By Doug Coleman
FITZ JOHN PORTER, SCAPEGOAT
Fitz John Porter is a hero you have never heard of. In 1861-62, he was what the Union needed – a general officer with more competence than ego. Born in New Hampshire in 1822, he graduated West Point in 1845, just in time for the Mexican War. He fought at Molino Del Ray and was wounded at Chapultepec, coming out of the war a brevet major. He returned to West Point to become an instructor. He served at Fort Leavenworth, earning promotion. In 1857-1858, he was part of the expedition against the Mormons.
In the Civil War, he served prominently during McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign, culminating in the Seven Days battles before Richmond. Without going into each battle, the significance of these battles was that Joe Johnson was killed at Seven pines, with the result that Robert E. Lee was put in charge of the army. Things went badly for McClellan, who was forced to retreat. Lee was on the verge of destroying the Federal army.
Porter prepared a rear guard to make a stand on a plateau called Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862. He massed artillery on that hill, called in the assistance of three Federal gunboats, and waited for the assault. When the ever-aggressive Lee pushed forward for the coup de grace, Porter’s artillery and well-placed infantry cut the Confederates to bits in three failed frontal assaults. Appreciating how badly he had hurt Lee (one in ten Confederates was a casualty), Porter urged McClellan to resume the offensive and finish it – just exactly what Lee feared as he measured his losses. A spooked McClellan did not take Porter’s advice and Lee was saved, leaving hanging one of the war’s many “what ifs?”
The Lee who was not annihilated went on the offensive. He detached Stonewall Jackson’s troops north to mess with the Union forces around Washington, confident that McClellan would remain quiet. On August 27th, Jackson hit Bristoe Station and captured the supply depot at Manassas Junction. What his men could not eat or carry off, they burned or crapped on (really – they used the Yankee ration boxes for sit-down toilets). Union general John Pope had an army on the Rappahannock whose supply line was just severed. Having properly provoked Pope to come north, Jackson pulled back to Stony Ridge overlooking the Warrenton Turnpike, concealed his men in the woods and behind an abandoned railroad grade, and waited.
What transpired over the next few days demonstrated the complete incompetence of the Federal command. Pope operated under the delusion that Jackson was a mere raiding force who could be bottled up and captured, meanwhile ignoring intelligence from his cavalry commander that Longstreet was advancing through the Thoroughfare Gap and had arrived at Gainesville with nearly 30,000 men. Pope ordered Porter to move his exhausted men through the night over a road crowded with supply wagons, criticizing Porter for delaying the march to a more reasonable hour with more light. He ordered Porter to attack Jackson’s right flank with a force that McDowell had just depleted, ignoring the fact that this would present Porter’s back and flank to Longstreet’s vastly superior forces while actively engaged with Jackson at the same time. McDowell, his immediate superior, told him he was too far out and was not in a good place to make a fight. When Porter did attack on the last day of the battle, his fears were realized when the attack failed and Longstreet’s counterattack nearly destroyed the whole Union army. Porter’s forces actually delayed Longstreet just long enough for Pope to consolidate his line and make an orderly retreat toward the forts at Centreville. McClellan actively held back, hoping Pope would be defeated so that his star could ascend once more (which it did after Pope’s defeat, albeit briefly).
Second Manassas was a huge defeat for the Union – Pope and McClellan were now bottled up within the defenses of Washington, allowing Lee to proceed with his campaign to invade and liberate Maryland. And everyone knew Second Manassas was a disaster. Pope and McDowell needed a scapegoat and relieved Porter of command on September 5th. His friend McClellan quickly restored him. Pope himself was relieved of command on September 12th. Porter commanded McClellan’s reserve at Antietam later in September of 1862. McClellan was himself relieved of command in November.
There was much blame to be laid. And this blame unfairly fell on Fitz John Porter – a friend of McClellan, a northern Democrat now at odds with the Lincoln administration. Porter himself had been publicly critical of Secretary of War Stanton, an indiscretion about to cost him. On November 25, 1862, Porter was arrested and faced a court martial. The charges were cowardice and disobedience at Second Manassas. A vindictive Stanton is said to have hand-picked the panel.
This trial and the events leading up to it are fleshed out fully in Gene Paleno’s The Porter Conspiracy, wherein Paleno refutes any notion that Porter was a coward. Instead, Paleno argues convincingly that Porter’s competency and common-sense saved the army. Porter’s trial had a pre-ordained result, the object of which was to save the careers of Pope and McDowell, the generals actually responsible for the debacle. Thus Porter was cynically crucified for the sins of others, cashiered and forbidden from holding any office of trust or profit. Government, especially your own, is almost never your friend. Lincoln, like Pilate, approved the verdict.
Porter spent the next 15 years trying to salvage his honor. Some of his best allies were the Confederate generals he had fought against, who attested to his competency in combat. A more effective ally was President Grant, who knew a little bit about the Civil War and appreciated what had really happened at Second Manassas. In 1878, General Schofield convened a special commission to review Porter’s court martial. Porter was exonerated of all charges after the commission found that Porter had probably saved the army from an even worse defeat. While critical of Porter for intemperate remarks about Pope, the commission finally put the blame where it belonged – on Pope and McDowell. Eight years later, President Arthur reversed Porter’s sentence. Congress subsequently passed a bill restoring him to the rank of colonel retroactive to May 1861. Not that this did him a lot of good financially – the government neglected to award him his back pay. Vindicated, he promptly retired from the army.
Porter’s legacy to us is the detailed maps of the Manassas vicinity he created in the course of trying to clear his name. These maps are so detailed that the Manassas battlefields have been reliably restored and preserved in parts to look exactly as they did in the 1860s. Porter also reminds us of what politicians and career soldiers are capable of. Finally, Porter’s dismissal leaves a negative legacy – as one of the Union’s more competent and aggressive officers, how would history be different if he had been left to fight? Porter died in 1901, leaving behind a statue and monument telling his story.
Sources: Gene Paleno, The Porter Conspiracy: A Story of the Civil War
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.