How Bad Was John Pope?

pickettcsa

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On June 26, 1862, President Lincoln relieved George McClellan of command of the Army of the Potomac and assigned Major General John Pope in his place. Pope has been characterized as being arrogant, if not boastful, in personality but aggressive in battle which, after dealing with McClellan's reluctance to fight Robert E. Lee, was what Lincoln was looking for. Other than victories on Island No. 10 and New Madrid, Pope had little to boast of other than some well placed publicity. Still, Lincoln was swayed to appoint Pope as commanding general ahead of others who were more senior to him including Fitz John Porter and Phil Kearney. Pope's arrogance even went as far as to insult his new command when he addressed them saying, "Let us understand each other. I come from the West, where we have always seen the back of our enemies; from an army whose business has been to seek out its adversary and to beat him where he was found; whose policy has been to attack and not defend (a deliberate insult directed towards McClellan)...." . The politics of the Army of the Potomac were such that several generals expressed their displeasure of serving underneath Pope. Still, Pope's bragging did not serve him well as he was out-generaled by Lee and slammed by Jackson at Second Manassas. Pope was instantaneously blamed for the poor showing of the Army by both newspapers and politicians alike and Pope was canned. Pope, in his defense, blamed Fitz John Porter, specifically, for disobeying orders and refusing to support him during the campaign, as well as Irwin McDowell and John Reynolds. McClellan even took a pot shot at Pope as well writing to Lincoln that he should, "leave Pope to pull himself out of this scrape.". Afterwards, Pope was re-assigned to the Pacific Northwest where he was an able administrator and fought successful campaigns against the Indians. Do you believe that history has given John Pope a fair shake or was he a victim of Union Army politics?
 

elektratig

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I've just finished John Hennessy's "Return to Bull Run", which I heartily recommend. Basically, Hennessy finds Pope not all that guilty of being arrogant and boastful (although his "attack and not defend" comment, which you quote, was incredibly stupid). However, he does condemn Pope without qualification on strictly military terms -- letting Jackson get around him, ignoring all the indications that Longstreet was sitting for over a day on his left, sending Porter an order that was incomprehensible, stubbornly clinging to the illusion that the Confederates were "retreating", etc.

McClellan was an absolute jerk, and I have no sympathy for Fitz John Porter (although the charges against him seem to have been unjustified), but the debacle at Second Manassas was John Pope's fault, no one else's, and no rational commander in chief would have left Pope in charge after the debacle at Second Manassas. Although Pope attempted to deflect blame on others, one gets the impression that in his heart even John Pope knew this.
 

ben_ross

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I loved the Book..I also like how Pope thought he was "persuing" a retreating Lee when he attacked on the 2nd day, but then he got his left destroyed....
 

ole

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Pickettcsa, electratig and ben_ross:

First, welcome aboard and let's talk about battles and generals.

Pope, like previous and subsequent generals, was an example of Lincoln's search for a leader who could fight and win. Pope had made a name for himself with the Island No. 10 victory and so made himself a candidate. Grant was equally well-admired, but he was involved in a campaign when Pope had finished his. So. Pope became the next experiment in the quest for a winner.

By the way, Pope did not lead the Army of the Potomac. It was the Army of Virginia he led to that particular disaster. Elements of the Army of the Potomac were taken from McClellan and assigned to him.

In defense of Pope, his core and division commanders, with few exceptions, disappeared from important commands after that particular conflict. It might be said that he didn't have the proper tools. Then again, it is doubtful that he would have been able to use them properly if he had them.
 

ole

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Forgot to mention. I read Hennesey's book and was fortunate enough to get him to sign it some years ago. It was instrumental in my interest in the unpleasantness. Actually, it gave me no end of trouble in starting logs on every major battle studied with orders of battle, engagements on the field, etc., ad nauseum.
 

elektratig

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ole,

Thanks for the comments. You're absolutely right, of course, that Pope was not commanding the Army of the Potomac.

You're also correct that Pope didn't have the greatest material to work with. That said, I still think that Pope was hopeless; he had no idea what was going on. I'm not sure what happened to him to cause his collapse. Presumably it was the Peter Principle at work: the strain of commanding a much larger army than he had before in the highest-visability theater and awe of Lee?

I certainly don't blame Lincoln for trying him out. Anyone but McClellan! Indeed, Lincoln's rare combination of patience (putting up with McClellan for a year), humility (taking McClellan back after Second Manassas) and willingness to experiment (McDowell to McLellan to Pope to McLellan to Burnside to Hooker to Meade to Grant) until he found a winner was one of the keys to Union victory, IMHO. (And, yes, I know that technically Meade remained in command of the AOP through the end, but I'm looking at reality!)
 

ole

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Electratig, that was a time. Put yourself in Lincoln's shoes. No one, repeat, no one out there looked like a winning general. Pope had a win. And then some magic happens. To be kind, it might be said that Pope had risen beyond his level of competence. As did most leaders of "eastern" northern armies. He was, perhaps unfortunately, sidetracked to Indian things. He might have been a decent division, if not corps commander. Alas. The timing was not right. So he ends up chasing Indians across the plains of Minnesota and North Dakota.

I appreciate your grasp of the situation with which Lincoln was faced. Can you imagine his relief he felt when his choice of Grant proved, finally, to be what he had been seeking for the last three years?
 

elektratig

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Ole,

As to Pope, I think that after Second Manassas, Lincoln had no choice but to send him far, far away. I don't think that demoting him to corps or division commander was feasible. I suppose the more interesting question is whether he could have succeeded as corps or division commander if he had not been made head of the AOV first. But then, who would have commanded the army?

As to Lincoln, I'm in total agreement. How he persevered, I'll never understand. Had I been president as of, say, August 1862 or January 1863, I'm sure I would have had a breakdown. Lincoln sometimes got depressed, but he just kept on experimenting, doing the best he could with the material available. My admiration for him is boundless.
 

ole

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electratig:

excellent point. Demotion was not in the political cards. Exile was the only alternative to sacking an otherwise valuable, minor general.

And, have you considered why all the best generals saw the elephant in the western theater? Meade excepted, but he was only good enough and not (personally) considered among the "best." Is it that all the winning was done in the west and therefore captured the attention of history? Given the competion, was winning in the west easier than in the east? Food for thought.
 

elektratig

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Ole,

I suspect there are a number of reasons -- there usually are.

First, to turn Pickett on his head, I suspect that Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, et al. had something to do with it. I'm still up in the air about Lee's strategic vision, but there's no doubt he was a tactical genius.

Second, I think that McClellan infected the Eastern armies with a timidity and slowness that they really didn't overcome until the final days of the War. Even in the Overland Campaign (I'm half way through Rhea's books), you see over and over again a timidity and cumbersomeness (if that's a word), from Meade on down, that frustrates Grant over and over again.

Third, when you think about it, how many great generals can you expect to surface during a four-year period? The North was lucky enough to come up with at least two -- Grant and Sherman. The Confederacy came up with one or two -- Lee and Jackson (although Jackson never got a chance to show how he could perform in charge of a large, independent army). (And in case the Longstreet fans get on my back, I'll say that he was an excellent Corps commander but demonstrated that independent army command was beyond him.) It so happened that Union discovered its great generals in the West and the Confederacy in the East.

Just some thoughts.

e
 

30th_il

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I thought he led the Catholic community quite well during his tenure...oh wait...that's John Pope...ahem...not Pope John...
 

Johnny Rube

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It's hard to explain Pope's behavior at Second Manassas. He probably was not qualified to deal with both Jackson and Longstreet's armies. It appears that he became fixated on the notion that Jackson was retreating, and underestimated the power and imminent danger of Longstreet's army. And caught up in that fantasy, his orders to other Union generals were confusing and conflicting, an unfortunate situation that handicapped them.

Who knows? I've speculated that taking into consideration Pope's considerable ego, he may simply have been reflecting on the glory and praise (not to mention power) that would be heaped upon him once he had defeated the army of the most aggressive general the South had. (Jackson) Whatever was the reason behind his confusing performance, he handed the Union their second defeat at Manassas.

To give credit where credit is due, Pope seems to have found his niche in dealing with the Indian problems in the west. I don't think he was a "bad man,"......just obnoxious and deluded.
 

elektratig

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I'm reading Peter Cozzens's biography of him, "General John Pope: A Life for the Nation." On the one hand, it's understandable why he was asked to come East -- he was a solid Republican and did a good job taking Island No. 10 and on other assignments. On the other hand, there were hints even during the Island No. 10 campaign that he might come apart under pressure, becoming "harried and excitable" and lashing out.

He seems to have been a self-centered man who could annoy others. At the same time, many of his Western colleagues wished him well when he was called East. Indeed, in some ways it is hard not to feel sorry for him. When Pope headed for Washington, Gordon Granger told him regretfully, "Good-bye Pope, your grave is made", and it's pretty clear that Pope knew he was headed for at least a political quagmire. He really didn't want to go. He was devoted to his wife and newborn daughter. Then to make matters worse his daughter died on July 19 at the age of two months and Pope was unable to comfort his wife in their grief.

In short, his collapse seems to have been the cumulative result of a number of factors: a naturally brittle temperment; aggressiveness probably masking insecurity; homesickness and grief; a much larger command than he'd ever held in a theater he knew little about; a superior foe; the knowledge that many were rooting for him to fail; and little help or guidance from those who were theoretically on his side (Halleck in particular was useless or worse), leaving him feeling as if was dangling in the wind, as it were. It was all too much, and he became overwhelmed.
 

ole

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wt_jimbos:

Rhea's books are well worth having. They may all be available in various conditions on abebooks.com. There are associated booksellers down under that may have some or all of them at a far more attractive price than new and/or imported.

elektratig:
A most insightful analysis of Pope. Something to consider: Lincoln needed a general who won battles. Pope was most notably associated with the taking of Island #10 (one might assume that his reports gave himself the credit). Grant had won battles, but we must not forget that Halleck was likely highly influential in the choice.

I suspect that if Grant had been given command instead of Pope, he wouldn't have fared much better than Pope. Grant possessed the kind of mind it takes to be a commanding general, and he developed the skill it takes over more time than Pope had. It may well be that had Pope not been summoned to that disaster of 2nd Manassas, he would have developed into a reasonably competent Corps commander.

We'll never know, will we?
Ole
 

elektratig

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wt_jimbos --

I'm through the first two of Rhea's books and mid-way through the third. I find them compelling. For all the detail, Rhea is a good writer. He keeps you moving and you don't feel bogged down. In addition, he isn't afraid to give you his analysis.

ole --

I'm not sure how Grant would have fared if he had been brought East instead of Pope in 1862. On the one hand, it does seem to me that, for all his talents (see below), Pope just was overwhelmed by the burdens of large battlefield command. I don't think that Grant would have suffered the same paralysis. One the other hand, as you point out, tactics was never Grant's forte, and the surrounding cast of characters was remarkably incompetent. Even in 1864, against a weakened Lee, Grant had one heck of a time getting the AOP going. It may well be that we're lucky (from a Northern point of view!) that Grant stayed where he was.

On the other hand, I doubt that Pope would have fared better in a large command later in the War. I suspect that his constitution was just too excitable. The contrast between Pope's tendency to lash out under pressure and Grant's calm imperturbability is quite striking.

Pope's post-Bull Run career seems to confirm the view that, while Pope could be extremely annoying at times, he was a man of substantial talent in other respects, provided he was kept away from the battlefield. Grant and others recognized that he was a highly competent administrator, rewarding him with substantial commands in the West, punctuated by diligent and conscientious service as District commander of the Third District (Alabama, Georgia and Florida) during Reconstruction.

He also proved a highly perceptive and sympathetic analyst of the "Indian problem", recognizing that the cycle of treaty, followed by renewed White incursion, gave the Indians little choice but to fight. As early as 1865, he perceptively described the cycle of tragedy and foresaw its "dreadful" end:

"Lately large reinforcements have been organized which are now moving against the Indians in the hope to restore peace, but in my judgment with little prospect of doing so. The first demand of the Indian is that the white man shall not come into his country. How can we promise this, with any purpose of fulfilling the obligation, unless we prohibit emigration west or south of the Missouri River? So far from being prepared to make such an engagement with the Indian, the government is every day stimulating emigration and its resulting wrong to the Indian. Where under such circumstances is the Indian to go, and what is to become of him?

"My duties require me to protect the emigration, the mails, and the settlements against hostile acts of the Indians. I have no power under the laws of the United States to do this except by force. As the Indians are more and more driven to desperation, the end is sure and dreadful to contemplate."
 

elektratig

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One last quote from John Pope, illustrating the essential humanity of the man beneath the bluster. In 1887, after his retirement as Major General in 1886, he wrote sadly:

"There is no rest for the Indian on this continent except in the grave to which he is being driven with accelerated speed every day. I used to think something in accordance with the ordinary dictates of humanity might be devised for him and carried into execution by the government but that hope has long been abandoned and death alone appears to offer relief from an outrage which will be a stain on this government and this people forever."
 

ole

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Thanks for the Pope quote, electratig. It stands in stark contrast with:

"The only good Indian I ever met was dead."

The stain, while fading, may never go completely away.
 

lrd89

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wt_jimbos said:
Elektratig,
sorry to side track, are Rhea's books on the overland campaign worth buying?

Gordon Rhea's series on the Overland Campaign is great. I own to the North Anna River. My local library has all of the rest. On a side note, his book "Carrying the Flag" is a good read about a private in McGowan's Brigade at Spotsylvania. :smile:
 

samgrant

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I think the gist of the Lewis/Catton trilogy on Grant (Captain Sam Grant, Grant Moves South, Grant Takes Command) was that Grant needed the 'learning curve', the seasoning and experience, before the war (Mexico, etc.) and especially in the west from Shiloh thru at least Vicksburg in July 1863, to become the Man and commander that he became. Also, from T. Harry Williams' 'McClellan, Sherman, and Grant' (an interesting examination of the characters and personalities of these 3 generals!) "Most important to Grant's future development was the opportunity he had in this early period to master the problems of command from the bottom up, to absorb the results of one situation before he moved on to another." "The most salient feature of the Grant war story is that it is a record of steady progression."

So I buy the idea that at this time , between Shiloh and Grant's campaigning in northern Missippi, that Grant may not yet have been the man for the time. If, as implied above, he had not yet matured as a general and commander, he may have not been ready and may have suffered the fate of the Popes, the Burnsides, and the Hookers.
 
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