American Civil War: Major General John Pope

Major General John Pope. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

John Pope - Early Life & Career:

Born in Louisville, KY on March 16, 1822, John Pope was the son of lawyer Nathaniel Pope. Moving the family to Kaskaskia, IL, Nathaniel became a well known federal judge and was friends with Abraham Lincoln. Educated locally, the younger Pope decided on a military career and in 1838 received an appointment to West Point. Arriving at the academy, he proved an above-average student and placed seventeenth of fifty-six in the class of 1842.

Assigned to the Army Corps of Engineers, Pope initially was posted to Florida during the final days of the Second Seminole War. With the conflict's conclusion, he began regular engineering duties such as surveying the border with Canada.

John Pope - Mexican-American War:

With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846, Pope traveled to join Major General Zachary Taylor's army along the Rio Grande. Advancing that fall, he took part in the Battle of Monterrey and earned a brevet promotion to first lieutenant. With the successful conclusion of the campaign, many of Taylor's troops were transferred out to take part in Major General Winfield Scott's campaign against Veracruz. Remaining with Taylor and serving on his staff, Pope performed well at the stunning victory at the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847. For his efforts, he was brevetted to captain. Returning north after the war, Pope saw duty surveying the frontier in Minnesota as well as assessing the navigability of the Red River.

John Pope - The Civil War Approaches:

Made the chief engineer of the Department of New Mexico in 1851, Pope remained in the Southwest for two years before commencing an exhaustive effort to survey a route for the transcontinental railroad. On September 15, 1859, he married Clara P. Horton, the daughter of Ohio Congressman Valentine P.

Horton. Following the election of Lincoln in the fall of 1860, Pope reconnected with his father's friend. With the secession crisis unfolding and the Civil War looming, he volunteered to escort the new president-elect to Washington, DC. One of four officers selected to travel with Lincoln, Pope traveled from Springfield, IL to Washington in February 1861. Remaining in the capital, the ambitious officer lobbied to act as an aide to the President. Instead, due to his military record, Pope received a commission as a brigadier general of volunteers on June 14, 1861.

John Pope - In the West:

After an initial assignment to recruit volunteers in Illinois, Pope assumed command of the District of North Missouri in July. Serving under Major General John C. Frémont, he quickly began to dislike his superior and began plotting and politicking against him. When Frémont commenced emancipating slaves in Missouri that fall, he was relieved by Lincoln on November 2. Shortly thereafter, Pope won a minor victory over the Confederates at Blackwater Creek. Playing up this triumph in the press, Pope bolstered his reputation and earned favor with Frémont's replacement, Major General Henry W. Halleck. On February 23, 1862, Halleck directed Pope to lead the newly-formed Army of the Mississippi and ordered him to move against New Madrid, MO and the fortifications at Island No.


Moving south, Pope quickly captured New Madrid on March 14 and began operations against Island No. 10 in concert with gunboats led by Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote. Over the next three weeks, the two men were able to isolate the garrison and compel its surrender on April 7. In the course of the fighting, Pope lost only 23 killed while capturing around 5,000 Confederates. For his success, he was promoted to major general dated from March 21. With Island No. 10 secured, Pope moved his army south to join in Halleck's siege of Corinth, MS. Following the conclusion of this campaign in late May, Pope received orders to travel east to take command of the newly-formed Army of Virginia.

John Pope - Disaster in the East:

Appointing Pope to lead this new force in late June, Lincoln hoped that Pope would bring some aggressiveness to the Eastern Theater where operations were largely characterized by Major General George B. McClellan's slow advance up the Peninsula.

Pope's new command was an amalgamation of Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley and Northern Virginia, including one led by Frémont. Unwilling to serve under his former scheming subordinate, he instead resigned his commission. In a stunning display of arrogance, Pope issued a message to his men on July 14 which chided them for their earlier failures while lauding the success of the Union armies in the West. As McClellan's campaign on the Peninsula collapsed, Pope received reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac which enlarged his force to around 70,000 men.

Having defeated McClellan, General Robert E. Lee turned his attention to Pope. Sending part of his army north under the leadership of Major Generals Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and A.P. Hill, Lee hoped to destroy Pope before finishing off McClellan. On August 9, the two Confederate leaders defeated part of Pope's army at the Battle of Cedar Mountain. While Pope re-concentrated his forces, Lee ordered Jackson to cut Pope's lines of communication. Moving around the Union right flank, he ultimately succeeded destroying the Union supply depot at Manassas Junction on August 27 before assuming a position on the old First Bull Run battlefield. Jackson's actions compelled Pope to fall back towards Manassas. Finding Jackson's men late on August 28, Pope opened the Second Battle of Manassas and commenced major assaults the next day.

As fighting raged between Jackson and Pope, Lee directed Major General James Longstreet's corps towards the battle. When the battle resumed the next day, Longstreet mounted a massive assault on Pope's left flank which routed Union forces. Driven from the field, Pope's army re-concentrated around Centreville. In the wake of the disaster at Manassas, he blamed Major General Fitz John Porter for the defeat and accused him of disobeying orders on August 29. Court-martialed, Porter was found guilty in January 1863 and dismissed from the service. With the failure of the campaign, Pope was relieved of command on September 12 and his army merged into McClellan's Army of the Potomac.

Five days later, McClellan halted Lee's invasion of Maryland at the Battle of Antietam.

John Pope - Later Career:

Beaten in the East, Pope was assigned to command the Department of the Northwest in Minnesota. Arriving, he directed US troops to victory in the Dakota War of 1862 against the Sioux. He remained in the Northwest until January 30, 1865 when he was appointed to lead the Military Division of the Missouri. Following the end of the war, Pope oversaw the Department of the Missouri. In April 1867, he moved south and assumed control of the Third Military District, with headquarters in Atlanta, as part of Reconstruction. While there, he defended the voting rights of African Americans. Two years later, Pope returned to the Department of the Missouri where he spent the fourteen years directing operations during the wars with the Native Americans. In 1879, his reputation sustained a severe hit when a board of inquiry cleared Porter in regard to his actions at Second Manassas and placed blame for the defeat on Pope.

Despite these findings, Pope was promoted to major general in the regular army in 1882 before departing his command the following year. Retiring in 1886, he published his memoirs a short time later. Dying on September 23, 1892, Pope was buried next to his wife at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, MO.

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