds certain phrases, which I am sorry to find so much in vogue amongst you. I hear constantly of "taking strong positions and holding them," of "lines of retreat," and of "bases of supplies." Let us discard such ideas. The strongest position a soldier should desire to occupy is one from which he can most easily advance against the enemy. Let us study the probable lines of retreat of our opponents, and leave our own to take care of themselves. Let us look before us, and not behind. Success and glory are in the advance, disaster and shame lurk in the rear. Let us act on this understanding, and it is safe to predict that your banners shall be inscribed with many a glorious deed and that your names will be dear to your countrymen forever.

Pope's performance during the Second Manassas campaign was certainly miserable. Even in the fog of war so common in Civil War battles, Pope stands out, if only because he failed to heed warnings that an entire Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia was stationed on his left flank, waiting to pounce after Pope's army exhausted itself attacking Stonewall Jackson's well-entrenched troops. The result was an utter debacle. James Longstreet's Corps smashed through Pope's army. Only nightfall saved the remnants of Pope's army as it fled back toward Washington. It did not save John Pope. Lincoln promptly exiled him to a God-forsaken wasteland called Minnesota to deal with some Indians there.

And yet – who among us would not flunk if judged on our worst day? In John Pope's case, the verdict of history has done just that, while overlooking a number of positive attributes.

To begin with, Pope had done a creditable job out West earlier in the war, most notably showing some ingenuity at Island No. 10, a Confederate position blocking the Mississippi River. True, there were hints even during the Island No. 10 campaign that he might come apart under pressure, becoming "harried and excitable" and lashing out, but those traits did not prevent him from successfully completing an important mission.

Although Pope seems to have been a self-centered man who could annoy others, that reaction was not universal. Many of his Western colleagues wished Pope well when he was called East. Indeed, in some ways it is hard not to feel sorry for him. When Pope headed for Washington, Gordon Granger told him regretfully, "Good-bye Pope, your grave is made", and it's pretty clear that Pope knew he was headed for at least a political quagmire. He really didn't want to go. He was devoted to his wife and newborn daughter. Then to make matters worse his daughter died on July 19, 1862 at the age of two months and Pope was unable to comfort his wife in their grief.

In short, his collapse seems to have been the cumulative result of a number of factors: a naturally brittle temperament; aggressiveness probably masking insecurity; homesickness and grief; a much larger command than he'd ever held in a theater he knew little about; a superior foe; the knowledge that many were rooting for him to fail; and little help or guidance from those who were theoretically on his side (Henry Halleck in particular was useless or worse), leaving him feeling dangling in the wind, as it were. It was all too much, and he became overwhelmed.

Pope's post-Bull Run career seems to confirm the view that, while Pope could be annoying at times, he was a man of substantial talent in other respects, provided he was kept away from the battlefield. Ulysses Grant and others recognized that he was a highly competent administrator, rewarding him with substantial commands in the West, punctuated by diligent and conscientious service as District commander of the Third Military District (Alabama, Georgia and Florida) during Reconstruction.

Pope also proved a highly sympathetic analyst of the "Indian problem", recognizing that the cycle of treaty, followed by renewed White incursion, gave the Indians little choice but to fight. As early as 1865, he perceptively described the cycle of tragedy and foresaw its "dreadful" end:
Lately large reinforcements have been organized which are now moving against the Indians in the hope to restore peace, but in my judgment with little prospect of doing so. The first demand of the Indian is that the white man shall not come into his country. How can we promise this, with any purpose of fulfilling the obligation, unless we prohibit emigration west or south of the Missouri River? So far from being prepared to make such an engagement with the Indian, the government is every day stimulating emigration and its resulting wrong to the Indian. Where under such circumstances is the Indian to go, and what is to become of him?

My duties require me to protect the emigration, the mails, and the settlements against hostile acts of the Indians. I have no power under the laws of the United States to do this except by force. As the Indians are more and more driven to desperation, the end is sure and dreadful to contemplate.

More than twenty years later, in 1887, as the cycle was nearing its conclusion, Pope, who had retired as Major General the year before, looked back sadly to see that his fears had been realized, and to pronounce his own judgment. The next time you're inclined to malign Pope as an arrogant and incompetent blowhard, remember that the same man was capable of writing the following epitaph on the Indian wars:
There is no rest for the Indian on this continent except in the grave to which he is being driven with accelerated speed every day. I used to think something in accordance with the ordinary dictates of humanity might be devised for him and carried into execution by the government but that hope has long been abandoned and death alone appears to offer relief from an outrage which will be a stain on this government and this people forever.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. Not knowing much more than the popular historical telling regarding Pope (based largely on 2nd Manassas), it's nice to learn of the truer, more human side of this man. I've often wondered if our perceptions of historical characters - picked up via 'the master narrative' - allow for honest judgments. For this, I found this post incredibly refreshing. Now for the true test . . . A reinterpretation of Braxton Bragg?

  2. Dylan,

    Thanks so much.

    We seem to think alike - Braxton Bragg also intrigues me. I'm not sure you realized when you mentioned Bragg that I have a series of posts on him entitled "Was Braxton Bragg Really that Bad?" You can find them by double clicking on the "Braxton Bragg" label on the right.


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