One hundred and fifty years ago today General John Pope was busily engaged in having his Union Army of Virginia thrashed by the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at the Second Battle of Bull Run. In the 1880’s Pope wrote an article for Century Magazine, one of its many articles by Civil War commanders which would later come out in the four volume set Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, in which Pope did his unconvincing best to defend his conduct in this fiasco. Go here to read it. At the end of the article Pope claimed that he never said that his headquarters was in the saddle.
There are other matters which, although not important, seem not out of place in this paper. A good deal of cheap wit has been expended upon a fanciful story that I published an order or wrote a letter or made a remark that my “headquarters would be in the saddle.” It is an expression harmless and innocent enough, but it is even stated that it furnished General Lee with the basis for the only joke of his life. I think it due to army tradition, and to the comfort of those who have so often repeated this ancient joke in the days long before the civil war, that these later wits should not be allowed with impunity to poach on this well-tilled manor. This venerable joke I first heard when a cadet at West Point, and it was then told of that gallant soldier and gentleman, General W. J. Worth, and I presume it could be easily traced back to the Crusades and beyond. Certainly I never used this expression or wrote or dictated it, nor does any such expression occur in any order of mine; and as it was perhaps served its time and effected its purpose, it ought to be retired.
This intrigued me since every article I had read about John Pope claimed that his dispatches always made the assertion. After researching for a bit my suspicions were aroused because although it was constantly asserted that he wrote this, no example was ever cited of a dispatch that contained this phrase.
Finally, I read in Gary Eicher’s exhaustive The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, an explanation as to how this fable arose. The Richmond Inquirer printed a supposed (completely fictitious) military communication from Pope in which he claimed that his headquarters was in the saddle. It then had, also a complete fiction, General Lee opine, “If so his headquarters are where his hindquarters ought to be.” It is frightening to think how a humorous aside in a newspaper has become hammered into our Civil War history as a fact, with Lincoln, rather than Lee, supposedly making the hindquarters observation.