Meet John Pope

President Lincoln had to contend with a new Confederate general in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia: Robert E. Lee. Wanting to best him, Lincoln turned to a man that would soon upset others…even his own Union soldiers.

While the Peninsula Campaign was slowly unraveling for Union General George B. McClellan east of Richmond, President Lincoln and his administration were busy at work trying to determine how to regain the initiative in Virginia. Having now experienced McClellan’s overly cautious nature, they sought a general that could match wits with the Confederacy’s new commander in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia: Gen. Robert E. Lee. For this task, they looked west and found Gen. John Pope.

Pope was a brash, outspoken, and confident man. Several key victories in the west along the Mississippi River combined with his own braggadocio had garnered the attention of the press, and later Lincoln and his cabinet. At Lincoln’s request, Pope arrived in Washington at the end of June and was given command of the new Army of Virginia, pieced together from various corps based in and around Washington DC. He butted heads immediately with several of his corps commanders and spoke openly of his distaste for McClellan and others. Clearly Pope was not out to make friends. On July 14th, 1862, Pope wrote a boastful statement to the Army of Virginia that angered many of the soldiers under his command, suggesting that eastern Union soldiers were more cowardly than those in the west:

Let us understand each other. I have come to you from the West, where we have always seen the backs of our enemies; from an army whose business it has been to seek the adversary and to beat him when he was found; whose policy has been attack and not defense. In but one instance has the enemy been able to place our Western armies in defensive attitude. I presume that I have been called here to pursue the same system and to lead you against the enemy. It is my purpose to do so, and that speedily. I am sure you long for an opportunity to win the distinction you are capable of achieving. That opportunity I shall endeavor to give you.

Meantime I desire you to dismiss from your minds certain phrases, which I am sorry to find so much in vogue amongst you. I hear constantly of “taking strong positions and holding them,” of “lines of retreat,” and of “bases of supplies.” Let us discard such ideas. The strongest position a soldier should desire to occupy is one from which he can most easily advance against the enemy. Let us study the probable lines of retreat of our opponents, and leave our own to take care of themselves. Let us look before us, and not behind. Success and glory are in the advance, disaster and shame lurk in the rear. Let us act on this understanding, and it is safe to predict that your banners shall be inscribed with many a glorious deed and that your names will be dear to your countrymen forever.

Despite his brash nature, Pope had the support of Lincoln and his cabinet. They believed it was time to shift to a more aggressive type of warfare. McClellan fought conservatively with minimal impact to the citizenry in hopes that peace could still be reached between the Union and Confederacy. Pope felt that the citizens of the South should feel some pain for supporting the rebel cause. In July, he issued two general orders to his army. General Order No. 5 instructed his troops to “subsist upon the country” while in Confederate territory, offering vouchers to farmers to be repaid upon the conclusion of the rebellion. General Order No. 7 addressed the issue of guerrilla warfare. It read that any house from which gunfire was directed at Union soldiers should be burned and its occupants arrested.

These new aggressive tactics would earn Pope even more disdain–this time from Robert E. Lee, who labeled him a “miscreant.”

Pope’s initial plans were to protect Washington, but also to move his troops in a way that would draw Confederate forces away to allow McClellan to regroup and make another attempt on Richmond from the Peninsula. However, having dealt with McClellan for the past several weeks, Lee doubted that McClellan would take the initiative again and felt he was not a serious threat to Richmond. This allowed him to focus on the newly-arrived Pope.

Would Pope’s bravado and aggression bring about a much-needed reversal of fortune for the Union or would Lee seize the initiative yet again? Check in next month as we head into the next phase of the war in Virginia, known as the Northern Virginia Campaign.

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Phil Williams

In addition to being an amateur Civil War enthusiast, Phil is a musician, beard owner, dance party enthusiast, technology geek, and spends whatever time is left over working in the advertising industry.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. I smell a rerun of Bull Run in the works.

  2. Bottom line is Lincoln was desperate.

  3. Matt on said:

    He does not wear a funny hat.

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