GENERAL JOHN POPE: A LIFE FOR THE NATION, by Peter Cozzens, University of Illinois Press, 412 pages, $39.95.
In writing about John Pope’s famous defeat at the second Battle of Bull Run, author Bruce Catton described the Union commander as “simply over his depth.” Shelby Foote, in turn, charged Pope with being “outgeneraled.” More recently, authors Wallace Schutz and Walter Trenerry have taken a different tack. In their view, Pope was an excellent general outmaneuvered more on the public relations front than by opposing commanders.
In this long and detailed biography, Peter Cozzens steers a middle course between these two extremes. As Cozzens describes him, Pope was a man of remarkable talents and equally glaring faults. Both the beginning and end of his career showed off his strengths. A fine military strategist, Pope won compelling victories along the Mississippi during the early days of the Civil War. Later, he played important roles during Reconstruction and in formulating Indian policy. Smart, aggressive, and often compassionate, Pope was successful in both these endeavors.
Unfortunately, Pope’s shortcomings carried the day at Bull Run. Boastful, ambitious, and hot-tempered, Pope had a better-than-average capacity for self-delusion. He saw what he hoped to see, bullied subordinates who disagreed, and blamed others for his eventual defeat. Pope “buried his fears with wishful thinking,” writes Cozzens in an especially telling passage, and “hid his errors by distorting the truth.”
Cozzens’ book is thorough, well-balanced, and exhaustively researched. Occasionally the narrative flags, especially when the topic shifts away from Bull Run. While the author does a good job of describing the rest of Pope’s life, these other events are for the most part less compelling and less revealing than the story of Pope’s great defeat. Still, the full story as Cozzens presents it gives depth, texture, and context to a man mainly remembered today for one lost battle.
STEPHEN CURRIE is the author of several books and a contributor to a number of magazines.