John Pope, United States Army officer, was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on March 15, 1822, the son of Nathaniel and Lucretia (Backers) Pope. His father, a collateral descendant of George Washington, was appointed a federal judge in Illinois, and from there Pope received his appointment to West Point on July 1, 1838. He graduated seventeenth in his class and was brevetted second lieutenant in the topographical engineers on July 1, 1842. After four years of survey duty he served with Gen. Zachary Taylor's army in Mexico, where he gained promotion to second lieutenant on May 9, 1846, and, for "gallant and meritorious conduct" during the battle of Monterrey, a brevet to first lieutenant on September 23, 1846. He was brevetted captain for his part in the American victory at Buena Vista on February 23, 1847. Pope was promoted to first lieutenant on March 3, 1853, and to captain on July 1, 1856. In 1853 he commanded the party that surveyed railroad routes through Texas under congressional mandate, and in 1855 he returned to the state to search for water in far West Texas. Pope's Well, near the Pecos River crossing of the Texas-New Mexico line, became a landmark on the Goodnight-Loving Trail. Pope married Clara P. Horton on September 15, 1859, and the couple became the parents of four children.
With the outbreak of the Civil War Pope was appointed brigadier general of volunteers on May 17, 1861, and major general on March 21, 1862, following his success in opening the upper Mississippi River almost to Memphis. He was made a brigadier general in the regular army on July 14, 1862, and transferred to the command of the newly designated Army of Virginia. His family's political power and relationship by marriage to the wife of the president, Mary Todd Lincoln, surely did not retard his unusually fast rise in rank. Pope's military star was suddenly dimmed when, on August 28–30, 1862, he confronted and was disastrously defeated by Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at the second battle of Manassas or Bull Run. Pope was removed from command and assigned to duty as commander of the Department of the Northwest on September 16, 1862, with headquarters at St. Paul, Minnesota, where he dealt credibly with the Sioux uprising. On July 21, 1865, he assumed command of the Department of Missouri, a post that he held until he was relieved by William T. Sherman on August 11, 1866. He was brevetted to major general on March 13, 1865, for his role in the capture of Island Number Ten, Mississippi.
After the Civil War he was mustered out of the volunteer army but remained in the army as a brigadier general. During Reconstruction he commanded the Third Military District-Georgia, Florida, and Alabama-from his headquarters in Montgomery from 1867 until 1868. Thereafter he held various departmental commands, including the Department of the Lakes, the Department of Missouri, and the Division of the Pacific. He was promoted to major general on October 26, 1882, on the basis of his seniority. Pope retired from the army on March 16, 1886, and died at the Ohio Soldiers' and Sailors' Home in Sandusky, Ohio, on September 23, 1892. He is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis.