Born on March 16, 1822, in Louisville, Kentucky, John Pope was raised in Kaskaskia, Illinois. His father, Nathaniel Pope, served as a prominent federal judge and was friends with Abraham Lincoln. John Pope graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1842, seventeenth in a class of fifty-six, a ranking high enough to earn him assignment to the Army Corps of Engineers. His classmates included the future Confederate general James Longstreet and the Virginia-born, future Union general John Newton.
Pope saw action in the Mexican War as a lieutenant of engineers at the Battle of Monterrey on September 21–24, 1846, and on the staff of U.S. general Zachary Taylor at the Battle of Buena Vista on February 22–23, 1847. On September 15, 1859, he married Clara P. Horton, daughter of Ohio congressman Valentine B. Horton. Pope accompanied President-elect Lincoln on the inaugural train ride from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.C., in February 1861.
The Civil War Years (1861–1862)
Partly as a consequence of his political connections, the ambitious and often arrogant Pope secured a commission as brigadier general of volunteers on June 14, 1861. Assigned to the Department of the West, Pope was a competent but fractious commander who openly schemed against his commanding officer, Union general John C. Frémont. Lincoln fired Frémont for calling for the emancipation of slaves, and Union troops in the area were reorganized into the Department of the Missouri under Major General Henry W. Halleck.
The new commander assigned Pope to lead an expeditionary force against the important Confederate defenses at New Madrid, Missouri, and at Island Number Ten, on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, both along the Mississippi River. (The island was so named because at one time it was the tenth island in the Mississippi River south of the river’s junction with the Ohio River.) Pope succeeded brilliantly, capturing both and taking 5,000 prisoners with a loss of just thirty-two of his own men. The following month, at the head of the Army of the Mississippi, Pope participated in the siege and capture of Corinth, Mississippi. His aggressiveness won him praise in the army and in the press, but irritated the cautious Halleck.
After the failure of Union general George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in June 1862, President Lincoln summoned Pope to duty in the East. Pope looked upon his transfer with trepidation, partly because he was comfortable with a friendly group of subordinates in the West—quipped one of them: “Good bye Pope, your grave is made”—and partly because he disdained most of the officers in the East, particularly McClellan and Fitz-John Porter. When informed by U.S. secretary of war Edwin M. Stanton that he would be placed in command of a substantial Union force in the East, Pope objected that “I should be much in the situation of the strange dog, without even the right to run out of the village.”
On June 27, 1862, Pope arrived in Washington, a place he described as being overtaken by the “moral odor of sewer gas,” and there received command of the Army of Virginia. The force was cobbled together from three Union corps that already had performed poorly against Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862, and it did not bode well that Pope detested corps commanders Franz Sigel and Irvin McDowell, while remaining merely indifferent to the third, Nathaniel P. Banks. Pope’s feelings were largely reciprocated; indeed, animosity against him was made even worse after he issued a proclamation that impugned the ability of soldiers in the East while trumpeting his own. Porter, for one, spat that “Pope could not quote the Ten Commandments without getting ten falsehoods out of them,” and remarked that with the proclamation, Pope “has now written himself down as what the military world has long known, an ass.”
The Lincoln administration counted on Pope to pursue a vigorous campaign designed not simply to defeat Confederates but to punish them. This was a shift away from McClellan, who was known for his conservative approach to warfare and his belief that the current conflict should be fought in such a way as to preserve the possibility of conciliation between North and South. In fact, Pope’s transfer to the East had been a way for the Republican administration to push its hard-war policies, which the Democrat McClellan opposed, without expending the political capital necessary to oust McClellan entirely.
Pope’s General Orders No. 5, issued on July 18, 1862, directed the Army of Virginia to “subsist upon the country,” while his General Orders No. 7, issued the same month, held civilians who lived near the sites of guerrilla attacks responsible for damages. Confederates perceived these to be violations of the tradition of honorable warfare, and in response, Robert E. Lee labeled Pope a “miscreant.”
The Second Manassas Campaign
Pope took the field in Virginia with two primary objectives: to protect the Shenandoah Valley and Washington, D.C., and to draw Confederate forces away from McClellan, who was extricating his Army of the Potomac from the peninsula of Virginia. Having decisively defeated McClellan in front of Richmond during the Seven Days’ Battles in June 1862, Lee now moved to prevent Pope and McClellan from uniting. He instructed Jackson to move against Banks’s corps of Pope’s army near Culpeper, which resulted in the inconclusive Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9. After sparring with Pope along the Rappahannock River until August 25, Lee sent Jackson on a flanking march far into the rear of Pope’s troops, where, two days later, Jackson destroyed the Union supply depot at Manassas Junction. This compelled Pope to abandon his defensive line along the Rappahannock and move against Jackson, who had taken a strong defensive position on the site of the First Battle of Manassas (1861).
On August 28, elements of the Army of Virginia clashed with Jackson at Brawner’s Farm, and the next day Pope launched several poorly coordinated and unsuccessful assaults against Jackson’s front. That afternoon Pope ordered Porter, whose newly arrived corps had come up on his left, to attack Jackson’s right flank. Through no fault of Porter’s the attack failed to come off, and the fighting ended in a stalemate. On the afternoon of August 30 Pope again ordered Porter to attack Jackson, and again the attack failed. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Pope, Confederate general James Longstreet had reached the battlefield the night before. Lee ordered him to counterattack, and the Confederates drove Pope’s army back in a stunning defeat. The best Pope could do was prevent Lee, at the Battle of Chantilly on September 1, from placing the Confederate army between Pope and Washington.
On September 6, 1862, Pope was relieved of command and reassigned to the Department of the Northwest to help suppress a Sioux Indian uprising in Minnesota. Blaming his defeat at Second Manassas on Porter’s failure to attack the first day, Pope saw to it that Porter was court-marshaled and dismissed from the army. Pope battled Porter’s attempts at rehabilitation until, in 1879, an Army Board of Inquiry concluded that Porter had been unfairly convicted.
Service on the Western Plains
During 1863 and 1864 Pope directed further operations against the Sioux and by 1865 was the U.S. Army’s foremost expert on Indian affairs. In February 1865 Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant reassigned him to command of the Military Division of the Missouri, the second-largest geographical command in the United States. In 1867 he was appointed governor of the Reconstruction Third Military District, which included Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, and he vigorously defended the voting rights of African Americans. After a brief stint as commander of the Department of the Lakes in Detroit, Michigan, Pope returned to the Plains and commanded the Department of the Missouri from 1869 until 1883. He was an architect of the Red River War (1874–1875), which subdued the Southern Plains tribes. Blaming white encroachment for Indian troubles, Pope advocated humane treatment of subjugated tribes.
After forty-four years of service, Pope retired as a major general in the Regular Army on March 16, 1886. Two years later his wife, Clara Pope, died. He wrote his memoirs for the National Tribune, which serialized the book between February 1887 and March 1891. In his writing, Pope forgave where he felt able and dispatched his enemies, including McClellan, with wit. Of McClellan, Pope wrote that he “admired himself only, and could never bear a rival near that shrine.” Pope died in his sleep on September 23, 1892, at Ohio Soldiers and Sailors Home in Sandusky, Ohio, and was buried with his wife in Bellefontaine Cemetery, in Saint Louis, Missouri.
“Military critics may dispute as to General Pope’s capacity as a general in command of armies in the field,” offered the editors of the Army and Navy Journal on his death. “None, however, can deny that he was a faithful servant of his country … deserving [of] … a place in the hearts of his countrymen with those whose ultimate success made them foremost of the leaders of their time.”