150 Years Ago: Pope’s ticket to the east

A century and a half ago, Major General John Pope received orders to report to Washington, D.C. and a new assignment.

Pope’s early war service was in Missouri, where his conduct was rather counter-productive to General John C. Fremont, his commander (who arguably acted counter-productive to HIS boss, President Lincoln).  Later, General Henry Halleck directed Pope to organize the troops that became the Army of the Mississippi starting in late February 1862.  Pope took that army to the field and secured New Madrid and Island No.10.  Based on that victory, Pope secured his second star brevet rank, and of course gained a lot of attention.  In the late spring of 1862, Pope commanded the Army of the Mississippi as the “Left Wing” of the ungainly consolidated formation slowly moving towards Corinth, Mississippi.

Up to June 1861, Pope won an important, and relatively bloodless, victory.  That was his military resume.  On the political side, Pope had won the war printed in the newspapers.  He didn’t have the tarnish of other, perhaps more capable, commanders at Corinth.  So again Pope benefited where military operations and politics mix.

History’s story line on Pope, from June 1862, highlights his arrival in the east.  Bombastic statements coupled with battlefield defeats have Pope labeled as a “one and done” in the revolving door of generals who tried to best Robert E. Lee.  And that is certainly the “eastern” view of Pope’s meteoric career.  Recent interpretation has further highlighted Pope’s approach to campaigning.  He introduced “the hard war” – at least in the Easter Theater context.  (And that is a fine topic for another post at a more appropriate sesquicentennial day.)

But I like to look at the inverse effects, or shall we say in this case the residuals.  When Pope moved east, he opened a slot in the west.  The man who filled it was William S. Rosecrans.  That version of the Army of the Mississippi’s days were numbered.  By October, operational demands split the formation.  Some troops remained in west Tennessee, eventually pulled into Grant’s Vicksburg campaign (either on the periphery or actually on the march).  Other divisions became part of the new Army of the Cumberland by years end.  And who was at the head of that army?  William S. Rosecrans.

Say what you will about “Old Rosy”.  But he was 4-1 in major battles and campaigns (Iuka, Corinth, Stones River, Tullahoma vs. Chickamauga).  Over the winter of 1862-63, his organization of the Army of the Cumberland is analogous to McClellan’s over the winter of 1861-62 (and there are several other parallels between Old Rosy and Little Mac).  Of course we must balance that with several very poor decisions on the field of battle (or I should say battles).  Some historians, better lettered than this writer, have made the case Rosecrans only had “one bad day” as head of the Army of the Cumberland.  To me that’s hyperbole.  Regardless, if we consider the whole, Rosecrans was a positive sum.

Would Rosecrans be at the head of the Army of the Cumberland in 1863 had Pope stayed in the west?  Maybe… but that would assume Pope fell into disfavor at some point to pull him out of contention.  Something like a 2nd Manassas in the west… and there were plenty of opportunities for that (like those battles Rosecrans won in Mississippi).  I submit that Pope’s ticket east provided an opening for the rise of another commander who would push the war right into the hills of northern Georgia.

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