The End of the Army of Virginia

Major General John Pope was not yet ready to give up command of his Army of Virginia. Major General George B. McClellan had been reinstated to army command, but Pope believed that McClellan was only put in charge of all troops in and around Washington, and once those troops marched out of the capital to resume the offensive, Pope would regain his authority over them.

By September 3, the Confederate army was now on the move toward Maryland. President Abraham Lincoln responded by directing General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to “proceed with all possible dispatch to organize an army for active operations” against the enemy. Lincoln did not indicate whether Pope or McClellan should command this army, and it was even hinted that Halleck could take the field himself if he chose. But Halleck did not; instead, he forwarded the order to McClellan.

Pope met with Lincoln the next morning. Also present was Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, at the request of both Lincoln and Pope. According to Welles:

“When with the President this A.M., heard Pope read his statement of what had taken place in Virginia during the last few weeks, commencing at or before the battle of Cedar Mountain. It was not exactly a bulletin nor a report, but a manifesto, a narrative, tinged with wounded pride and a keen sense of injustice and wrong. The draft, he said, was rough. It certainly needs modifying before it goes out, or there will be war among the generals, who are now more ready to fight each other than the enemy.”

Gen John Pope

Pope bitterly blamed Major General Fitz John Porter for refusing to obey orders to attack the Confederate right flank at the Second Battle of Bull Run. Porter had refused because Pope failed to realize that the Confederate right had been bolstered by half the Confederate army, and moving against it would have been suicidal. Pope believed that Porter had intentionally disobeyed so that Pope would fail, thus enabling Porter’s friend McClellan to be reinstated.

Lincoln seemed to agree with Pope’s assessment because he showed Pope messages that Porter had written to Major General Ambrose E. Burnside that were highly critical of Pope’s leadership. Pope demanded an investigation, as this had “opened my eyes to many matters which I had before been loath to believe…” Pope also condemned McClellan for refusing to send reinforcements that could have turned the battle’s tide. Lincoln reviewed the report with his cabinet and directed Pope to make substantial edits before its official publication.

Pope and Welles left the meeting together, and as Welles recalled, “He declares all his misfortunes are owing to the persistent determination of McClellan, (William) Franklin, and Porter, aided by (James) Ricketts, (Charles) Griffin, and some others who were predetermined he should not be successful. They preferred, he said, that the country should be ruined rather than he should triumph.”

The next day, Halleck responded to Pope’s report by relieving Porter, Franklin, Ricketts, and Griffin of duty, pending further investigation into their conduct. Also relieved was Major General Irvin McDowell, who commanded a corps under Pope. As the Federal army commander at the first Battle of Bull Run. McDowell had long been criticized by his men and fellow officers as too strict a disciplinarian, and his less than stellar record made him expendable.

Still reluctant to give army command back to McClellan, Lincoln summoned Burnside and asked him to take over. This was the second time in two months that Lincoln had offered Burnside this command. Lincoln told him that he “must take command of the army, march against the enemy and give him battle.” But for the second time, Burnside refused. He later explained, “I did not think there was any one who could do as much with the army as General McClellan could.”

The choice was now between a general whom the troops detested (Pope) and one whom they adored (McClellan). Lincoln knew he had to go with the latter, and so he and Halleck visited McClellan’s H Street headquarters and told him, “General, you will take command of the forces in the field.” McClellan assured them, “I will save the country.” He later wrote his wife Ellen, “Again I have been called upon to save the country–the case is desperate, but with God’s help I will try unselfishly to do my best & if he wills it accomplish the salvation of the nation.”

McClellan issued orders to all troops, including Pope’s, to prepare to march out of Washington. Pope responded to McClellan’s chief of staff, “McClellan has ordered my troops to take post at various places, and I have never been notified in a single instance of their positions.” Pope then wrote Halleck, “What is my command, and where is it? McClellan has scattered it about in all directions, and has not informed me of the position of a single regiment. Am I to take the field under McClellan’s orders?” Pope sent another message to Halleck that afternoon:

“I must again ask your attention to the condition of things in this army. By the present arrangement you are doing me more injury than my worst enemy could do. It is understood, and acted on, that I am deprived of my command, and that it is assigned to McClellan. An order defining his exact status here as well as my own is necessary at once. I send you an official protest against his action.”

Halleck assured Pope that “it is evident that you cannot serve under him (McClellan) willingly,” and Halleck would “never see any injustice done to you.”  He then issued an order: “The armies of the Potomac and Virginia are being consolidated, you will report for orders to the Secretary of War.” Halleck then directed McClellan to “act accordingly in putting forces in the field. The President has directed that General Pope be relieved and report to War Department.”

This did not mollify Pope, and he wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “Is it that I am to be deprived of my command because of the treachery of McClellan and his tools?” Halleck then sent another assurance to Pope: “Do not infer from this that any blame attaches to you. On the contrary, we think you did your best with the material you had. I have not heard any one censure you in the least.”

Meanwhile, Lincoln and his cabinet discussed whether they should allow Pope’s official report go public. According to Welles, “In a brief conversation… the President said with much emphasis: ‘I must have McClellan to reorganize the army and bring it out of chaos, but there has been a design, a purpose in breaking down Pope, without regard of consequences to the country. It is shocking to see and know this; but there is no remedy at present, McClellan has the army with him.’” Welles acknowledged, “There is a good deal of demoralization in the army; officers and soldiers are infected.”

McClellan requested that the administration reinstate Porter, Franklin, Ricketts, and Griffin “until I have got through with the present crisis.” Lincoln deferred to Halleck, who agreed. McClellan then went about absorbing Pope’s Army of Virginia into his Army of the Potomac:

  • Pope’s First Corps under Major General Franz Sigel became the Eleventh Corps.
  • Pope’s Second Corps under Major General Nathaniel P. Banks became the Twelfth Corps, with Banks temporarily replaced by Major General Alpheus Williams until McClellan’s choice, Major General Joseph K.F. Mansfield, could take permanent command.
  • Pope’s Third Corps, formerly under McDowell, was reverted back to its original designation as the First Corps, now led by Major General Joseph Hooker (promoted at McClellan’s request).

Pope’s report was leaked to the public a few days later, most likely by Pope himself, but it did little to earn him any new favor within the administration. Pope considered McClellan to be the “greatest criminal of all,” but since he could not damage McClellan’s influence within the administration, he would continue to attack Porter.

The morale boost that came with McClellan’s reinstatement was all that Lincoln had hoped for now that the Confederates were on the move. Under General Order Number 128, Pope was sent to command the new Department of the Northwest, which consisted of Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and the Nebraska and Dakota territories. Pope’s primary mission would be to put down the Sioux uprising in Minnesota.


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