General John Pope was a senior Union officer during the American Civil War. Pope fought successfully in the Western Theatre but is best known for his exploits in the Eastern Theatre of the American Civil War. Pope’s career was overshadowed by his defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run.
John Pope was born on March 16th 1822 in Louisville, Kentucky. His father served as a judge in Illinois Territory and knew Abraham Lincoln when he worked as a lawyer.
Pope graduated from US Military Academy in 1842 and became a career army officer. He fought in the Mexican-American War during which time he was given the temporary rank of captain. However, Pope spent a great deal of his time as a topographical officer mapping out Florida and New Mexico. Prior to the American Civil War, Pope’s main task was his involvement in the planning for a railway that was to cross America.
Pope’s family connection to the Lincoln’s was seen when Lincoln was voted President. Pope was one of just four officers selected to escort the President –elect to Washington DC.
Shortly after the American Civil War broke out in April 1861, Pope was put in charge of Illinois volunteers with the rank of Brigadier General (June 1861).
Pope fought successfully in Missouri and along the Mississippi River – all part of the Western Theatre of the American Civil War. The overall commander of the Western Theatre was Major General John Frémont. He did not get on with Pope and there is little doubt that Pope used his connections in Washington to try to get Frémont relieved of his command. There is also littler doubt that Frémont knew what Pope was trying to do. It was hardly a recipe for military success – yet Pope was successful both militarily and in his attempt to get Frémont removed from his command – he was succeeded by Major General Henry Halleck.
Pope achieved a victory at Blackwater, Missouri, that resulted in the Confederates in the region retreating and the capture of 1,200 prisoners-of-war. Suitably impressed with this achievement, Halleck appointed Pope to command the Army of the Mississippi in February 1862.
Pope’s army consisted of 25,000 men and his primary task was to clear the Confederates from the Mississippi River. In this he was very successful. In April 1862, the heavily fortified Confederate post called Island No 10 was captured. 12,000 men surrendered along with their weapons. The loss of Island No 10 freed up the Mississippi River for Union navigation as far south as Memphis. In recognition of this achievement, Pope was promoted to Major General.
The success Pope experienced in the Western Theatre was not matched by his contemporaries in the Eastern Theatre. Major General George McClellan failed in his attempt to capture Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign and it was felt that Pope might just have that magic touch to rectify the situation.
Pope was brought from the Western Theatre to the Eastern Theatre and given command of the Army of Virginia. His success in the Western Theatre may well have gone to his head – he was very keen to let anyone who would listen know about his successes there, especially the Union press. However, he immediately angered the men in the Army of Virginia by criticising their past performance in battle and comparing their failure in the east with his success in the west. His message to them regarding their lack of fighting efficiency would come back to haunt Pope very quickly.
His first major engagement in battle was against an army commanded by General Robert E Lee aided by ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. By any standards they were a formidable pairing and Pope was definitely out of his league with regards to his strategic thinking.
Pope had a major advantage at the Second Battle of Bull Run - his far larger army. Pope had 70,000 men at his disposal while Lee had 55,000. In fact, Lee decided to split his army in two. He sent Jackson with 24,000 men to attack Pope’s rear after outflanking Pope’s army. When Lee actually attacked Pope’s main force, he did so with 31,000 men. However, the simultaneous attack in the front and in the rear of his army confused Pope. To make matters worse for Pope, Jackson captured his main supply base at Manassas Station.
Pope suffered a major defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas) fought between August 28th and August 29th 1862. Pope was simply outthought by Lee but he tried to push the blame for this defeat onto his subordinate officers, primarily Brigadier General Fitz John Porter who was accused of disobeying orders. Porter faced a court martial and was found guilty. In 1879, Porter was officially exonerated of all charges by a Board of Inquiry, which placed the blame for the defeat firmly on Pope.
However, his attempts to push the blame for the overwhelming defeat on others came to nothing and Pope was relieved of his command in September 1862.
Following his defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Pope was moved to Minnesota where he commanded the US Army in the Dakota War of 1862. He was given command of the Department of the Missouri in January 1865. He negotiated the surrender of Confederate troops in the region following Lee’s surrender in April 1865.
In April 1867, Pope was appointed governor the ‘Reconstruction 3rd Military District’ and set up his headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. He held this post until December 1867. Probably his most famous action during his time as governor was to order that African Americans could serve on juries during trials. On paper, it was an important statement of intent even if the southern states post-American Civil War were not conducive to civil rights.
Following his time in Atlanta, Pope fought in the Apache Wars.
He had to suffer the public embarrassment of the findings of the 1879 Porter Board of Inquiry.
Pope was promoted to Major General in 1882 and retired from the army in 1886.
John Pope died on September 23rd 1892.