Over the next few weeks, this column will focus primarily on the military operations in Rappahannock County 150 years ago, during most of the summer of 1862.
To that end, all of the Union forces of Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks’ Department of the Shenandoah; Maj. Gen. Irwin McDowell’s Department of the Rappahannock, and Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont’s Mountain Department of western Virginia; and Brig. Gen. Samuel Sturgis’s Military District of Washington were brought east of the Blue Ridge into Rappahannock County. Maj. Gen. John Pope, an arrogant, brusque commander from the Mississippi River Valley out in the Western Theatre, was brought east and placed in command of the new Army of Virginia, with headquarters in Sperryville.
Gen. Pope’s own army took an immediate dislike to their new commander, especially when he continually made references to his service with the western armies. He also incurred the enmity of Gen. Lee, who referred to Gen. Pope as “that miscreant who needs to be suppressed.” For the civilians and Southern sympathizers in the areas under Gen. Pope’s military control, there was terror, severe depredations to personal lives and properties, and the harsh reality of occupation by a hated enemy.
Almost universally disliked by his subordinate commanders, Gen. Pope bragged “my headquarters is in the saddle.” This remark prompted Pope’s critics to say that “his headquarters is where his hindquarters should be.” Gen. Fremont, lately in command of troops defeated by Gen. Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, detested Gen. Pope, and he resigned rather than serve under Pope when his troops were assigned to Pope’s army. Gen. Fremont was replaced by Maj.. Gen. Franz Sigel. On Thursday, June 26, the new command was established in the plains around Sperryville.
The day before, June 25, at Oak Grove, near Mechanicsville, northeast of Richmond, leading elements of the Army of the Potomac under Maj. Gen. Samuel Heinzelman attacked Confederates under Maj. Gen. Benjamin Huger near Oak Grove. This was the first engagement in the week-long series of bloody battles around Richmond that was to come known as the Seven Days’ Battles. The Confederates were left victorious on the field at Oak Grove. On June 26, without Gen. Jackson’s troops planned in support, Maj. Gen. Ambrose P. Hill’s division went in to attack Maj. Gen. FitzJohn Porter’s Federal corps at Mechanicsville in the second of the Seven Days’ Battles. The attack was a failure without Jackson’s support. The brilliant commander in the Valley Campaign seemed to seriously have lost his spark. He had been very late in bringing his troops up.
In Rappahannock, Gen. Pope’s troops numbered somewhere around 60,000 to 65,000; add to the permanent population in 1860 of about 8,850, and the county’s population soared to around 70,000 during the summer of 1862. It was a time of serious hardship and constant danger for Rappahannock citizens. Gen. Pope ruled his army and the country in which he operated with cruelty, severity, and hatred.