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Gen. John Pope: A Hard Luck General

Hated in Virginia, respected in Minnesota

Union Gen. John Pope is one of Centreville's most infamous temporary residents, having made his headquarters at Royal Oaks before and after the battle of Second Manassas during the summer of 1862. Although nothing remains of Royal Oaks today, the residence was located on the east side of Braddock Road just north of Lee Highway (Route 29). Royal Oaks was a frame house of two stories plus an attic, with two stone end chimneys, built about 1770. It was supposedly named for the trees that at one time lined the drive running from Braddock Road to the house. Royal Oaks survived the Civil War and was in good repair and occupied in the early 1950s. In 1959, the house was dismantled and moved to Fauquier County, where it was reportedly never reassembled.

MR. J. HARRY SHANNON, a roving reporter, wrote for the old Washington Star newspaper under the pen name of "The Rambler." He traveled, often by walking, throughout Virginia, writing about and sometimes photographing the historic sites and structures that were disappearing due to the ravages of time. In a 1921 article relating his experiences in Centreville, he described it a place where "The Civil War threw such a glare upon the village that the eyes of the world were on it." He documented Royal Oaks "as a big frame house about 200 yards back from the dusty street, overshadowed by old Locust trees. A frame house with a front porch and a set of wooden stairs leading to it at the middle."

Shannon also mentioned the glass insulated pins he noticed on the house during a previous visit. These insulated pins, he said, "once supported Civil War telegraph lines." Noting Gen. Pope's celebrated use of the house as an army headquarters, Shannon stated that for a time previous to his current visit, the dwelling had been a place where tired travelers could eat and sleep, a hotel run by a Mrs. Simpson, now deceased. The person Shannon found occupying Royal Oaks in 1921 was a Mr. Jim Dobbins, described as "one of the prosperous farmers of the Centreville neighborhood."

At the present time, Centreville's Historic District contains many vacant tracts. Shannon's vivid commentaries help explain why many of the structures that survived the war are no longer standing today. At the time of his visits, many of the buildings were in a poor state of repair. He noted that Centreville, despite its enormous wartime importance, never seemed to have recovered from the ravages of the Civil War. He saw it as a small quiet village of dusty roads, sunken graves and buildings in need of restoration. Although Centreville was slumbering, Shannon thought it significant enough to visit because of its role in the Civil War.

OF ALL THE COMMANDERS who left their marks on Centreville, one of the most controversial was Gen. John Pope, a man with enemies on both sides of conflict. While campaigning in Virginia, he was the only Union commander to earn the personal animosity of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Apparently, John Pope was not a likeable man; he was intensely unpopular with many of the Union troops under his command in Virginia. The wording of his military orders inflamed Southern resistance and insulted his own soldiers. By misjudging Gen. Lee's intentions, Gen. Pope led his army to defeat at the battle of Second Manassas. Soundly trounced, he has gone down in history with a badly smeared record. Many modern historians view Gen. Pope as an incompetent swaggering braggart, a bombastic imbecile who was completely fooled by Lee. He is also accused of committing the unpardonable military sin of blaming others for the mistakes he made in battle.

In reality, Gen. Pope may not have been as inept as his record in Virginia indicates. His many enemies may have succeeded in reducing his memory to a contemptible caricature of the man he really was. Although he was a failure in Virginia during his short tenure from June to September 1862, he was successful in other military assignments before he arrived in Virginia and after he left. John Pope's excellent connections probably helped him to rise in the army ranks. He was a distant cousin of George Washington and was connected by marriage to President Lincoln. A West Point graduate (1842), Pope was a career military officer, a trained topographical engineer. He fought with distinction at Monterrey and Buena Vista during the Mexican War and was brevetted for gallantry. At the onset of the Civil War, he was in Maine serving on lighthouse duty. As the Union army rapidly expanded, Pope was appointed a brigadier general of volunteers. After capturing New Madrid, Missouri, and Island No. 10, opening the Mississippi River to Union ship traffic up to those points and setting the stage for the capture of Memphis, Pope was promoted to major general in March 1862. When Lincoln brought him east to launch a campaign against Lee, Gen. Pope was unfortunately handed more responsibility by the President than his talents merited.

AFTER POPE'S STINGING DEFEAT in Northern Virginia, Lincoln quickly sent him into exile. He was given command of the Department of the Northwest, arriving in time to participate in putting down the Sioux uprising in Minnesota. By all accounts, he recovered from his debacle in Virginia and did well in the job. So well in fact, that in 1866, the citizens of Minnesota named a new county after him. Gen. Pope commanded other departments (mostly in the west) during the remainder of his career, retiring from the army in 1886 as a highly respected authority on Indian problems and conditions on the frontier. Gen. Pope died at the Old Soldiers and Sailors Home in Sandusky, Ohio, on Sept. 23, 1892. All that now remains as a remembrance of Gen. Pope's wartime stay in Centreville is a stone wall on the east side of Braddock Road, part of the property that once contained a house called Royal Oaks. Although his military reputation in this region is forever tarnished, Gen. Pope's later exploits are fondly remembered by the residents of Pope County, Minnesota.