The Civil War had been good for John Pope.
In December 1860, he was an obscure Army captain designing lighthouses on Lake Erie. Fifteen months later, he was a major general of volunteers, commanding an army of 32,000 men. In April 1862, Pope captured Island No. 10 after a nearly bloodless campaign that opened the Mississippi River down to Memphis. During the otherwise listless siege of Corinth, Miss., he showed a zest for battle that cemented his reputation as a fighting general of great promise.
Pope was a career soldier with an antebellum reputation as a talented but self-promoting officer. He distinguished himself in action as a member of General Zachary Taylor’s staff at Buena Vista in the Mexican War, but his habit of stepping out of military channels to further his fortunes annoyed fellow officers. His chief patron at the outset of the Civil War was President Abraham Lincoln, who had often tried cases back in Illinois under the paternal tutelage of John’s father, Judge Nathaniel Pope. Lincoln remained close to the family, and Pope was one of two officers Lincoln invited to accompany him to Washington in March 1861.
At 40, Pope looked every bit a soldier. As West Point classmate and Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet recalled, Pope “was a handsome, dashing fellow, a splendid cavalryman, sitting his horse beautifully.” His fellow Western Theater generals “all liked Pope greatly,” said Maj. Gen. David S. Stanley; he was “a very agreeable and very witty man and often turned the laugh on his staff officers and others.” Like them, he was hardswearing and blunt-spoken.
As much as Pope desired promotion and glory, family came first. He was deeply devoted to his wife, Clara Horton Pope. The daughter of a prominent Republican Ohio congressman, Clara suffered from chronically poor health. When she fell seriously ill in February 1862, Pope contemplated resigning his commission until his in-laws convinced him to stay the course.
In June, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered him east without explanation. Pope’s generals feared he was headed for trouble. Dampening an already dismal farewell party, Brig. Gen. Gordon Granger remarked, “Good-bye Pope, your grave is made.”
Pope arrived in Washington sad and distracted. His 6-month-old daughter was desperately ill, and the strain was weakening Clara. On June 26, Stanton explained why Pope had been summoned. With Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan stalled outside Richmond, President Lincoln wanted to reinvigorate the Union war effort in the East. Lincoln also wanted the staunchly Republican Pope to fight harder than McClellan and his soft-war Democratic subordinates.
Stanton offered Pope a new army composed of three defeated commands from the Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Pope’s mission would be to protect Washington, defend the Shenandoah Valley and disrupt the Virginia Central Railroad near Gordonsville, about 95 miles southwest of Washington. By threatening the rail link to the Valley, Lincoln hoped to compel Robert E. Lee to withdraw troops from the defenses of Richmond, thus easing McClellan’s way into the Confederate capital.
Pope wanted no part of the command. He found Washington repellent. In the air, he said, “was a sort of moral odor of sewer gas.” He entreated Stanton to return him to his Western army. But the president was adamant, and so on June 27 he took command of the new Army of Virginia. Pope’s hesitation was understandable; this command could hardly be called a plum assignment. Pope’s corps commanders—Maj. Gens. Irvin McDowell, Nathaniel P. Banks and Franz Sigel— were mediocre, and morale was low. With his men deserting in droves and absenteeism rampant even among officers, Pope saw the need to rally his troops—and responded with perhaps the most ill-advised military proclamation of the war.
“Let us understand each other,” he declared in an address issued July 14. “I have come to you from the West, where we have always seen the backs of our enemies….I hear constantly of ‘taking strong positions of retreat,’ and of ‘bases of supplies.’ Let us discard such ideas….Success and glory [are] in the advance; disaster and shame lurk in the rear.”
With that one dispatch, Pope left the whole army stung. Most denounced the “unjust and cruel” reflections on their corps commanders. None were more offended than McClellan and his generals, who assumed Pope had targeted them. Maj. Gen. Fitz-John Porter, a friend of McClellan’s, thought the new general from Illinois was a pompous fool. Pope later claimed his words were directed solely at his army and that Stanton had dictated passages critical of the Army of the Potomac leaders over his objections. Regardless of who wrote what, the damage was irreparable.
His attempt to boost morale now in shambles, Pope was confronted next by personal tragedy—the death of his daughter. Nevertheless, on July 29, Pope took the field with his patchwork army, eventually landing at Manassas, the same battlefield where the Union had been humiliated the year before. Against him would be the battle-tested and confident Army of Northern Virginia.
Lee had hoped McClellan would withdraw from the Virginia Peninsula before fighting Pope. But when Pope occupied Culpeper, 20 miles north of the Virginia Central Railroad, Lee was compelled to preserve communications with the Shenandoah Valley. Accordingly, he detached Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Left Wing to Gordonsville to check Pope.
Although Pope faced a foe superior in morale, discipline and leadership, he outnumbered the Rebels with 52,000 men present—nearly 20,000 more than the force mustered by the Confederates. But Pope’s forces were scattered between Culpeper and the Blue Ridge Mountains, while three Confederate divisions were concentrated at Gordonsville.
On August 7, Jackson struck north from Gordonsville, and two days later defeated Banks’ corps at Cedar Mountain. But it was an empty victory for Jackson, who retired behind the Rapidan River after learning Pope had massed at Culpeper Court House.
But Pope worried anyway. He believed the enemy was “in very superior force” and implored General in Chief Henry Halleck to “please make McClellan do something to prevent [Confederate] reinforcements from being sent here.”
Halleck was troubled, too. He’d decided to pull McClellan from the Peninsula and unite his army with Pope’s. But Cedar Mountain demonstrated Lee was in action mode, and McClellan had not moved. Halleck pelted McClellan with dispatches urging him to get going, and told Pope to “keep the enemy in check till we can get reinforcements to your army.”
After Cedar Mountain, Lee seized the initiative. On August 13, he left Richmond for Gordonsville with James Longstreet’s six divisions, but Pope withdrew to the north bank of the Rappahannock, checking Lee. Pope wanted to fall back farther, but Halleck told him to “stand firm” until the Army of the Potomac arrived. “Dispute every inch of ground and fight like the devil,” Halleck commanded. “Forty-eight hours more and we can make you strong enough.” Pope dutifully spread out his army to defend the Rappahannock River crossings, and for a week savagely repelled Confederate probes.
Halleck’s injunction left Pope’s supply line along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad and vast stores at Manassas Junction vulnerable. Pope understood the danger, but was powerless to meet it. Meanwhile, Lee smelled opportunity and sent Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart’s cavalry to exploit it. On the night of August 22, Stuart plundered Pope’s stores but failed to cut his supply line. Pope dismissed Stuart’s raid as inconsequential rather than an ill omen. Hoping to force Pope to fall back on Washington, Lee ordered Jackson on August 24 to march in a wide arc around the Union right, pass through Thoroughfare Gap and then finish what Stuart had begun. Longstreet would distract Pope with bold demonstrations along the Rappahannock and then join Jackson near Manassas Junction.
Pope knew Jackson had left, but didn’t know where he was going. Prompt action would have stopped Jackson, but Pope followed Halleck’s orders and remained on the Rappahannock. Pope presumed Halleck had a strategic purpose in keeping him there, but in reality Halleck was plodding blindly, leaving Pope and McClellan to their own devices. When Pope asked where McClellan was, Halleck replied vaguely that he was “somewhere on the way.”
McClellan also was frustrated with Halleck. There is no doubt McClellan harbored a dark, private desire to see Pope humiliated. “I have a strong idea that Pope will be thrashed during the coming week—& very badly whipped he will be & ought to be—such a villain as he is ought to bring defeat upon any cause that employs him,” McClellan had written his wife on August 10. But he did not try to ruin Pope.
By August 26, Maj. Gens. Porter and Samuel Heintzelman joined Pope, giving him 70,000 men against Lee’s divided army of 55,000, and McClellan was en route to Washington with the corps of Maj. Gens. William B. Franklin and Edwin V. Sumner. On August 27, Pope took matters into his own hands. “I determined to abandon the line of the Rappahannock and throw my whole force in the direction of Gainesville and Manassas Junction, to crush any force of the enemy that had passed through Thoroughfare Gap, and to interpose between Lee’s army and Bull Run,” Pope later explained. “Having the interior line of operations and the enemy at Manassas Junction being inferior in force, it appeared to me, and still so appears, that with even ordinary promptness and energy we might feel sure of success.”
Pope’s claim concealed an embarrassing truth: Jackson’s flank march bewildered him. After August 27, Pope planned his actions on the basis of where Jackson and Longstreet had been, or where he hoped they would be, rather than where solid information placed them. By concentrating at Gainesville, Pope hoped to halt Jackson’s progress toward the Orange & Alexandria and buy time to retire behind Bull Run and get between the Confederates and Washington. But Pope’s plan was predicated on a false premise. He believed only Jackson’s advance guard had reached Manassas Junction and that the remainder of his command was at Thoroughfare Gap.
A bloody afternoon clash at Bristoe Station revealed that Jackson had reached the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. On the night of August 27, Jackson burned Pope’s supply depot at Manassas Junction. Yet Pope saw in the loss of his stores a chance to crush Jackson before the Virginian escaped. At 9 p.m., he ordered McDowell and Sigel to sweep south from Gainesville and join Heintzelman and Porter, encircling Jackson. “If you will march promptly and rapidly,” he told McDowell, “we shall bag the whole crowd.”
As it happened, Pope’s orders were obsolete only minutes after he dictated them. Rather than remain at Manassas Junction, Jackson slipped free of Pope’s “trap” and marched to the old Bull Run battlefield to await Lee and Longstreet.
Pope’s August 28 advance on Manassas Junction floundered from the start. Everyone lagged behind schedule. Confusion reigned as Pope repeatedly changed course. At one point, a perplexed McDowell left his corps to personally inform Pope of Longstreet’s advance through Thoroughfare Gap. But McDowell got lost, leaving Pope unaware of Longstreet’s approach.
Pope’s erratic course reflected the fevered speculations of a man baffled and overburdened. He conceived of only one course of action: Attack Jackson. “We were sufficiently in advance of Longstreet that by using our whole force vigorously we should be able to crush Jackson completely before Longstreet by any possibility could have reached the scene of action,” said Pope later. “I felt sure that there was no escape for Jackson.” But escape was the furthest thing from Jackson’s mind. He intended to hold his ground until Longstreet arrived, and time was running out. While three days of marching under the hot August sun with little food had depleted the Army of Virginia, Pope felt compelled to fight. To fall back beyond Bull Run without giving battle would vindicate McClellan’s cautious approach to combat. And with Halleck reluctant to take the field, McClellan would likely receive command of the combined Armies of Virginia and the Potomac, leaving Pope’s future uncertain.
Pope also believed he was making the right tactical decision. He thought he had Jackson sandwiched between McDowell and Sigel to the west and Heintzelman and eventually Porter to the east. But the western side of his trap hadn’t materialized. McDowell was lost in the woods, Brig. Gen. Rufus King’s and Brig. Gen. James B. Ricketts’ divisions were marching away from the front, and Sigel’s corps was southeast of Jackson, not west of him as Pope thought. Kearny was at Centreville, and Porter slumbered at Bristoe Station. Seldom was a Union army less prepared for battle.
Daybreak brought Pope no greater clarity. Finding McDowell and Sigel out of place, he opted to harass Jackson’s rearguard and ultimately withdraw to Centreville to join Franklin and Sumner’s corps. The decision to fall back on Centreville was sound. The problem was Pope didn’t clearly state his intentions to his subordinates.
Porter, whose corps had advanced along the Manassas-Gainesville road to within three miles of the Warrenton Turnpike, wanted “written clarification” of Pope’s changing orders. What he got instead was what one historian called “a masterpiece of contradiction and obfuscation” understandable only to Pope. Known as the “Joint Order,” it simultaneously directed Porter to move forward, halt and then prepare to fall back.
“You will please move forward with your joint commands towards Gainesville,” the order began. “Heintzelman, Sigel, and Reno are moving on the Warrenton Pike and must now be not far from Gainesville….As soon as communications are established between this force and your own, the whole command shall halt. It may be necessary to fall back behind Bull Run at Centreville tonight….The troops must occupy a position from which they can reach Bull Run tonight or by morning. The indications are that the whole force of the enemy is moving in this direction at a pace that will bring them here [Centreville] by tomorrow night or the next day.”
As Porter contemplated the meaning of the order, McDowell appeared with a disturbing message: Brig. Gen. John Buford’s Union cavalry had discovered Longstreet was near and the road to Gainesville blocked. “This is no place to fight a battle; we are too far out,” McDowell said before leaving to confer with Pope. Inexplicably, McDowell didn’t share Buford’s dispatch with Pope until 7 p.m., depriving Pope of the one piece of intelligence that might have caused him to rethink his plans.
Pope arrived on the battlefield at 1 p.m. to find Franz Sigel engaged in a series of brutal piecemeal attacks against Jackson, whose corps was tucked behind a steep unfinished railroad embankment north of the Warrenton Turnpike. Pope was delighted. Jackson was not retreating; Sigel had “brought [him] to a stand.” All Pope needed to do was maintain the pressure on Jackson’s front until Porter and McDowell came crashing down on his “exposed” right flank. In his addled state, Pope believed his convoluted Joint Order obligated McDowell and Porter to attack Jackson.
To hold Jackson in check until Porter delivered the fatal blow, Pope ordered three more assaults against the railroad embankment, all of which failed. Tired of waiting for Porter, at 4:30 p.m. he dictated an unequivocal order for Porter to attack. Although clearer than the Joint Order, Pope’s latest directive assumed incorrectly that Longstreet was far from the battlefield.
Porter intended to comply until his lead division commander told him of repeated warnings from the skirmish line of a huge Rebel presence extending across his front and beyond his left flank. Porter then called off the attack. Thinking it crucial to the army’s survival that he hold fast, Porter told his men to take up strong defensive positions and bed down for the night.
That evening, McDowell handed Pope a dispatch Porter had written at 6 p.m. telling of Confederate activity on his left and front, and requesting instructions. “I cannot get water and am out of provisions,” Porter wrote. “Have lost a few men from infantry firing.”
Pope exploded. Have lost a few men from infantry firing? Porter was to have attacked with his entire corps!
In Pope’s mind the answer was simple: Porter was a traitor. McDowell talked Pope out of arresting him, saying it would be bad for morale, but before retiring, Pope ordered Porter to report to army headquarters with his corps at first light for further instructions. Not for an instant did Pope contemplate withdrawing. Even if Longstreet did show up, Pope believed he would form in reserve to Jackson. Nor did Pope make firm plans to attack, deciding to “wait until morning to decide upon what should be done.”
Saturday, August 30, dawned warm and fair on a Union army near exhaustion. “The men had little to eat for two days previous,” Pope recalled. “It may easily be imagined how little these troops after such severe labors and privation were in a condition for active and efficient service.” Pope was hardly better off. His chief sustenance for two days had been a string of cigars on which he puffed furiously—a habit that, on a nearly empty stomach, undoubtedly clouded his thinking as much as it clouded the air around him.
The first news of the morning reanimated him. A Confederate column had been seen before daybreak moving west on the Warrenton Turnpike. It was merely a part of Longstreet’s corps realigning itself, but Pope took the report as evidence Lee was in retreat. McDowell and Sigel agreed, and Pope ordered Porter to attack Jackson before the Virginian withdrew.
The true state of affairs was ominous. Nearly all Pope’s army was assembled along a one-mile front opposite Jackson. Only the single division of Brig. Gen. John F. Reynolds remained south of the Warrenton Turnpike. Pope didn’t realize Lee had the Federals hemmed in. Not only was Jackson still tucked securely behind the unfinished railroad, but Longstreet’s corps extended nearly two miles beyond the Union left.
At 3 p.m., Porter reluctantly attacked. Reynolds shifted to the right, leaving just 2,200 men opposite Longstreet’s 25,000. As Porter feared, concentrated Southern artillery and rifle fire threw the attackers into a bloody and confused jumble that broke to the rear after less than an hour of combat. When Porter’s assault collapsed, Lee was ready. The instant Jackson reported the enemy giving way in his front, Lee directed Longstreet to strike the Union left with his entire corps.
It was 4:30 p.m. when Pope came face to face with the full extent of the crisis. From that instant, a staff officer said, “his conduct was cool, gallant, and prompt.” He moved his headquarters to Henry Hill, defense of which was critical to protecting his line of retreat. While McDowell and Sigel threw six brigades at Longstreet west of Henry Hill, Pope fashioned a strong defensive line and dictated withdrawal orders. Regardless of whether Henry Hill withstood attack, he believed he must remove the army to Centreville. “The result of the battle, the very heavy losses we had suffered, and the complete prostration of our troops from hunger and fatigue made it plain to me that we were no longer able, in the face of such overwhelming odds, to maintain our position so far to the front,” he later explained. Pope repelled Longstreet’s attack on Henry Hill, and after dark extricated his army.
The Army of Virginia was beaten, but not routed. The exhausted Union soldiers trudging to Centreville retreated as an army, not a mob. And not everyone blamed Pope for the loss. Many veterans of the Army of the Potomac thought their revered George B. McClellan and his lieutenant Fitz-John Porter responsible—McClellan for not having brought up Franklin and Sumner, and Porter for having disobeyed Pope’s orders on August 29. Within the Army of Virginia, blame was about equally assigned among Pope, McDowell, McClellan and Porter. But what mattered most was Lincoln’s assessment.
Lincoln still had faith in Pope, but considered McClellan better able to defend the capital and restore army morale. On September 5, Lincoln relieved Pope from command and sent him to Minnesota to quell an Indian uprising.
Second Manassas did not ruin Pope’s career. The war’s end found him commander of the sprawling Division of the Missouri, the largest geographical command in the Union. Pope performed creditably as a department commander in the Indian Wars. “Military critics may dispute as to General Pope’s capacity as a general in command of armies in the field,” the Army and Navy Journal said upon his death in 1892. “[N]one, however, can deny that he was a faithful servant of his country, a patriot, and a scholar deserving of the fullest commendation, and a place in the hearts of his countrymen with those whose ultimate success make them the foremost of the leaders of their time.”
History, however, has taken a less generous view. The errors of Second Manassas defined John Pope in the popular mind. Indeed, as his friend Brig. Gen. Gordon Granger predicted, his grave was made in June 1862, when he answered Secretary Stanton’s summons.
Peter Cozzens is the author of 16 books on the Civil War and the American West, including Shenandoah 1862 and General John Pope: A Life for the Nation.
Originally published in the July 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.