John Pope’s Overconfidence and Robert Lee’s Strategies


By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

In 1862, major military events were transpiring in Virginia and Maryland. Let us look at the arrival and activities of Union general, John Pope in Virginia, and know more about the campaign and Battle of Second Manassas or Bull Run, followed by Robert Lee’s decision to strike north across the Potomac after the Battle of Second Manassas.

An old photograph showing officers and a female sitting together at the headquarters of 1st Brigade during the Civil War in Virginia.
Union general John Pope was sent to Virginia, but Lincoln felt that the activities in Virginia overshadowed whatever good was happening in the west.
(Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Who was John Pope?

John Pope was a West Pointer, born into a prominent family in Kentucky, a collateral descendant of George Washington. More important for his military career during the early part of the Civil War was the fact that he was married into the family of Mary Todd Lincoln, a connection that helped his early rise to prominence.

Pope served effectively in the Mexican War, and was commissioned a brigadier general soon after the firing on Fort Sumter. His early war service was in the west under Halleck, and he won some successes in campaigning along the Mississippi River. He was part of the group of western officers who advanced as Halleck advanced in the wake of all the Union successes. He was brought east to change the strategic balance in the state as George B. McClellan hadn’t been able to get the job done. John Pope, who was successful in the west, was expected to be able to do so.

Focus on Virginia

John Pope arrived in Virginia, though important military events were unfolding in the west. The Northern public, foreign observers, and a majority of the Confederate people focused on Virginia, wondering what would happen there. This bothered Lincoln who wished people focused more on the west because all the good news was happening there for the North. He wrote to the French diplomat, complaining that things in Virginia overshadowed events everywhere else.

In mid-July 1862, Pope moved the army, about 50,000 strong and made up of the old commands of Frémont and Banks and McDowell, toward Gordonsville in central Virginia. There he planned to menace the key railroads in Virginia: the Orange and Alexandria Railroad and the Virginia Central Railroad. The Virginia Central ran into the Shenandoah Valley, a principal artery bringing supplies to the Confederate army defending Richmond. Pope planned to interrupt the movement of these supplies after gaining control of the Virginia Central. He hoped to get into a position to menace Robert E. Lee’s western and northwestern flank.

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Bold Statements by John Pope

Image of General John Pope.
Looking at his past record of numerous war victories, General John Pope was sent to Virginia to change the strategic planning there.
(Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Soon after he arrived in Virginia, Pope made statements that revealed him to be, in the eyes of many, including his own army, a very arrogant man and a braggart. He announced to his new troops that he came from the west, where, he said, “we have always seen the backs of our enemies,” a calculated snub to the eastern troops who had retreated on more than one occasion. According to him, he didn’t care about defensive lines or avenues of retreat because the Rebels would be retreating, not the Federals.

Pope brought a tougher war to Virginia, anticipating the direction of the war. He was a Republican, unlike most of the generals in the east, and was well attuned to what the Republicans in Congress wanted to do. He promised to confiscate all Rebel property, execute guerrillas, arrest citizens who aided guerrillas, and drive out of Union lines all citizens who weren’t loyal to the United States.

Setting a Different Tone

Pope wanted the kind of war that tough radical Republicans and others in the North wanted to see taken to the South. He wanted to make the Rebels feel the pain of their decision to be traitors to the Union. Though he didn’t do all that he had threatened to do, his arrival and statements did set a different tone, and he did lay a heavier hand on northern and north central Virginia than the previous commanders had.

Property was destroyed at a much greater rate. Fence rails were consumed by Northern soldiers, who used them for their fires. Barns were torn down to repair bridges, livestock and food stuffs were impressed, and homes were pillaged. White Southerners began to consider John Pope a great villain and started to hate him.

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Robert Lee’s Line of Action

Painting of Robert Lee as a young army officer.
Robert Lee, who commenced series of movements resulting in the Battle of Second Manassas, also known as Bull Run. (Image: William Edward West/Public domain)

For Confederate leader Robert Lee and Jefferson Davis, the next campaign centered on logistics. They wanted to secure the railroad communications between the Shenandoah Valley and eastern Virginia to protect that line of supply and communication. Just before the campaign opened, Lee reorganized his army, giving half of it to Stonewall Jackson and half of it to James Longstreet—two wings of the army, as he called them. Each of these subordinates became his key subordinates for a number of months and commanded half the army.

Lee and Longstreet kept an eye on McClellan below Richmond. Lee divided his army, in a daring move, and sent Stonewall Jackson to deal with the threat of John Pope. In August, on the ninth, Jackson’s force met the advance guard of Pope’s army under Banks’s command in the Battle of Cedar Mountain near Culpepper in central Virginia. The Federals fell back after that battle.

Lee’s Next Step and the Battle of Second Manassas

Lee soon perceived that McClellan was being recalled to the Washington area. Lincoln had decided to bring McClellan’s army back to Washington to reinforce Pope because McClellan had not been able to make anything happen below Richmond. It was debatable whether that was a good or a bad thing because McClellan did pose a real threat just by being where he was below Richmond. Once Lee was certain that the Army of the Potomac was recalled to Washington, he took the rest of his force, Longstreet’s wing, and reunited the army near the Rappahannock River frontier.

Lee divide his army again and commenced a series of movements resulting in the Battle of Second Manassas or Bull Run. Lee sent Jackson’s corps on a wide turning movement around John Pope’s right flank and rear. Jackson went all the way around Pope, came in from Pope’s rear, and captured an enormous Union supply depot at Manassas Junction, carrying off everything he could and burning the rest.

This got Pope’s attention and he came back to deal with Jackson. Jackson dug in on ground on the old Manassas battlefield and, on August 29, the Federals opened the Battle of Second Manassas with a series of attacks that almost broke Jackson’s line. These attacks continued all through the twenty-ninth and into the thirtieth.

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Turn of Events for Pope

On the twenty-ninth, Lee and Longstreet arrived on the battlefield and went into position. Pope hadn’t realized even by next morning that they were there, although a number of officers had warned him about Longstreet’s presence on the field. Pope continued the attacks against Jackson on the thirtieth, again pushing Jackson’s troops right to the edge of their endurance. But in the afternoon, after careful preparation, James Longstreet launched a massive assault against Pope’s left flank, shattered a number of his units, and drove a good part of the Federal army from the field.

The Union army retreated from the battlefield in an orderly way back to the capital city. It was the second major victory on the ground at Manassas for the Confederates. Lee had suffered about 9,000 casualties. Pope’s army, which did most of the attacking, suffered 16,000 casualties.

Lee had used quick marching and his interior lines. Initially, when McClellan had been below Richmond and Pope had operated up in central Virginia, it had been harder for the Union armies to reinforce each other or to move from one point to another than for Lee’s army to move from near Richmond over to near Culpepper by using the interior lines. He had taken great risks in dividing his army twice, and won a great victory.

Common Questions about the American Civil War

Q: Who was John Pope?

John Pope was an army officer in the United States. He had served effectively in the Mexican War, and was commissioned a brigadier general soon after the firing on Fort Sumter. His early war service was in the west under Halleck, and he had won some successes in campaigning along the Mississippi River. He had been sent to Virginia to change the strategic balance in the state.

Q: How many soldiers died at Manassas?

Manassas had seen the second major victory for the Confederates. Robert Lee suffered about 9,000 casualties, and Pope’s army, which did most of the attacking, suffered 16,000 casualties.

Q: What was John Pope known for?

John Pope was a Union general during the Civil War. He was known for his arrogance and outspokenness. He led the army during the Battle of Second Manassas, where he got defeated by Confederate leader Robert Lee.

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