John Pope in Command I

August 9, 1862. It was the moment of crisis at the battle of Cedar Mountain. Hand to hand fighting sent the left wing of Stonewall Jackson’s army reeling back in confusion. Jackson realized he needed to rally his men. He raised his sword, rusted to the scabbard, grabbed a battle flag, and shouted to his men “Jackson is with you, rally brave men, and press forward”!

John Pope came from the West with a chip on his shoulder. His command of the Army of the Mississippi had suited him. His singular accomplishment was capturing the Mississippi River strongholds of Island No. 10 and New Madrid back in April, bagging 5,000 prisoners (he boasted of 7,000), 158 cannon, and many war supplies—all without losing a man. Now he was called East to build a new army out of the three bedraggled armies that during the spring Stonewall Jackson had chased through the Shenandoah Valley. This Army of Virginia promised to be a most troublesome command, and John Pope resented the assignment: “I especially disliked the idea of service in an army of which I knew nothing beyond the personnel of its chief commanders, some of whom I neither admired nor trusted.” Still, Pope understood he was there to bring new energy and a new harder tone to the war in Virginia.

Pope was forty, West Point class of 1842, and served capably (two brevets) in the Mexican War. As a Republican in the antebellum army he was a rarity, but with the coming of war his politics helped jump him from captain to brigadier general to major general. A journalist wrote of him, “In person he was dark, martial, and handsome—inclined to obesity . . . possessing a fiery black eye, with luxuriant beard and hair. He smoked incessantly, and talked imprudently.”

Pope assumed command of the Army of Virginia on June 27 and sorted out his forces. These comprised John C. Frémont’s Mountain Department, Nathaniel Banks’s Department of the Shenandoah, and Irvin McDowell’s Department of the Rappahannock. These departments devolved into corps in the new army. The three corps commanders were senior in rank to Pope, but only Frémont was affronted. There was bad blood there, and Frémont asked to be relieved. Washington was happy to oblige him and the Union army saw no more of the Pathfinder.

Franz Sigel took Frémont’s command, designated First Corps. Sigel’s troops included Louis Blenker’s German division, whose misadventures in the Valley gained them infamy as the thieving Dutchmen. Blenker was gone now, his men scattered among Sigel’s division commanders—Robert C. Schenck, the former Ohio congressman quick to retreat at Bull Run; Adolph von Steinwehr, who served without notice under Blenker; and Carl Schurz, German revolutionary and like Steinwehr, awaiting the test of battle. Sigel, a lieutenant under the Grand Duke of Baden and an 1848 insurgent, had compiled a spotty record in the West and held his post due mostly to his connections in the German American community. He was of high temper and large gesture—in his long cloak and wide-brimmed hat he looked, said Alpheus Williams, “as if he might be a descendant of Peter the Hermit.” Whatever Pope thought of Frémont, he thought far worse of Sigel, calling him “the God damndest coward he ever knew.” Sigel, equally blunt, appraised Pope as “affected with looseness of the brains as others with looseness of the bowels.”

The Second Corps was General Banks’s. A Massachusetts governor and congressman, a Republican stalwart, Banks represented the purest expression of political general. He was derided as Stonewall Jackson’s commissary in the Valley, but in fact Banks managed a retreat that saved his men if not their supplies. His division heads were Alpheus Williams, the former militia officer whose command promise survived the Valley debacle; and West Pointer Christopher Columbus Augur.

McDowell’s Third Corps was the largest, soundest element of the Army of Virginia, with divisions led by Rufus King and James B. Ricketts. West Pointer King was in his first command, and Ricketts, the veteran artilleryman wounded and captured at Bull Run, was leading infantry for the first time. Martinet McDowell still looked to erase the Bull Run stain from his record, and remained as unpopular with the troops as ever. At a review his horse threw him, and from the ranks, sotto voce, came a call for three cheers for the horse.

Pope’s brigade commanders were a mixed lot. In McDowell’s and Banks’s corps such as Abner Doubleday, Marsena R. Patrick, John Gibbon, Samuel S. Carroll, Samuel W. Crawford, George H. Gordon, and George Sears Greene would go on to achieve notice (or better) in the Army of the Potomac; less would be said of those in Sigel’s corps.

The variegated elements of the Army of Virginia lacked any shared experience, and what combat record they had was poor. At first glance, said Pope, his new command was “much demoralized and broken down, and unfit for active service. . . . Of some service they can be, but not much just now.” Staff man David Strother entered in his diary, “There seems to be a bad feeling among the troops—discouragement and a sense of inferiority which will tell unfavorably if they get into action. . . .” They had not been paid for months, and desertion was endemic; a thousand officers were absent without leave.

Angered at the lack of spirit and the defeatist attitude, Pope issued, on July 14, a blunt address to the Army of Virginia. “I have come to you from the West,” he proclaimed, “where we have always seen the backs of our enemies; from an army whose business it has been to seek the adversary and to beat him when he was found. . . .” Warming to his subject, he listed certain phrases he was “sorry to find so much in vogue amongst you. I hear constantly of ‘taking strong positions and holding them,’ of ‘lines of retreat,’ and of ‘bases and supplies.’ Let us discard such ideas.” Strong positions should be taken in order to launch attacks, he said. Focus on the enemy’s lines of retreat, not your own. “Success and glory are in the advance, disaster and shame lurk in the rear.”

Marsena Patrick wrote that Pope’s address struck him as “very windy & somewhat insolent.” To George H. Gordon it implied “a weak and silly man.” Brigadier John P. Hatch said he would “be astonished if with all his bluster anything is done.” But in the ranks many recognized Pope’s target as the officer corps and many agreed with him. In his diary a cavalryman wrote, “Pleased with Gen’l Pope’s address. He seems an energetic—‘go ahead’ man—such a one, as this department needs, and has ever needed, and has never had! Our Potomac Generals paid too much attention to reviews and inspections and parades. . . . We have been out-generaled here.”

It was well understood that Pope’s address skewered General McClellan’s way of making war. In Washington, Pope missed no chance to denounce the Young Napoleon. Dining with Treasury Secretary Chase, he claimed McClellan’s “incompetency and indisposition to active movements were so great” that should he, Pope, ever need assistance in his operations, “he could not expect it from him.” He urged the president to relieve McClellan without delay. He testified to the Committee on the Conduct of the War on McClellan’s failings. And he spread his poison among his own generals. George Gordon recalled a talk at headquarters in which Pope described mismanagement on the part of McClellan, “for whom he seemed to entertain a bitter hatred.”

Pope’s address was followed by notorious general orders that on paper promised to inflict the harshest treatment on Virginia’s civilians. Pope would tell General Jacob Cox that the orders were dictated, in substance, by Secretary of War Stanton. But to all and sundry, the orders were General Pope’s. The most draconian of them would not be carried out, but nothing lessened their initial impact. General Lee was roused to cold fury. “I want Pope to be suppressed,” he told Jackson. “The course indicated in his orders if the newspapers report them correctly cannot be permitted. . . .” He strengthened Jackson “to enable him to drive if not destroy the miscreant Pope.”

Pope’s General Order No. 5 permitting the army to “subsist upon the country” was interpreted by the rank and file as a license to steal, and Marsena Patrick was outraged. The troops, he told his diary, “believe they have a perfect right to rob, tyrannize, threaten and maltreat any one. . . . This Order of Pope’s has demoralized the Army & Satan has been let loose.” An officer of Banks’s reported, “The lawless acts of many of our soldiers are worthy of worse than death. The villains urge as authority, ‘General Pope’s order.’”

William Franklin, who knew Pope from the old army, told his wife, “We look with a good deal of interest upon Pope’s movements, having a shrewd suspicion that if he does not look out he will be whipped. After his proclamation he deserves it.” Fitz John Porter too was acquainted with Pope. To editor Marble of the New York World he termed Pope “a vain man (and a foolish one) . . . who was never known to tell the truth when he could gain his object by a falsehood.” Porter wrote Washington insider Joseph C. G. Kennedy, “I regret to see that Genl. Pope has not improved since his youth and has now written himself down, what the military world has long known, an ass.” Pope’s army would only get to Richmond “as prisoners.”

When he learned that Jackson was stalking Pope, McClellan anticipated within a week “the paltry young man who wanted to teach me the art of war” being in retreat or whipped. “He will begin to learn the value of ‘entrenchments, lines of communication & of retreat, bases of supply etc.’” McClellan issued orders to the Army of the Potomac that “will strike square in the teeth of all his infamous orders & give directly the reverse instructions to my army—forbid all pillaging & stealing & take the highest Christian ground for the conduct of the war—let the Govt gainsay it if they dare.”

McClellan’s prediction that Pope would be in retreat or whipped within a week was off the mark by more than a week.

Pope posted his army along the north bank of the Rapidan River awaiting resolution of the Army of the Potomac’s dilemma. Should McClellan march on Richmond from Harrison’s Landing, Pope ought to be secure. If it was decided to evacuate the Peninsula, however, Pope had reason for concern until such time as the two armies were united.

In mid-July Lee had sent Jackson northward to keep an eye on Pope and to guard Gordonsville and the Virginia Central, the rail link to the Shenandoah. On July 27 he reinforced Jackson with a division, to enable him to “strike your blow and be prepared to return to me when done if necessary.” His boldness was rewarded. Burnside’s force arriving at Aquia Landing meant McClellan would not be reinforced, then evidence of an evacuation, then the Yankees abandoned their toehold at Malvern Hill. Confident now, Lee further strengthened Jackson’s hand and prepared to send Longstreet’s wing north as well. He needed to dispose of the Army of Virginia before the two Yankee armies combined and disposed of him. Pope pushed Banks’s Second Corps forward to Culpeper, some 20 miles north of Gordonsville. Jackson too moved toward Culpeper.

On August 9 Pope sent Banks an order, delivered verbally by a staff colonel. Nathaniel Banks lacked military credentials but as a veteran politician he well knew that a verbal directive was worth far less than the paper it should have been written on. An aide took down the order and read it back for the colonel’s approval: “Genl Banks to move to the front immediately, assume comd of all the forces in the front—deploy his skirmishers if the enemy approaches and attack him immediately as soon as he approaches—and be reinforced from here ​—” Afterward Pope insisted his order only obliged Banks to take up a defensive position and wait to be reinforced . . . which only confirmed John Pope’s reputation as a liar.

Banks’s advance took position near Cedar Mountain, some seven miles south of Culpeper. Jackson was known to be close by. Pope intended a general advance that day, with Sigel’s First Corps and half of McDowell’s Third moving forward in support of Banks’s Second. Sigel fumbled his marching orders, McDowell lingered in the rear, and so on August 9 Nathaniel Banks found himself alone with Stonewall Jackson. As the Battle of Cedar Mountain unfolded that day, Jackson would outnumber Banks by 15,000 to 9,000.

Action began at midday with an artillery duel. Then the guns fell silent. It was brutally hot. Division commander Alpheus Williams invited the officers of his old brigade to “a good lunch of coffee, ham, etc.” They took their ease under a shade tree, “and everybody seemed as unconcerned and careless as if he was on the lawn of a watering place.” Afterward Williams mourned the fact that of all the officers he invited to his luncheon that day, not one survived the next few hours unhurt.

Williams’s two brigades, under Samuel Crawford and George H. Gordon, held the right of the line. Crawford had gained notice as the army surgeon who manned the guns at Fort Sumter; this was his first field command. Gordon, a West Pointer and Mexican War veteran, had shared with Williams their Shenandoah Valley travails. Christopher Augur’s division held the left. Augur and his three lieutenants—political general John W. Geary and West Pointers Henry Prince and George S. Greene—would see their first serious action this day. Banks accepted that he would be “reinforced from here” to mean the nearby division of James Ricketts. But Pope, at Culpeper, anticipated no fighting and assigned no role to Ricketts.

At about 4:00 p.m. the artillery exchange resumed. Soon enough Banks sighted skirmishers creeping forward to pick off the Union gunners. That, he concluded, was enough of a Confederate approach to satisfy his orders. He signaled his two division commanders to attack. Christopher Augur on the left moved first, with the brigades of Geary and Prince. Geary’s advance met a withering blast of artillery and musketry. As he pressed his men forward Geary was hit in the arm and the foot and had to leave the field. His wounding set a deadly trend. Division commander Augur was severely wounded, then Henry Prince of Augur’s second brigade was captured. George Greene, the only general officer left, took the division command. The fighting was stalemated.

It was a different story with Banks’s other division, under Alpheus Williams. The attack here was launched by Crawford’s brigade. Like Christopher Augur, Samuel Crawford was leading his first battle. Nevertheless, his three regiments, 1,500 men, managed to turn Stonewall Jackson’s flank, threaten him with disaster, and even put Stonewall himself at grave risk in the bargain.

Crawford’s charging line made it across a wheat field, with losses, and reached a woods and struck . . . nothing. Through some oversight Jackson’s left flank was uncovered. The triumphant Yankees turned in behind the Rebels. One after another, regiments of a Virginia brigade crumpled and collapsed. A 5th Connecticut veteran described “such a hand to hand conflict with bayonet and gunbutt as was equaled by only a few contests of the war.” Geary’s and Prince’s men firing from the front and Crawford’s from the rear left the embattled Confederates seemingly surrounded. One of those surrounded was Stonewall Jackson himself, who had to scramble for safety as he tried to rally reinforcements to mend his broken line.

It was a victory that could not be sealed. Jackson had an entire division at hand, and Banks was woefully slow to bring up his reserves. Ricketts’s division of McDowell’s corps, the supposed support, never appeared. Crawford’s survivors were forced back by counterattacks, then Geary’s and Prince’s men fell back as well.

It was nearly dark now and for the Union high command one more adventure awaited. Pope had reached the scene, roused by the thunderous gunfire, and was conferring with his generals when Rebel cavalry made a sudden dash into their lines. Chaos erupted. There was a mad dash for horses, and generals and staffs pelted away through the woods in every direction. Alpheus Williams thought the fire “killed some of our horses if nothing else,” and “altogether the skedaddle became laughable in spite of its danger.”

Cedar Mountain was Nathaniel Banks’s battle from start to finish. He believed (properly so) that Pope’s verbal order required him to take the offensive. He might have confirmed the order, if just to learn if Ricketts was his support. That he did not was probably deliberate, for he was determined to settle scores with Jackson for his Valley trials, and believed his corps plus Ricketts’s division would be enough to do so. Banks had written his wife, “The day we have waited for so long has at last come. I am glad.” Yet he neglected to call for Ricketts, and he was too slow to exploit Crawford’s breakthrough. “The action was totally unnecessary and about as great a piece of folly as I have ever witnessed on the part of an incompetent general,” wrote one of Gordon’s officers.

The cost to Banks in officers was severe. Division commander Augur, wounded; brigade commander Geary, wounded; brigade commander Prince, captured. Crawford’s brigade that shattered Jackson’s flank was itself shattered. Fifty-six of its eighty-eight officers were casualties; the three regiments suffered losses of 49 percent. Federal casualties came to 2,403, against Jackson’s 1,418. There was “a good deal of hard feeling between the officers of Genl Banks and Head Quarters—they say that they were needlessly sacrificed.” Banks satisfied himself that he had given Stonewall Jackson a check (two days after his victory Jackson pulled behind the Rapidan to regroup). Banks told his wife, “My command fought magnificently,” which was true. “It gives me infinite pleasure to have done well,” which was self-flattery.

The Army of Virginia’s check at Cedar Mountain rudely awakened John Pope to his danger. He telegraphed Halleck, “I am satisfied that one-third of the enemy’s whole force is here, and more will be arriving unless McClellan will at least keep them busy and uneasy at Richmond.” Halleck sent a sharp dispatch to McClellan: “There must be no further delay in your movements. That which has already occurred was entirely unexpected, and must be satisfactorily explained.” Halleck told his wife, “I have felt so uneasy for some days about Genl Pope’s army that I could hardly sleep. I can’t get Genl McClellan to do what I wish.” McClellan told his wife he found Halleck’s telegram “very harsh & unjust,” and in any event, Pope deserved what was coming to him. “I have a strong idea that Pope will be thrashed during the coming week—& very badly whipped he will be & ought to be—such a villain as he is ought to bring defeat upon any cause that employs him.” Thus General McClellan’s frame of mind as he set about removing the Army of the Potomac from the Peninsula and joining it with Pope’s Army of Virginia.

It must be done by the book, McClellan ruled—a careful, calculated disengagement from a powerful, threatening enemy. Halleck’s evacuation order was dated August 3. Rather than setting the army on the march for Fort Monroe while removing the sick and the army’s baggage by water, McClellan held up the march for ten days. There was no help for this—“Our material can only be saved by using the whole Army to cover it if we are pressed.” Porter’s Fifth Corps only started from Harrison’s Landing on August 14, reached Fort Monroe on August 18, and shipped out for Aquia Landing on August 21. The corps following waited for shipping space. It was August 26 before the last of them began embarking.

On August 13, as McClellan husbanded his forces at Harrison’s Landing to fend off attack, Lee ordered the other wing of his army, under Longstreet, to join Jackson on the Rapidan. Lee himself left on the 15th to take command of the evolving campaign. He left two infantry divisions to guard Richmond and a brigade of cavalry to keep an eye on the Army of the Potomac. For more than four months on the Peninsula, George McClellan had faced a phantom Rebel army of his own devising. Now, as unknowing as ever, he faced the ghost of a Rebel army.

McClellan felt sure the troops realized he was not responsible for the retreat. “Strange as it may seem the rascals have not I think lost one particle of confidence in me & love me just as much as ever.” But he viewed once-favored lieutenants with less favor. William Franklin and Baldy Smith lacked energy and initiative and “have disappointed me terribly.” This rounded out his estrangement from Smith. As to Franklin, he no longer doubted his loyalty—a distrust dating back to Lincoln’s ad hoc war council in January—but “his efficiency is very little.” Only Fitz John Porter still earned McClellan’s unwavering admiration.

Halleck had promised him command of the two armies so soon as they were united, but McClellan did not hurry north to claim the post. He watched from afar, expecting Pope to come to grief . . . and expecting to be called to pick up the pieces and once again save the Union. On August 21 he was elated to find his plan working. “I believe I have triumphed!!” he wrote Ellen. “Just received a telegram from Halleck stating that Pope & Burnside are hard pressed—urging me to push forward reinforcements, & to come myself as soon as I possibly can!. . . Now they are in trouble they seem to want the ‘Quaker,’ the ‘procrastinator,’ the ‘coward’ & the ‘traitor’! Bien. . . .”

As the Potomac army haltingly set off on the new campaign, its high command was partially recast. Sumner’s Second Corps, Heintzelman’s Third, and Franklin’s Sixth remained as before, but the Fourth Corps was broken up. To be rid of Erasmus Keyes (Republican, abolitionist), McClellan left him at Yorktown with a one-division corps, part of the Department of Virginia. Keyes’s other division, under Darius Couch, was dispatched to the defenses of Washington. Keyes, a victim of his politics, idled at Yorktown for a year, served on the retirement board, and finally resigned in May 1864. He could take pride in his role at Seven Pines, even if only the men of his own corps recognized it.

Burnside’s Ninth Corps was first to reach Pope’s army, but Burnside himself remained at Falmouth, across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg, distributing the parts and pieces of the Army of the Potomac as they arrived via Aquia Landing. Jesse L. Reno commanded the Ninth Corps in the field, comprising his own division and that of Isaac I. Stevens. Porter’s Fifth Corps followed the Ninth in debarking at Aquia. The divisions of Morell and Sykes remained with Porter, but John Reynolds’s Pennsylvania Reserves were stripped from the Fifth Corps and attached to McDowell’s corps, Army of Virginia, where they had served in McDowell’s Army of the Potomac days. Because of the rapidly shifting campaign, the Second, Third, and Sixth Corps were debarked at Alexandria.

(There now appeared in the capital the somber figure of Brigadier General Charles P. Stone, released after more than six months in military prisons, seeking both justice and a command. No one in the administration had a hand in Stone’s release. It was the work of his civilian supporters and Senator James A. McDougall, who posed the question, Who says Stone is a traitor? and answered, “Rumor says it—the great manufacturer of falsehoods.” McDougall attached a rider to a military pay bill entitling any serviceman “now under arrest and awaiting trial” to be tried within thirty days. Edwin Stanton had no case—never had a case—against Stone, but still he delayed his release to the last moment. At the White House Lincoln said, by Stone’s account, “that if he told me all he knew about the matter he should not tell me much.” At Halleck’s office Stone found no explanation, no assignment, no orders. McClellan sought Stone for a divisional command, but Stanton turned away the request. There seemed no end to the ordeal of Charles Stone.)