I recently finished reading Peter Cozzens biography General John Pope A Life for the Nation. Those of us who are students of the Maryland Campaign view Pope through the narrow lens of events in the east in the summer of 1862. Just like there is a tendency to stereotype McClellan, there is a similarly inclination to do the same to Pope. He is remembered as the loud mouth braggart who alienated the officers and men of his Army of Virginia and of the Army of the Potomac with his bombastic proclamation to them shortly after assuming command. Robert E. Lee calls him a miscreant and orders Jackson to “suppress” Pope when he issues equally controversial orders that make hard war on the civilians of Virginia. Pope fumbles through the second Bull Run campaign and is exiled to Minnesota to fight the Sioux. This simplistic view hardly stands the test of closer scrutiny. Pope certainly had a big mouth that got him in trouble on more than one occasion. He wasn’t afraid to pull political strings if it would help to advance his career. But before and after the second Bull Run campaign, Pope served his country in a highly creditable way.
Pope was a successful general in the west. In the spring of 1862 he captured Island Number 10 in the Mississippi and participated in the Corinth campaign with Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. In June of 1862 Pope was summoned by Edwin Stanton to command the scattered forces that had been maneuvering unsuccessfully in the Shenandoah Valley to capture Stonewall Jackson. He proceeded east with great reluctance. Gordon Granger, one of his subordinate commanders in Pope’s Army of the Mississippi would bid his commander farewell with the prophetic words “Goodbye Pope, your grave is made.” Pope’s reputation as a successful aggressive commander was viewed with great anticipation by many of his soldiers in Virginia. His orders to make war on the Virginians was viewed with great anger across the south, but most of Pope’s new soldiers were only to willing to comply with them after campaigning up till then under the more restrained warfare of McClellan. However his infamous proclamation of July 14 1862 that impugned their fighting ability caused morale to plummet. Pope was undeniably at his worst during the Second Bull Run Campaign and the decisive defeat suffered by the Union provided Robert E. Lee with the momentum to propel the Army of Norther Virginia across the Potomac into Maryland. In the chaos and crisis of the first week of September 1862, Lincoln reluctantly chose McClellan to pursue Lee over the now apparently discredited Pope. Lincoln appreciated Little Mac’s proven organization skills and recognized that he had the love of his men and the support of the officers. But Lincoln never forgot that McClellan left Pope to “get out of his scrape”. Pope was sent to Minnesota to put down a Sioux uprising that had broken out and threatened to overwhelm the scattered settlements of that far western state. He realized that he made a huge mistake in accepting command in the east. While passing through Chicago enroute to Minnesota, he told well-wishers “My friends-the state of Illinois it has been for many years my home- and I am glad to return to it. God Almighty knows sorry I am I ever left it.”
While Pope’s exile was viewed with delight in Democratic Party circles and by the McClellan clique of the Army of the Potomac, Pope didn’t leave town without some parting shots of his own. He preferred charges of dereliction of duty against McClellan protégé Fitz John Porter for Porter’s apparent disobedience of Pope’s orders to attack with his corps at Second Bull Run. Porter retained command of the Fifth Corps at McClellan’s request during the Maryland crisis but was relieved of command shortly thereafter and tried by court martial in December of 1862. Found guilty by the court martial board hand picked by Edwin Stanton, Lincoln approved the findings and recommendation. Fitz John Porter was cashiered from the United States Army on January 21, 1863. Porter would spend the next 23 years fighting for redemption. In 1879, the Schofield Board would overturn the court martial results but it wasn't until 1885 that Democratic president Grover Cleveland signed a relief bill that reinstated Porter to the army with the rank of colonel and placed him on the retirement list the same day.
In Minnesota, Pope found his niche again competently handling the suppression of the Sioux uprising. Gratified by the results of the Porter court martial, he was anxious to get back into the war. His competent and restrained handling of the Indian crisis on the western frontier had not gone unnoticed and his apparent exile there angered many of the soldiers who he served with in the west. Pope’s advocacy for humane treatment of the Indians was years ahead of most military officers of the time. He was generally well thought of by U.S. Grant. Another friend, William T. Sherman would sarcastically react to Pope’s Minnesota reassignment. Said Sherman, “I see the people have made a clear sacrifice of Pope and McDowell, and are now content with having killed two of their own generals. This is a glorious war.” With the elevation of these western generals to the top military commands later in the war, Pope was hopeful that he would move closer to the main stream of the war. But the bureaucracy moved slowly. It was not until February 3, 1865 that Pope was appointed to command of the Military Division of the Missouri headquartered at St. Louis, Missouri. As Peter Cozzens says in his book, “Ulysses S. Grant had restored much of the luster to John Pope’s tarnished reputation." Pope would end his military career in March 1886 as a major general in the regular army of the United States, ironically filling the major general billet vacated by his erstwhile Bull Run confidante Irwin McDowell.
That Pope is such a controversial figure can be measured by the quotes I have about him. See them here at Antietam Voices. They range from effusive praise to downright condemnation. Cozzens’s book captures this paradox and should be studied to attempt to make a balanced appraisal of the man. Probably Union naval officer Andrew Foote said it best about Pope. “A good man of dash. Give him 10,000 men to carry a position and it is done promptly. He has courage, energy and enterprise, and in a smaller field was remarkably successful, but in a large theatre of action he is out of his place and nothing but failure could be expected.”