10 January 2006 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 6 comments

Ethan Rafuse, author of the excellent McClellan’s War: The Failure of Moderation in the War for the Union, posted such an insightful, useful, and educational comment in response to my post on Second Bull Run that I decided to give Ethan the spotlight and make his comment a main post here. Enjoy.

“Pope does deserve better. I do not necessarily agree that he in particular was in over his head in Virginia–after all, what Union general wasn’t before 1864? To be sure, there were many unpleasant aspects of Pope’s personality. But more weight should be given to the fact that the summer of 1862 was perhaps the most complicated time politically, militarily, and personally of the war for the North. I also think Pope is a victim of the fact that we are too quick to blame the generals in the East for military failure; but where is the problem? The generals change both in name and character, from the conservative McClellan to the radical Pope to the squishy Burnside to the aggressive Hooker to the cautious Meade, but there are two constants: inability to achieve decisive success and the character of the civilian leadership. Moreover, it should be noted that, in general, Union military success was usually in equal measure to how far a particular theater was from Washington. This is not, of course, to say that the Union generals did not make errors and create their own friction. They all did, but the “what fools they were” school of Civil War historiography provides an inadequate picture of the war.

But back to Pope. In order to get the job of commanding the Army of Virginia and do it effectively, he really had no choice but to conspicuously demonstrate his sympathy with the anti-McClellan crowd in Washington. In the process, however, he antagonized much of the officer corps and effectively commit himself to conducting operations aggressively, even though caution would have served him better. Sometimes what you got to do to get the job compromises your ability to do the job when you got it. Moreover, he was saddled with subordinates (Sigel, McDowell, Banks, Porter, Heintzelman) who were questionable for varying reasons, facing an Army of Northern Virginia that was truly at its peak, and had a somewhat unclear mission. Was concentrating the Armies of Virginia and Potomac the paramount priority (certainly McClellan and his associates believed this to be the case), or was seizing and creating opportunities to fight and beat the Confederates as Pope promised? And at a critical point in the campaign, when Pope needed guidance on this point and the ability to exchange information with his superiors, his communications were cut. But despite this, he skillfully thwarted Lee’s maneuvers (aided at first by the orders seized at Verdiersville, luck that the Union created by authorizing Buford’s raid) along the Rapidan and Rappahannock, conceived a sound plan for dealing with Jackson’s raid on Manassas Junction, and I think generally made the best decisions he could based on what he knew. True, he left Thoroughfare Gap open to Longstreet, dismissed evidence of Longstreet’s arrival, and developed his plans on 29-30 August based on faulty perceptions of the situation. But leaving Thoroughfare Gap relatively open was not necessarily fatal, and the latter is at least understandable. The officers advising Pope of Longstreet’s presence the morning of 30 August were Porter and Reynolds, both of whom were part of the McClellan crowd and Pope’s suspicion of this clique had been reinforced in recent days by Porter’s actions and warnings from the ever-noxious Kearny. Even then, were it not for McDowell’s awful blunder on the afternoon of 30 August, it seems unlikely that Longstreet’s assault would have achieved as much as it did. And even then, Pope was still able to get back across Bull Run and link up with the two corps of the Army of the Potomac that (after much unseemly foot-dragging by McClellan, another factor that must be taken into account) had finally marched out from the Washington defenses. In the process, Pope inflicted a significant beating on Jackson’s command and Longstreet’s that in the cold light of attritional analysis (which makes it possible to even see a silver lining in the Fredericksburg debacle), was worth something to the Union cause.

One of Pope’s problems in history and memory, as I argue in a footnote in McClellan’s War, is that the Radical Republicans did not make the kind of effort to rehabilitate him that they would for Fremont and Hooker–in part because they found a new hero in the latter. As Hennessy pointed out in his incomparable book, Second Manassas was, next to Gettysburg, perhaps the most controversial campaign during the decades after the war. I do not think it is fair to say that Second Manassas has not generated recent interest or does not receive respect; I just think Hennessy did such an outstanding job that there has been no point revisiting it in a major way–although Joseph Harsh does so superbly in Confederate Tide Rising.”

Kudos to Ethan for such an excellent, educational, and insightful post that answers a lot of questions about why the Second Bull Run Campaign so often seems to get short shrift. Thanks for writing, Ethan.

Scridb filter


  1. Dave Kelly
    Wed 11th Jan 2006 at 6:25 pm

    Don’t agree with the notion that “we are too quick to blame the generals”.

    Laying the burden for poor doctrine at the doorstep of the politicians is also too easy to do given the essential antimilitarist caste of political thought. But the militarys counter foil was isolationist professional snobbery mixed with a good dose of the worst sort of French dogmatism,
    based on the career of a loser megalomaniac. (Napoleon)

    Was Pope’s demise more effected by political failure, or cliquish rivalries within the military confraternity? The insertion of “westerners” (Pope and Halleck) seems to have wrankled immensely the schoolboy goodfellow establishment McClellan was cobbling together.

    I realize that soldiers have political views and ties, and there are cross currents. But I’m leary of just how far those political influences go within the weal of military operations.

    The division of commmand created by Lincoln and Stanton, and the feeling that rivalries between headquarters submarined the 2d Manassas effort seems to be pertinent as to why soldiers would argue its history.

  2. ESRafuse
    Thu 12th Jan 2006 at 12:37 pm

    Thanks for your great response, Dave (if I may). I did not say that it was wrong to criticize generals, but I do think it is necessary to take the time to fully understand and work through the problems they face. In other words, the operative word in my statement was “quick” rather than “blame”. You are absolutely correct that civil-military relations are a two-way street and that there were real attitudinal issues within the professional officer corps in the Civil War. Still, I don’t see much evidence of poor doctrine rooted in French dogmatism and Napoleonism in the Union army during the Second Manassas Campaign in particular. And as far as being a “loser meglomaniac”–old Bony had a better run than most of us and when it finally came to an end, he got to retire to a tropical island and had a pastry named after him!

    Your leariness regarding how far to go in attributing battlefield decisions to political influences is certainly on point. Professor Harsh once mused that on the surface it is absurd to suggest something along the lines that there is are differing Federalist, Whig, Republican, Democratic, Know-Nothing, or Constitutional Unionist ways to attack a position, build and defend a trench line, or supply an army. At the same time, there is always an intermingling of military, political, cultural, and personal considerations that shapes military operations. Specific tactical decisions are made the context of operational considerations, which are in turn conditioned by the broader strategic context, which is rooted in a varying range of political, diplomatic, cultural, and personal factors. Rarely in the Civil War was the tactical so closely tied with the political as it was during the Second Manassas Campaign. The dramatic change in the Union war effort in Virginia in the summer of 1862 Pope symbolized meant that it would be almost impossible for anything a general did during the Second Manassas Campaign to be interpreted purely on its military merits. Regardless of the tactical situation, an aggressive attack would be interpreted as endorsement of the new turn in the Union war effort (and in some eyes that were by means at the fringe, whether one was truly loyal to the Union cause) and repudiation of what McClellan and his clique had come to symbolize militarily and politically. Caution, regardless of whether it was justified by the specific situation, would be perceived the opposite way. Of course, that this was the case in 1862 by no means obviates our need to follow your example of being leary of pushing political interpretations of actions too much when considering problems commanders confront and the decisions they make. In the final analysis, I think Pope ultimately failed* as a commander in Virginia in a tactical and operational sense because of a particular tactical decision that can be laid at the feet of McDowell, who was by no means a fan of Geo. B. McClellan. Until that moment, Pope was doing OK, despite his earlier errors and the less-than-admirable attitude that McClellan and his clique carried throughout the campign. What would have happened had McDowell not made this error and Pope been able to maintain his position on the Manassas side of Bull Run, given all that already occurred in Washington and the field to that point and that Lee was making preparations for another attempt to turn Pope before Longstreet attacked, is certainly an interesting question to contemplate, though.

    Thanks again for your great post, and to Eric for providing this all-too-distracting forum.

    * In that he had to retreat from the field as a result of Longstreet’s attack on August 30. As I said in my earlier post, though, there is an argument to be made that this “failure” was purely one of perception, as he did give Lee a pretty good beating and did ultimately achieve the larger operational goal of unifying the Armies of Virginia and the Potomac. I don’t agree with it, but this argument can be made.

  3. Thu 12th Jan 2006 at 8:58 pm


    You’re very welcome. I’m having a blast, both with my own rantings, and with having discussions like this one.


  4. Dave Kelly
    Thu 12th Jan 2006 at 9:43 pm

    Sincerest thanks for your reply. We don’t disagree. My comment was more a caution to command and control mindsets rather than to a application to a single campaign. Strategy is politics. Operations are military. You may be right about Popes fate. Or perhaps Lincoln and Stanton, in a military moment, sadly concluded that bringing westerners east, was a mistake.

    I see McClellan in particular as someone infected with the Great Captains disease. He fails to see what George Washington understood; that Republican warfare by its political nature is corporate warfare. McClellan never divests himself of the notion that a uniform endows him with superior claim to strategic decisions. Not to be entrusted to the “original gorilla”. ( I understand E Stanton originated that moniker to McClellan’s delight. Stanton as Sec War sobered up. McClellan never quite figured out that he had to share the burden of the war with the Constitutional Commander in Chief).

    Halleck is another sort of disappointment. Whether he is a schemer, a coward unwilling to rise to the occasion offered by Lincoln, or a literalist who intends to do his duty as General in Chief to the limits of the law and proper military protocol depends on who you study. A little of each.

    Halleck/Lincoln have a preponderence of military force at their disposal, if they can manipulate it to advantage. The telegraph has the novel and unfortunate impact of allowing Washington to become a legitimate strategic warroom; at least for the eastern theater (where same day comm is possible. Grant had the good fortune of operating 6 days away from round trip comm ;). )

    The insertion of higher order command, or its failure I don’t consider a political influence so much as an intrusion of “modernism” into command and control. In the future it worked to the benefit of Grant at Vicksburg and again at Chattanooga. Poor Pope, as close as he was to fortress Washington, didn’t quite get the support that he deserved.

    (Sorry, I’m not answering your comment directly. Rather elaborating a perspective. )

  5. ESRafuse
    Wed 18th Jan 2006 at 11:28 am


    It would be nice if strategy were a purely political concern and operations a purely military concern, but this is very rarely the case. Military officers, especially those of high rank, have a responsibility at the strategic level for advising political leaders of what is possible and appropriate and trying to guide them in making decisions. Likewise, politicians cannot simply give officers carte blanche in how they conduct operations, for there are too many areas that have overlapping strategic, operational, and tactical effects. Is the question of how many men the Army of the Potomac could take to the Peninsula a political or military decision? Is the question of whether to advance to the Yalu a political or military decision? Is the use of torture to gain intelligence a political or military decision? In all three cases, the answer is both. Of course, ultimate responsibility rests with the commander in chief, although I think generals do have an obligation to argue for their views when they disagree with the president so that the ultimate authority in the American system, the people, know the alternatives available so they can exercise accountability at the polls.

    It was not the uniform that gave McClellan a justifiable sense that he knew and understood military affairs better than his superiors. Rather, it was the fact that he was one of the true stars of the antebellum army and possessed as extensive a background in military affairs as anyone who was a candidate for high command in the country in 1861. And if he was wrong to think that the uniform gave him a special responsibility in shaping strategic and operational decisions, then that raises the question of why we bother at all with professional officers and making a distinction between soldiers and civilians?

    Halleck was hardly a disappointment to Lincoln. Indeed, he was exactly what Lincoln wanted in a general-in-chief after 1862; namely, someone who agreed with the commander-in-chief’s views on how the war and would provide advice and support in the course of their implementation. Lincoln’s comfort with Halleck was in no small part due to the fact that his views on military affairs were heavily influenced by his reading Halleck’s prewar writings, which in turn were basically a rip-off of Jomini. What Halleck provided was a military man to translate Lincoln’s wishes into orders and a lightening rod for criticism. Lest one doubt the closeness of the Lincoln-Halleck relationship, consider that fact that members of Congress were concerned in early 1864 that, if they resurrected the rank of LTG, Lincoln would give it to Halleck; indeed, one version of the bill explicitly designated Grant for the post in order to prevent this.

    Stanton is ripe for critical reconsideration by historians. There has not been a study of the man since Thomas’s and Hyman’s work in the 1960s, and I strongly suspect a close examination of Stanton’s performance will lead to a reevaluation downward of his contribution to the Union war effort. He brought energy to the organizational aspects of the job of secretary of war to be sure, although I am not sure that the high opinion of his efforts is not simply attributable to the fact the only point of comparison was Simon Cameron. Moreover, whatever positive contributions Stanton made must be balanced against the sense of paranoia, irrational prejudice against West Pointers, and willful ignorance of the operational and tactical realities of mid-19th century warfare he brought to the job–and indeed gloried in–all of which contributed greatly to the tensions between the political and military leaders that hampered the Union war effort.

  6. Dave Kelly
    Thu 19th Jan 2006 at 6:43 pm

    Ethan (if I may)

    I’m unworthy of your generous and marvelous response.

    “It would be nice if strategy were a purely political concern and operations a purely military concern….”

    All true. We are dealing with cultural issues in general and particular applications. The why for that it takes years of training and establishing a knowledge base to make professionals conversant and effective corporate leaders/managers/doers. And the dynamics of what happens when you pool corporate intellects and try to accomplish tasks in given situations. Being an art form, what comes out the arse never quite seems to match what the head concieves (sorry, I can’t help myself).

    When I said strategy is politics and operations are military I did so from a perspective of the same corporate warrior you are aware of in para 1. My understanding of corporate warfare is that the political and military command has to be in agreement before the operator is tasked to act. If that consensus is achieved a lot of the tension goes away before the act is committed, as both arms of political action are in synch. It is true that operations and tactical situations can have political implications and repercussions. Appropriate policy judgements can alleviate a lot of the possible pratfalls. My concern as a soldier is that execution not risk americans because a sudden political bump in the road presents itself. (To blow up or not blow up a mosque teeming with fanatics who if let loose will do no good to anyone vs the malice created by public opinion slavishly wedded to symbol in spite of the risk.) A conumdrum.

    “It was not the uniform that gave McClellan a justifiable sense that he knew and understood military affairs better than his superiors. ”

    The “uniform” is an analogy for military professional culture. The 19th Century is infected with the Napoleonic “great man cult” yes? Codified by Hegel and spun off to empire building… Is McClellan messianic or just the modern major general (ala Gilbert and Sullivan)? Macs resume looks good, but his cultural base, along with all the other Captains and Lieutenants who are suddenly embarking on Grand Scale Warfare is rather short. In his final report of operations Mac reluctantly admits to several shortcomings in his command and administration of things military. He is modest. He screwed up alot of opportunities to fine tune the Union Army and make himself a hero to Lincoln; who repeatedly courted Mac to be his lover. To top it off Mac lacked the one military quality the brotherhood expected of him: sange froide (cold blooded killer).

    “Halleck was hardly a disappointment to Lincoln. ”

    You raise some very interesting points. I think your perspective here is highly “political”. Have all the Halleck studies (all 3 of ’em roll eyes). Have also been sitting at work reading Sandburg last few nites. I think Halleck disappointed Lincoln/Stantons expectations of bringing a warrior to Washington who would command armies and win battles. The feud between the national command leaders I think lasted thru Hooker. When field generals started winning on their own Lincoln accepted Halleck for what he was. From that perspective I don’t think anyone considered Halleck as the LTG to be. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but te LTG issue only came to the table because E Washburne proposed making Grant LTG; and did so out of turn for that matter.)

    “Stanton is ripe for critical reconsideration by historians. ”

    Understatement. One of these days I should get off my butt and try to float something in print. Toyed with a study of Union Mobilization that nobody wanted to touch. Stanton’s advocacy of strategic force projection was pretty novel. McClellan used to mumble about doing it, but Stanton actually sent TA Scott into the field and did the paper studies to prepare the railroads and waterways to move armies around the country in operationally meaningful timeframes. Stanton also warred with Lincoln and Senator Wilson to try to get a rational national replacement system in place to put men in the old regiments. Couldn’t move the traditionalists, or Lincolns waffling approach.

    Lincoln, Stanton and Halleck all had their weaknesses and strengths. Somehow they approached a consensus on how to finish the war and brought Grant to Washington to bind the Operational Concept to their direct startegic approach to finish the war.

    Thanks for teaching and listenin ;).

Comments are closed.

Copyright © Eric Wittenberg 2011, All Rights Reserved
Powered by WordPress