John Pope was born on March 16, 1822, in Louisville, Kentucky. He was the son of Nathaniel Pope and Lucretia (Backers) Pope. His family moved to Kaskaskia, Illinois on the Mississippi River when he was a youngster. Pope’s father was a federal judge in the Illinois Territory who presided over cases argued by the future President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
Pope attended local schools and received an appointment to the United States Military Academy in 1838. Among his classmates were future Confederate generals James Longstreet, Richard H. Anderson, Earl Van Dorn, and Lafayette McLaws, and future Union general William S. Rosecrans. Pope graduated in 1842, seventeenth in a class of fifty-six cadets. His class standing was high enough to earn him a choice appointment with the Topographical Engineers.
Like many West Point graduates and future Civil War officers, Pope fought in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). The army promoted him to second lieutenant on May 9, 1846. Pope also received a brevet promotion to first lieutenant on September 23, 1846, for “gallant and meritorious conduct” during the Battle of Monterrey and a brevet promotion to captain for his part in the American victory at Buena Vista on February 23, 1847.
After the Mexican-American War, Pope worked as a surveyor in Minnesota. From 1851 to 1853, he served as the chief engineer of the Department of New Mexico. The army promoted Pope to first lieutenant on March 3, 1853, and to captain on July 1, 1856.
In 1859, officials transferred Pope to Cincinnati, Ohio to design lighthouses for the Great Lakes. While living there, he became engaged in politics as a member of the emerging Republican Party. His political activities may have led to his acquaintance with Clara Horton, the daughter of Ohio Congressman Valentine B. Horton. After a brief courtship, the two wed on September 15, 1859. The marriage produced four children.
After Abraham Lincoln attained the presidency, the army selected Pope as one of four army officers to escort the president-elect during his train trip from Illinois to his inauguration in Washington, DC. When the American Civil War erupted, Pope offered his services to Lincoln as an aide. Instead, Lincoln appointed him as a brigadier general of volunteers on June 14, 1861 (effective May 17), even though Pope had no experience commanding troops in battle during his military career.
Conspiring against John C. Frémont
Pope’s first Civil War assignment was recruiting volunteers in Chicago. Shortly thereafter, officials assigned him to the Department of the West, serving under Major General John C. Frémont. Pope disliked Frémont and secretly conspired against him. Political circumstances eventually led President Lincoln to relieve Frémont of his command on November 2, 1861, and to replace him with Major General Henry Halleck.
Action Against Island No. 10
On February 23, 1862, Halleck placed Pope in charge of the District of the Mississippi, Department of the Missouri, including field command of the Army of the Mississippi. Shortly thereafter, Pope marched on the Mississippi River town of New Madrid, Missouri, and forced a Confederate withdrawal on March 14, 1862. Then, with the help of Flag Officer Andrew Hull Foote, Pope moved against the Rebel stronghold on Island No. 10. Pope gained national recognition when he forced the 7,000-man Confederate garrison there to surrender on April 7, 1862, giving the Union control of the river as far south as Memphis, Tennessee. Authorities rewarded Pope for his victories with a promotion to major general of volunteers, effective March 21, 1862.
Siege of Corinth
Army of Virginia Commander
In June, President Lincoln summoned Pope east to take command of the newly created Army of Virginia, which comprised scattered forces from the Shenandoah Valley and Northern Virginia. Upon arriving at his new post, Pope immediately earned the enmity of many of the soldiers he commanded when he delivered a speech comparing them in a negative light to the soldiers in the west who, according to Pope, “have always seen the backs of our enemies.” If the implications were not obvious enough, Pope admonished his new command to “dismiss from your minds certain phrases, which I am sorry to find so much in vogue amongst you. I hear constantly of . . . lines of retreat.”
Apparently not satisfied with arousing the animosities of his own soldiers, Pope issued a series of general orders that targeted civilians in Northern Virginia, prompting the usually affable Confederate General Robert E. Lee to label him a “miscreant.” Among Pope’s orders that Southerners found objectionable were provisions that stated:
- The troops in Pope’s command would “subsist upon the country in which their operations are carried on.”
- Civilians would be held responsible for any damages to railroad tracks or trains, or injuries to Union soldiers resulting from attacks by “guerrillas in their neighborhood.” In cases where such damage or injuries occur, “citizens living within 5 miles of the spot shall be turned out in mass to repair the damage, and shall, beside, pay to the United States in money or in property, to be levied by military force, the full amount of the pay and subsistence of the whole force necessary to coerce the performance of the work during the time occupied in completing it.”
- “If a soldier or legitimate follower of the army be fired upon from any house the house shall be razed to the ground, and the inhabitants sent prisoners to the headquarters of this army. If such an outrage occur at any place distant from settlements, the people within 5 miles around shall be held accountable and made to pay an indemnity sufficient for the case.”
- Any persons detected firing upon Union soldiers, “either during the act or at any time afterward, shall be shot, without awaiting civil process.”
- Pope’s soldiers should “arrest all disloyal male citizens within their lines or within their reach in rear of their respective stations.” Those willing to swear an “oath of allegiance to the United States . . . shall be permitted to remain at their homes and pursue in good faith their accustomed avocations. Those who refuse shall be conducted South beyond the extreme pickets of this army, and be notified that if found again anywhere within our lines or at any point in rear they will be considered spies, and subjected to the extreme rigor of military law.” Further, “If any person, having taken the oath of allegiance as above specified, be found to have violated it, he shall be shot, and his property seized and applied to the public use.”
- Finally, Pope declared that “All communication with any person whatever living within the lines of the enemy is positively prohibited, except through the military authorities and in the manner specified by military law; and any person concerned in writing or in carrying letters or messages in any other way will be considered and treated as a spy within the lines of the United States Army.” Interpreted strictly, this provision prohibited parents, wives, siblings, and children from sharing letters with loved ones fighting in the Confederate Army.
Northern Virginia Campaign
It did not take long for Lee to seize an opportunity to deal with the “miscreant.” As Major General George McClellan began retreating from the gates of Richmond, bringing an end to his failed Peninsula Campaign, Lee dispatched General Stonewall Jackson‘s division of the Army of Northern Virginia northward to confront Pope’s new army. More Confederate troops soon followed.
Second Battle of Bull Run
The two armies met on August 28, 1862, near Manassas, Virginia, on the site of the Confederate victory at the First Battle of Bull Run, a year earlier. The Second Battle of Bull Run produced a similar outcome.
On August 29, Pope launched a series of assaults against Jackson’s position that the Confederates repulsed with heavy casualties on both sides. On August 30, Pope renewed his attacks, unaware that General James Longstreet‘s division had arrived the previous day and fortified Jackson’s right flank. Following a failed attack by Major General Fitz John Porter‘s division, which Pope directly ordered, Longstreet launched a counterattack that crushed Pope’s army.
Charges Against Fitz John Porter
Following the Union loss, Pope scrambled to escape blame for the debacle by accusing Porter of failing to follow orders to engage Jackson on August 29. Officials later court-martialed Porter, finding him guilty of the charges Pope leveled against him and dismissing the disgraced officer from the army for his performance at Second Bull Run. In 1879, a special commission appointed by President Rutherford B. Hayes reviewed the results of the court-martial and exonerated Porter of all charges.
Despite successfully deflecting some of the blame to Porter, Pope could not escape culpability for the Union defeat. On September 7, 1862, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 128, reassigning Pope to command the Department of the Northwest, headquartered in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he spent nearly the rest of the war. Less than one week after Pope was exiled into oblivion, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 129, on September 12, ending the existence of the Army of Virginia by merging its three corps with the Army of the Potomac.
Near the end of the Civil War, officials transferred Pope to the Military Division of the Missouri. On March 13, 1865, Pope received a brevet promotion to major general for Gallant and Meritorious Services in the Capture of Island No. 10, on the Mississippi River in 1862. From June 27 through August 6, 1866, he commanded the Department of the Missouri. Pope mustered out of volunteer service on September 1, 1866, but he remained in the regular army.
On April 1, 1867, authorities placed Pope in charge of the Reconstruction Third Military District. His staunch support of voting rights for Afro-Americans during his tenure as military governor prompted President Andrew Johnson to replace him with George Meade on December 28, 1867.
Pope next assumed command of the Department of the Lakes, headquartered in Detroit, Michigan, until April 30, 1870, when he once again assumed command of the Department of the Missouri. On October 26, 1882, officials promoted Pope to the rank of major general in the regular army.
Despite waging war against the Plains Indians during his second stint as commander of the Department of the Missouri, Pope made political enemies in Washington for criticizing the government’s harsh treatment of Native Americans and for exposing corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
On March 3, 1870, authorities reassigned Pope to command the Division of the Pacific and the Department of California. He served in that capacity until March 16, 1886, when he retired from the army at age sixty-four.
Following his retirement, Pope lived in St. Louis, Missouri. He died at Sandusky, Ohio on September 23, 1892, while visiting his brother-in-law, Union General Manning F. Force, who was superintendent of the Ohio Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home in that city. Pope was buried next to his wife in Bellefontaine Cemetery, in St. Louis.