August 1862: The Second Battle of Bull Run

Louis C. Kleber describes a crushing defeat for the North in the American Civil War, and its new Army Commander, John Pope.

The American Civil War’s Second Battle of Bull Run, like the first encounter near that Virginia stream, ended in a crushing defeat for the North. It also effectively ended the military career of Major General John Pope, whose unrestrained self-esteem was no match for the modest brilliance of the South’s Robert E. Lee. Indeed, the Northern historian, John C. Ropes, noted that ‘It would be hard to find a better instance of that masterly comprehension of the actual condition of things which marks a great general than was exhibited (by General Lee)’.

Pope’s arrival in the eastern theatre of operations followed a successful campaign in the west which contrasted sharply with the fortunes of the Union army in Virginia. In a swift series of actions, he had captured the Confederate strongholds of New Madrid and Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River.

He was made a major general and his delighted chief in Washington, General Halleck, wired: ‘I congratulate you and your command on your splendid achievement. It excels in boldness and brilliance all other operations of the war.’ For a man like Pope, the message was nectar. The war was young, and he had all of the obvious advantages; an energetic graduate of West Point who had just turned forty and whose record promised big things.

Secretary of War Stanton called Pope to Washington in late June, 1862, to assume command of the new Army of Virginia1. There was some petty opposition to Pope, but his aggressive confidence was infectious and a welcome relief from the wary manoeuvres of General McClellan, whose Army of the Potomac had carefully edged to the very outskirts of Richmond, the Confederate capital. Lee’s position was, at best, perilous, due to the existence of these two powerful armies which posed threats from the east and the north-west. How could he deal with them separately and still protect Richmond?

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