MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History


As he contemplated the scene at Bristoe Station, Virginia, on the evening of August 27, 1862, Major General John Pope of the Union army was in a surprisingly upbeat mood. Although three crack Confederate divisions under Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had cut his railroad supply line to Washington, D.C., and forced him to pull back from the Rappahannock River, Pope remained stubbornly optimistic. “Jackson, [Richard S.] Ewell, and A. P. Hill are between Gainesville and Manassas Junction,” the 40-year-old commander of the Army of Virginia informed his subordinates. “If you will march promptly and rapidly, at the earliest dawn of day, upon Manassas Junction, we shall bag the whole crowd.”

Such unbridled optimism was typical of Pope, who made up in self-confidence what he lacked in tact. A little over a month earlier, on taking command of the Army of Virginia, Pope had bombastically promised to deliver the victories President Abraham Lincoln had long been hoping for.

Born in Kentucky and raised in Illinois, Pope was the son of Nathaniel Pope, an influential federal judge and longtime friend of Lincoln. After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy in 1842, Pope worked as a topographical engineer, surveying routes in the West for the much-anticipated transcontinental railroad, and serving in the Mexican-American War under Brigadier General Zachary Taylor. Commissioned a brigadier general in the United States Volunteers at the outset of the Civil War, Pope first exercised command in Missouri under Major General John C. Frémont (the first in a series of officers with whom he would clash during the war). His capture of Confederate- held Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River in April 1862 and his role in the capture of Corinth, Mississippi, the next month so impressed Lincoln that he brought Pope east in late June 1862 and put him in command of the newly formed Army of Virginia.

“Success and glory are in the advance, disaster and shame lurk in the rear.”

The new army—and Pope’s appointment to lead it—grew out of Lincoln’s manifest unhappiness with Major General George B. McClellan’s conduct of operations against Richmond, Virginia, in the just-concluded Peninsula Campaign. Recalling most of the soldiers in McClellan’s Army of the Potomac to northern Virginia, the president aimed to use them to beef up Pope’s forces and help him conduct offensive operations that would produce the sort of military victory McClellan had failed to deliver.

Lincoln’s decision left Pope brimming with bravado. “Let us understand each other,” he thundered in a proclamation issued to his army in July.

While Pope wasn’t entirely wrong about the overall direction of the Union effort in the East, his

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