General John Pope: A Life for the Nation, by Peter Cozzens, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 474 pages, $39.95..
The bombastic Union general John Pope knew how to provoke people. The usually unflappable Robert E. Lee called Pope a “miscreant” after Pope declared a harder war on Virginia civilians during the summer of 1862. Even among his fellow officers Pope was much maligned. One subordinate caustically remarked that he did not “care for John Pope a pinch of owl dung.”
Such stinging remarks have been quoted widely by historians, who almost always rank Pope as one of the worst generals of the Civil War. His embarrassing defeat in the Second Battle of Bull Run, August 28- 30, 1862, has supplied ample ammunition to the anti-Pope arsenal. Peter Cozzens challenges this one-dimensional interpretation by looking at the entirety of Pope’s military career, one that spanned more than four decades. He pays special attention to the postwar years on the Southern plains, where Pope emerged as one of the army’s leading authorities on Indian affairs. In a gracefully written book, Cozzens also reveals the personal side of Pope, a man deeply committed to his wife and family, devoted to the Union, and compassionate toward Native Americans.
Cozzens’s sympathetic ap-proach does not result in a shocking revisionist biography. He does not try to redeem Pope as a Napoleon-in-the-rough whose career was cut short by a conniving George B. McClellan and a callous Abraham Lincoln. To Cozzens’s credit, he acknowledges that Pope was an intensely arrogant man, consumed by ambition, and lacking in essential leadership qualities.
Like any good biographer, however, Cozzens does not draw his analysis exclusively from Pope’s personality. He moves beyond the simplistic but commonly accepted caricature of the general by following the historical lead of Wallace J. Schutz and Walter N. Trenerry, who offered a more strident, but less convincing defense of the general in Abandoned by Lincoln: A Military Biography of General John Pope (1990). They were the first to call for a reevaluation of the general, insisting, like Cozzens, that Pope’s military career must be understood within the context of how Northern military policy increasingly fell into the hands of Radical Republicans. The radicals wanted Northern armies to strike at the heart of Southern society and destroy slavery. After Pope’s successes at New Madrid and Island No. 10 in March-April 1862, the Lincoln administration brought a reluctant Pope to Virginia as a political weapon against McClellan and the conservative approach to war. Once he arrived in the Old Dominion, Pope faced the formidable task of organizing scattered forces into the Army of Virginia while navigating the dangerous political waters of Washington.
Cozzens, however, refuses to accept the extreme argument made by Schutz and Trenerry that the Republican Pope was ultimately betrayed by General Fitz John Porter and other conservative Democratic officers in the Army of the Potomac who wanted to protect their beloved McClellan. In the end, Cozzens believes that Pope’s stock declined in the Lincoln administration because of his limitations as a general and his habitual tendency to search for scapegoats, not because of political intrigue or a seditious subordinate.
Cozzens’s assessment of Pope’s performance during the Second Bull Run Campaign generally concurs with John J. Hennessy’s ideas in Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas (1993). Both scholars agree that Pope’s contempt for Lee lured him into a false sense of confidence that led to dubious assumptions about the enemy’s movements. Pope foolishly expected his adversary to conform to his own plans. Stonewall Jackson’s impressive defense on August 29, for instance, should have convinced Pope that the Confederates intended to fight it out. Despite overwhelming intelligence that suggested otherwise, Pope insisted that the enemy would retreat, a mistake he compounded by naively assuming that James Longstreet’s soldiers would simply fall behind Jackson’s men in a supporting role. Longstreet, instead, extended the Confederate right flank southward, an option Pope refused to consider, leaving his army vulnerable to a crushing Confederate flank attack launched on the final day of the battle.
Unlike previous scholars, Cozzens makes a valiant effort to understand Pope’s problems during the Second Manassas Campaign from the general’s perspective. He found that Pope did not receive adequate support from Henry W. Halleck, Lincoln’s general-in-chief. Halleck failed not only to inform Pope of the precise troop movements between the Army of the Potomac and Pope’s Army of Virginia, but also to provide his subordinate with an overview of the strategic situation. From his position in Washington, Halleck had the authority and the perspective to bring harmony to his diverse commands in Virginia. On this point, Cozzens makes an important contribution, but he goes too far when he charges that Halleck suffered from “moral cowardice.”
Cozzens needed to tie together his ideas about Pope in an introduction or a conclusion. Not doing so was an inexcusable omission, especially from an academic press such as the University of Illinois. Without an interpretive framework, the reader has to hack through a thicket of detail, occasionally finding a shard of analysis here and there. If Cozzens had pieced together these scattered, but compelling ideas into broader themes, General John Pope: A Life for the Nation would stand as a model Civil War biography. Unfortunately, it resembles much of what is published on the Civil War today–long on military detail but short on analysis.
Peter S. Carmichael
University of North Carolina