“Headquarters in the Saddle.”
For a man that uttered many phrases that often make him the main course of mockery for Civil War historians, John Pope’s infamous dateline certainly receives its fair share of jokes. It did too in 1862. Supposedly Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee even made light of those four words.
So did the soldiers under Pope’s command. Pvt. James Sullivan of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry remarked of Pope, “He issued his first order dated ‘Headquarters in the saddle,’ and the soldiers, with their usual aptitude to ridicule all attempts at self-glorification on the part of generals, said that he must have his brains where most persons have their hindquarters, and immediately dubbed him ‘Hindquarters in the saddle Pope,’ and after events fully justified their judgement.” It might be one of Pope’s most enduring lines, but, for the first month of his stint as Army of Virginia commander, it is not one of his most accurate.
John Pope took command of the Army of Virginia on June 26, 1862. Pope’s army itself was something new–a conglomerate of multiple Federal entities in northern Virginia meant to bring cooperation between those disparate forces that would win victories. And when Pope came east, he entered into a sort of vacuum of high command for the United States Army. Since March 11, the Federal government had been fighting the war without a General-in-Chief to lead and coordinate its armies. This remained true until Henry Halleck’s arrival in the capital on July 23. In the meantime, Lincoln held Pope in Washington for counsel and would not release him to his field army until Halleck filled that vacuum.
During the first month of Pope’s tenure as the Army of Virginia’s commander, he thus did not lead from the saddle but instead from the capital. Pope’s first month was spent advising the Lincoln administration while also pulling multiple strings to gather the various pieces of his new army and meld them into one. Such a task in the field was difficult enough, but trying to accomplish it from the seat of war in Washington had grave consequences for the rest of Pope’s time in the eastern theater.
Pope handled the consolidation of his army east of the Blue Ridge Mountains via the telegraph. No personal interactions between his immediate subordinate officers and his soldiers occurred. Pope was not able to intimately learn his army and his army was not able to know its commanding general.
Handling alarms from the Shenandoah Valley by telegraph further hampered any chance to build chemistry within the army. “Nothing is so demoralizing to a command as this constant alarm,” Pope informed one of his officers. “You had best correct it by marching forward, not backwards.” Pope sent several more rebukes in the direction of his Shenandoah Valley officers before deciding to set his entire new army straight.
On July 14, John Pope issued an address to his army from the confines of Washington. It is important to keep in mind when reading this address that, though braggadocious in its nature, Pope had never met his army and his army had never met him. He wanted to instill confidence in it and let his troops get to know him. “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 had been to seek the adversary and to beat him when he was found,” Pope began. “Success and glory are in the advance, disaster and shame lurk in the rear.”
While this address was partly written as a jibe to the Army of the Potomac, Pope was setting the business model for his army in the field. However, that army was an army without chemistry, without a bond between commander and soldier, and Pope’s proclamation fell mostly flat. Soldiers jeeringly called it “Pope’s Bull.” Others believed it was no more than “unjust and cruel reflections on the conduct” of their commanders and comrades in the Shenandoah Valley. To build rapport in the army, it was not a good start.
Finally, on July 29, Lincoln freed Pope from Washington. The general, anxious to finally meet his new command in person, boarded a train and rode down the Orange & Alexandria Railroad to Warrenton. A bright moon greeted him there, “and there was a deep silence and quiet upon the whole scene,” Pope remembered. “A more lovely landscape or a more charming country the eye of man has not looked on and the remembrances of that scene under the bright moonlight will always be a delight to me.”
While Pope fondly remembered his first night in the fields of Virginia, those memories were washed away within the next month as Pope’s campaign crashed down around him.
It is fair to wonder if the screws bolting together Pope’s campaign were already severely loosened when he transferred his headquarters from the capital to the saddle. Less than two weeks after joining his army, it engaged “Stonewall” Jackson at Cedar Mountain. The army barely had time to coalesce as a single entity and to wear the identity Pope sought for it to have. Even worse, it was about to fight the Army of Northern Virginia, an army that was itself about to embark on arguably its greatest campaign. Historian John C. Ropes noted the stark difference between the two contending armies:
The advantage possessed by an army composed of troops who, for a year, have been organized as an army, who are under a General to whom they are accustomed and in whom they trust, in fighting an army that is a mere collection of three or four independent armies or parts of armies, drawn together and organized as an army a very few weeks before the first battle of the campaign, placed under the command of a General of whom they know absolutely nothing, and who knows nothing of either of the troops or their officers, is simply enormous. The former army is a military machine, the latter is an aggregation of troops and not an army at all.
When John Pope placed his headquarters where his hindquarters should be, the first month of his command already placed his army at a disadvantage.