The Army of Virginia

On the afternoon of June 23, President Abraham Lincoln boarded a special train bound for New York to informally meet with former General-in-Chief Winfield Scott at his summer residence in West Point. Lincoln, unsuccessful in directing the war effort and dissatisfied with Major General George B. McClellan’s performance on the Virginia Peninsula, hoped to get some confidential advice from Scott on strategy.

Bvt Lt Gen Winfield Scott | Image Credit: Wikipedia

Lincoln and Scott discussed whether Major General Irvin McDowell’s Federals should remain near Fredericksburg to protect Washington or reinforce McClellan. They also debated the merits of keeping Federal troops in the Shenandoah Valley versus sending them to the Peninsula. After the meeting, Scott drafted a memorandum criticizing Lincoln’s effort to balance forces between the Peninsula and the Shenandoah Valley. Scott urged Lincoln to send McDowell to the Peninsula, writing, “The defeat of the rebels, at Richmond, or their forced retreat, thence… would be a virtual end of the rebellion.”

During his trip, Lincoln toured the West Point Foundry, across the Hudson River from the U.S. Military Academy. The foundry produced the popular Parrott gun, a rifled cannon. This public appearance was meant to conceal the true purpose of Lincoln’s trip. Word quickly spread that Lincoln was in the area, and on his return trip a crowd gathered at the Jersey City railroad station to try to get him to give a speech. Lincoln claimed that the trip “did not have the importance which has been attached to it,” and it had nothing to do with military strategy.

This may have been true, as Lincoln opted not to take any of Scott’s advice. Doubting the wisdom of military commanders, Lincoln returned to Washington determined to follow his own strategy. He no longer wanted to send reinforcements to McClellan, who lacked the aggressiveness needed to break the Confederate defenses and take Richmond.

Lincoln instead planned to merge all the forces in northern Virginia and the Valley into one major army, dedicated to driving toward Richmond and destroying the Confederate army under General Robert E. Lee. Lincoln also had a man in mind to command this new army: the current Army of the Mississippi commander, Major General John Pope.

Gen John Pope | Image Credit:

The administration had already begun courting Pope for this new command even before Lincoln went to New York. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had bypassed Pope’s superior, Major General Henry W. Halleck, by sending Pope a direct message on the 19th: “If your orders will admit, and you can be absent long enough from your command, I would be glad to see you at Washington.”

Pope suspected that he would be transferred to an eastern command, even though he preferred the West and had little respect for eastern commanders. In the East, some considered Pope a liar and a braggart, based on Halleck’s exaggerated report from Pope that he was about to capture 10,000 Confederate stragglers outside Corinth earlier this month.

When Halleck learned of Stanton’s request, he refused to allow Pope to leave: “The Secretary of War can order you to Washington if he deem proper, but I cannot give you leave, as I think your services here of the greatest possible importance.” On the 21st, Stanton obliged Halleck and sent Pope a direct order to come to Washington. Both Halleck and Pope complied.

Pope arrived at Washington three days later. Testifying before a Senate committee while in town, Pope declared that had he commanded McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, he would have marched directly on Richmond and continued on through the Confederacy to New Orleans. Compared to McClellan, this was exactly the kind of commander both the Lincoln administration and the Radical Republicans in Congress wanted.

Under General Order Number 103 issued on the 26th, Pope was officially assigned to command the new Army of Virginia. This army would contain three corps from three previously separate commands north and west of Richmond:

  • Major General John C. Fremont’s army of the Mountain Department became the First Corps
  • Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s army of the Department of the Shenandoah became the Second Corps
  • Major General Irvin McDowell’s army of the Department of the Rappahannock became the Third Corps

The new army also included the Federal troops garrisoning the Washington defenses and a cavalry brigade. All told, the Army of Virginia totaled about 56,000 men. All three of this new army’s corps commanders outranked Pope, but only Fremont complained about it. Fremont considered it an insult to serve under Pope and tendered his resignation. Lincoln officially accepted it the next day. This ended the military career of the controversial explorer, soldier, and politician. Fremont’s frequent clashes with the Lincoln administration, his history of allowing corruption to run rampant, and his mediocre war record assured that he would not be missed.

Pope called Fremont’s decision to resign “simply foolish.” Replacing Fremont was Major General Franz Sigel, a former German revolutionary who had previously served in Missouri. Pope called Sigel “the God damnedest coward he ever knew,” and threatened to “arrest Sigel the moment he showed any signs of cowardice.” Sigel’s corps consisted mainly of Central European and German immigrants, most of whom were staunch abolitionists. As such, this would become the most politicized corps in the Federal army.

Some objected to Pope getting an eastern army command, arguing that he was too much of a braggart and an outsider to successfully operate in Virginia. Lincoln disagreed. He had been friends with Pope in Illinois (Pope accompanied Lincoln on the train from Springfield to Washington in February 1861), and he believed that Pope had the aggression needed to take the fight to the Confederates. The fact that Pope was a Republican (unlike McClellan) also played a factor in his promotion.

Pope’s main objectives would be:

  • Protect Washington from “danger or insult”
  • Provide “the most effective aid to relieve General McClellan and capture Richmond”
  • Maintain communication and supply lines to Alexandria and Aquia Creek

Creating this new army effectively stopped any chance of McDowell reinforcing McClellan on the Peninsula. This reflected Lincoln’s lost faith in McClellan’s ability to win there. Pope immediately began planning to move down the Orange & Alexandria Railroad toward Gordonsville, east of the Blue Ridge, and threaten Richmond from the northwest.


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