The Army of Virginia: Pope’s Bull

President Abraham Lincoln put his faith in Major General John Pope, a western commander and fellow Illinoisan, to succeed in Virginia where Major General George B. McClellan had failed. When Pope arrived in the East, he criticized McClellan by asserting (correctly) that the Confederate army was not half the size that McClellan had feared. Pope also denounced McClellan’s retreat to the James River because it allowed the Confederates to move directly between their armies.

Pope’s new Army of Virginia consisted of all the Federals in the Shenandoah Valley and northern Virginia. It did not include McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Pope contacted McClellan in early July to see how best to confront General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia guarding Richmond. McClellan provided some vague guidance and assurance that if Pope was attacked by Lee, “I will move upon Richmond, do my best to take it, and endeavor to cut off his retreat… it is not yet determined what policy the enemy intends to pursue, whether to attack Washington or to bestow his entire attention upon this army… I shall carefully watch for any fault committed by the enemy and take advantage of it.”

Pope’s 56,000-man force was to advance on Richmond from the northwest while McClellan pressed the city from the east. Now that Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates had left the Shenandoah, Pope left a brigade at Winchester and occupied Culpeper Court House on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad on July 12.

Lee noted McClellan’s defensive posture at Harrison’s Landing on the Virginia Peninsula and suspected that the next major threat to Richmond might come from Pope. He therefore directed Jackson’s Confederates to Gordonsville, where they could better observe Pope’s movements. Confederate cavalry under Colonel J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart was stationed at Hanover Court House, observing the Fredericksburg sector. The rest of Lee’s army remained poised to defend against any advance McClellan might make up the Peninsula.

Gens John Pope and Robert E. Lee | Image Credit:

Meanwhile, Pope noted the lack of enthusiasm among many of his men. The defeats they had sustained in the Shenandoah, combined with the fact that they had not been paid what was owed to them, led to thousands of desertions and an overall bad attitude. David Strother of Pope’s staff wrote, “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…”

Pope responded by issuing a proclamation “To the Officers and Soldiers of the Army of Virginia.” Promising them the “opportunity to win the distinction you are capable of achieving,” Pope announced:

“Let us understand each other. I have come to you from the West, 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; whose policy has been attack and not defense… I presume that I have been called here to pursue the same system and to lead you against the enemy. It is my purpose to do so, and that speedily…

“I desire you to dismiss from your minds certain phrases, which I am 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 of supplies.’ Let us discard such ideas. The strongest position a soldier should desire to occupy is one from which he can most easily advance against the enemy. Let us study the probable lines of retreat of our opponents, and leave our own to take care of themselves. Let us look before us, and not behind. Success and glory are in the advance, disaster and shame lurk in the rear.”

Pope, who had recently outraged southerners by threatening to wage war on civilians, now outraged his own troops by inferring that they were inferior to westerners. Many of these men had served with distinction in Virginia despite suffering some setbacks, and they respected the army leaders that Pope indirectly insulted.

Major General Fitz John Porter stated that Pope had “written himself down, what the military world has long known, (as) an Ass.” Other officers referred to Pope as a “blow hard,” and a “weak and silly man.” This address, which became known among the troops as “Pope’s Bull,” did nothing to improve army morale and set a bad tone for Pope’s upcoming campaign.


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