Rick Beard: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Fitz John Porter
Rick Beard, an independent historian, is senior adviser for the Pennsylvania Civil War 150 Committee and volunteer coordinator of the Civil War Sesquicentennial for the American Association for State and Local History.
On Jan. 10, 1863, a military tribunal of nine Union generals found Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter guilty of two charges stemming from his actions at the Second Battle of Manassas the previous August. Eleven days later, Porter was dismissed from the Army and “forever disqualified from holding any office or trust or profit under the Government of the United States.” After signing the order cashiering Porter, President Lincoln remarked, “In any other country but this, the man would have been shot.” His uncharacteristically harsh assessment reveals the controversy and political machinations that surrounded Porter’s court martial as well as the lingering drama accompanying the recent removal of his friend and patron, George McClellan, from command of the Union armies.
At first glance, Porter seemed an unlikely candidate to end his military career on so ignominious a note. The Union admirals David Dixon Porter and David G. Farragut were both among his cousins, and he had graduated eighth in his West Point class of 1845. He served with distinction during the Mexican-American war, taught at West Point, fought in the Mormon wars of 1857 and 1858, and in 1860 reorganized the defenses of Charleston Harbor, S.C. Within a few months of the war’s outbreak, Porter was promoted to brigadier general and given command of the V Corps of the Army of the Potomac. During the Peninsula Campaign, his division fought bravely and well, providing one of the few bright spots in the failed Union effort to capture Richmond.
Porter’s fortunes soured quickly. In July of 1862 General-in-Chief Henry Halleck ordered him to reinforce the newly organized Army of Virginia under the command of Maj. Gen. John Pope. After a series of modest successes in the Western theater, Pope arrived in Washington boasting that “I have come to you from the West, where we have always seen the backs of our enemies.” Even had he been popular with his military peers, such braggadocio would have rankled....
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