Symposium Spotlight: John Pope

Over the past several weeks we have been introducing you to the individuals and topics of this year’s Symposium theme, Fallen Leaders. Next up, Dan Welch previews his presentation on John Pope.

Maj. Gen. John Pope. It is a name that will forever be synonymous with the Federal defeat on the plains of Manassas in August 1862. But Pope’s fall from grace in the eyes of those heading the Federal war effort, men with names of Lincoln, Stanton, and others had begun earlier than the Union army’s retreat towards the Washington, D.C. defenses on the first of September 1862.

Pope had experienced a meteoric rise in the Federal army following the start of the American Civil War. Beginning his professional military career by attending West Point, upon graduation in 1842, he had been commissioned and assigned to the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Like many of his peers, he went to war with Zachary Taylor in the second half of the 1840s. Breveted twice during the Mexican American War, Pope returned to topographical details and assignments in the army following the conflict. His duties included surveying, river navigation, and lighthouse construction. These assignments took him to Minnesota and New Mexico, and the Red River Valley among numerous other locales. During this period, however, Pope witnessed the same glacial rate of promotions in the US Regular Army that had defined it during periods of peace. He also worked through the lack of emotions felt and motivations to fight that combat veterans like himself had experienced during the Mexican American War. With the election of Lincoln in November 1860, though, all of that was about to change.

John Pope was a descendant of American and Kentucky familial royalty. His family had many connections in Kentucky, some through political appointments and judgeships and others through friendships with the Todd and Lincoln families. With Lincoln’s election, Pope was one of four officers to be tasked with escorting the president-elect to Washington. Later, he would offer to serve as an aide to the new president, but, Lincoln had him appointed a brigadier general in the volunteer army in June 1861. He then left for Illinois to begin recruiting and filling the ranks of the growing volunteer forces from that state.

It was not long before the brigadier had command of his own district within the Department of the West under Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont. It was here that Pope’s rocky road towards infamous defeat and fallen grace began. His relationship with Fremont deteriorated quickly due to politicking behind Fremont’s back. All of this despite his small, limited battlefield successes in the Western theater. It was these victories, however, that brought Pope to the Eastern theater. Upon his arrival, Pope was given command of the newly created Army of Virginia. His troubles only continued. His proclamation to the men under his command, officers and privates alike, ruffled many feathers, and his overconfidence quickly became his weakness. By the time he took his army, as well as elements of the Army of the Potomac to battle on the plains of Manassas at the end of August 1862, he had few supporters.

The Federal defeat at Second Manassas, coupled with his fall from favor with many other officers and politicians meant his time as an army commander was over. He spent the rest of the war in Minnesota, fighting in the Dakota War of 1862. Although his performance in this department got a Pope a brevet promotion in 1865 to major general, he still had not returned to his pre-Second Manassas status in many circles. Pope’s fall from grace continued during his time as a Reconstruction governor in Georgia, issuing unfavorable orders. Once again, he was transferred for his decisions. Perhaps the final blow to his fallen leader status, however, came near the end of his career. In 1879, a military Board of Inquiry found that all of the charges that Pope had leveled against Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter, and subsequent blame for the defeat at Second Manassas, were unjust. In fact, the board found the Pope shouldered most of the responsibility for that army’s stinging defeat in August 1862. The Board of Inquiry’s clearing of Porter and reassignment of the blame for that debacle near Washington almost twenty years earlier was a blow that Pope could not recover from. In the twilight of his career, Pope retired a fallen leader from an earlier time.

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3 Responses to Symposium Spotlight: John Pope

  1. Pope’s aggressive policies of total war that he brought to Virginia in 1862 were exactly what Sherman would bring to Georgia and the Carolinas and what Grant would bring to Virginia in 1864. Unfortunately for him, Pope could not bring about any battlefield victories or garner political support to back up his more aggressive rhetoric. Pope was two years too early.

    I would disagree with Mr. Welch’s view of Pope’s lackluster postwar army career. In an army where seniority meant more than popularity or skill, Pope’s career thrived during these years. When the war ended, Pope was a senior brigadier general in the army and was posted to prominent commands such as the Third Military District, Department of the Missouri for 13 years, and the Division of the Pacific and Department of California. He was known as a successful Indian fighter during this time, commanding the largest theater of operations for the longest period of time (longer than Hancock, Sheridan, Schofield, Miles, etc.). Pope was promoted to major general in 1882 and retired in 1886.

  2. I remain perplexed how Pope’s charges against Porter were given enough credibility to warrant the administrative effort of the inquiry. It appears that the final acquittal of Porter points the blame to Pope, again putting the blame on him in the first place

  3. Pope was Stanton’s puppet to stick it to McClellan. As a result, a good and capable officer’s (Porter) career was ruined. General Lee was right, he was a “miscreant”.

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