1862: “Let Us Look Before Us, And Not Behind”


Washington D.C., July 14, 1862

To The Officers and Soldiers of the Army of Virginia:

By special assignment of the President of the United States I have assumed the command of this army. I have spent two weeks in learning your whereabouts, your condition and your wants, in preparing you for active operations, and in placing you in positions from which you can act promptly and to the purpose. These labors are nearly completed, and I am about to join you in the field.

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 beat him when he was found; whose policy has been attack and not defense. In but one instance has the enemy been about to place our Western armies in defensive attitude. 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 am sure you long for an opportunity to win the distinction you are capable of achieving. That opportunity I shall endeavor to give you. Meantime 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 “line 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 probably 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. Let us act on this understanding, it is safe to predict that your banners shall be inscribed with many a glorious dead and that your names will be dear to your countrymen forever.


Major-General Commanding.

General John Pope

General John Pope

Perhaps forty-year-old John Pope did have reason to boast. He had won some victories in the western theater…and he was a career army officer who knew about command and strategy (hopefully!).

For John Pope, his Civil War experiences began in the border state of Missouri as a brigadier general of volunteers. After a military victory at Blackwater, Missouri, earlier in 1862, he received command of the Union Army of the Mississippi. Along with the army came orders to clear the Mississippi River and prepare for a large scale invasion of Confederate territory. Pope managed to open some large areas of the rivers, capturing New Madrid, Missouri and Island No. 10 after battling.

With these laurels, John Pope arrived in the east to command the Union Army of Virginia. By July, he was ready to motivate his men for victory.

Openly Criticizing General McClellan

It’s an interesting set of orders. Pope worked to motivate his soldiers by mocking General McClellan’s situation and debacle on the Virginia Peninsula. By that time, certain phrases had been heard enough times via rumors and newspapers for most soldiers to be familiar with Little Mac’s extreme caution, lines of retreat, and supply bases.

Pope didn’t want that for his army. He wanted action and a rougher style of war. Unlike McClellan who seemed to plan and fight a “gentlemanly war,” Pope bragged how he was going to punish the Confederates, even calling their generals harsh names. However, with his bragging and criticism, Pope didn’t make many friends with other generals in Washington.

Would Pope have battlefield victory in the east or was his critical spirit merely setting him up to be the next scapegoat and the next general packed off in disgrace? Time would tell… (But boasts and bragging may not always be a great way to start a campaign.)

Historical Musings

Spoiler Alert: In case you’re not familiar with this part of 1862 history, John Pope got his army smashed up at the Battle of Second Bull Run (Manassas) at the end of August. In a twist of irony, George McClellan would take the remnants of Pope’s army and reorganize the Army of the Potomac. As for John Pope, he got to take a long trip out west – Minnesota to be precise and to deal with a brutal Native American uprising.

While we can’t say Pope’s bragging was the reason he lost the battle, we can observe that his attitude did not seem to endear him to his men or his peers. He was one of those generals who just wasn’t a favorite – despite his bold orders. You choose what lesson you want to learn and what character example seems most suitable…

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. So…which general would you have rather served under if you were a Union soldier? McClellan or Pope?

2 thoughts on “1862: “Let Us Look Before Us, And Not Behind”

  1. Pingback: 1862: “We Are Spartans” | Gazette665

  2. Pingback: 1862: “Near Manassas Junction” | Gazette665

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