A new biography presents a fresh picture of General John Pope, and Robert Sneden’s pictures are presented.
By Brooks D. Simpson
If, as historian T. Harry Williams once put it, George B. McClellan was the “problem child” of the Civil War, then John Pope was the favorite butt of many a joke, especially those comparing his hindquarters to his headquarters. After taking his initial bow on the national stage in early 1862 with the capture of Island No. 10 along the Mississippi River, Pope rocketed to prominence when he was named to command the newly formed Army of Virginia–only to find himself shuttled off to obscurity less than two months later after suffering a humiliating defeat at the Second Battle of Manassas. That single moment of infamy overshadowed the remainder of his career, and some of his more bombastic pronouncements contributed to a characterization of him as an arrogant imbecile.
Luckily, Civil War biography offers nearly unlimited opportunity to revise long-standing assessments, and it is to this task that Peter Cozzens has applied himself, resulting in the first full-length, scholarly biography of the controversial Northern general–General John Pope: A Life for the Union (University of Illinois Press, Champaign, 2000, $39.95).
Born in 1822 in Kentucky, Pope graduated from West Point in 1842, fought with distinction during the Mexican War and was fortunate in his choice of Clara Horton as his wife. Joining President-elect Abraham Lincoln on his way to Washington in 1861, Pope attempted to reinforce the bonds of acquaintanceship previously forged between the incoming chief executive and the general’s father. But the younger Pope nearly derailed his own prospects by making indiscreet and intemperate remarks about outgoing President James Buchanan’s conduct of affairs during the secession crisis. Soon after the outbreak of hostilities, Pope went to Illinois to help raise Federal regiments.
Assigned to duty in Missouri, Pope cracked the Confederate defenses along the Mississippi River at Island No. 10. After participating in the Union advance on Corinth, he received orders to report for duty at Washington, where a command was cobbled together for him from various units around the capital and the Shenandoah Valley. Pope’s elevation had political import as well, for his advocacy of a harsh and relentless war against the Rebels won him supporters in Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, leaders of the radical wing of the Republican Party. Pope stood in marked contrast to the cautious and conservative McClellan, under fire for his recent setbacks in front of Richmond.
The heart of Cozzens’ biography focuses on Pope’s handling of the Army of Virginia, especially at Second Manassas. Readers looking for simple resolutions of the Fitz-John Porter controversy or what exactly prompted Pope to operate as he did will find that Cozzens often describes but does not fully explain the factors that shaped those critical decisions.
It appears that Pope did not effectively interpret information, found it difficult to manage a large force and dismissed evidence of Confederate troops massing on his left flank. Nor did he enjoy full cooperation among his subordinates, and the mutual distrust that resulted contributed to the battle’s final ignominious outcome.
Pope’s military career did not end with the disaster at Second Manassas–his next assignment was to subdue a Sioux uprising in Minnesota–but he never again took the field in a Civil War engagement. Instead, he commenced a war of words against Porter for the corps commander’s alleged misconduct at Second Manassas. Thus began a lifelong crusade of revenge against Porter that apparently consumed much of Pope’s creative energies. Successful in securing a court-martial of Porter, Pope then fended off efforts by the cashiered general and his supporters to reopen the case. Between 1879 and 1885, studies of the battle vindicated Porter’s conduct at the fight. He was eventually restored to the Army. By the end of the book even Cozzens appears exasperated by the controversy.
The tale of the feud with Porter obscured in the popular mind Pope’s continuing and considerable military service. Holding several commands in the West, he played a significant and sometimes unrecognized role in shaping policy toward American Indians. In less than a year of service, he also left his imprint on Reconstruction in Georgia, Florida and Alabama as head of the Third Military District under the Reconstruction Act. Never afraid of sharing his opinions with others, Pope reveals himself in his letters to be intelligent and headstrong. Secure in his belief that his own views were correct, he was not above underhanded behavior to advance his interests. And like many of his peers, he did not refrain from sharing his version of history with an avid readership.
Cozzens’ main accomplishment is to give readers a thorough examination of Pope’s life. He was a man of considerable strengths and abilities as well as signal weaknesses, some of which were self-destructive. It may be that he was overwhelmed by his responsibilities when he came East, and that the initial praise accorded him as an advocate of hard war may have turned his head a bit. In truth, Second Manassas was a spectacular defeat that nevertheless had little impact on the course of the overall conflict, unless one argues that it induced Lee to undertake his invasion of Maryland, which did bring about significant consequences. But the failed battle marred Pope’s reputation to such an extent that he never recovered, and as a result the Union may have lost the services of a generally competent officer. We’ll never know for sure.