Apart from Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, Fitz John Porter was the least deserving of being relieved of command.
By Jake Collens
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2022, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: The subject of the annual Dick Crews Debate at the January 2022 Roundtable meeting was: “Apart from Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, which Civil War officer was the least deserving of being relieved of command?” Four members made presentations on the topic; the article below was one of those four presentations .
I am honored to participate in this debate with such distinguished debaters. I have zero debate experience myself. Well, that’s not quite true. I have far too often debated with my cat and my wife, who are both accomplished debaters. I’ve managed to win a couple debates with Oliver, my cat. With my wife, Donna, well, she’s undefeated. I did persuade her to accompany me tonight so she could critique me later. I wish to thank her for her attendance. Donna!
Fortunately for me, as the facts and the truth are on General Fitz John Porter’s side, it’s unnecessary that I be an accomplished debater.
The question before us is “who least deserved his fate?” In that Porter was the only one who was not just removed from his command, but was actually court-martialed, found guilty, and kicked out of the army in disgrace, this was a far worse fate than simply being removed from command. So, if Porter was innocent of all charges, it’s rather obvious that he “least deserved his fate.”
When McClellan became commander of the Army of the Potomac, Porter quickly became not only General McClellan’s loyal friend, but his most trusted advisor. Porter served solidly on the Peninsula, particularly at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill and then Malvern Hill. For this, he was promoted to major general of volunteers.
When Porter was withdrawn from the Peninsula and sent to reinforce Pope, he contributed to his own downfall by his comments in several personal letters. Pope had a poor reputation in the prewar army. For one thing, he was known as an habitual liar. In one letter to General Burnside, Porter made slanderous comments about General Pope. Burnside, naively, turned the entire letter over to the administration, thus completely poisoning Pope and the Lincoln administration against Porter.
Pope came east and pompously declared and acted like the eastern army commanders were fools, and that he, Pope, would handily give Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia a sound thrashing. This attitude came back to haunt him when Stonewall Jackson stole a complete march on Pope, going around Pope’s right flank, showing up in his rear, and destroying the huge Union supply depot at Bristoe Station. Completely surprised, Pope thought he could defeat Jackson in detail by cutting off his retreat. I think you have heard the saying, “It’s not what you don’t know that hurts you; it’s what you know absolutely for sure that ain’t so that hurts you.” There was a lot Pope did not know! But even worse, he believed, contrary to the evidence, what he wanted to believe, and what would benefit him. Thus, he ordered his troops to converge on Jackson, assuming and trusting that Lee and Longstreet were far away.
On August 29, Pope thought he had ordered Porter to attack Jackson’s right flank. This order, a masterpiece of poor communication, was typical Pope. It is historically known as the Joint Order, sent to both Porter and General McDowell. It read in part, “You will please move forward…the whole command shall halt…it may be necessary to fall back…if any considerable advantages are to be gained by departing from this order it will not be strictly carried out.” So at one and the same time, Porter was ordered to advance, halt, and retreat, or do whatever he thought best. At 4:30 p.m. Pope sent Porter another order, to wit, “Push forward into action at once on the enemy’s flank, and, if possible on his rear, keeping your right in communication with General Reynolds…keep heavy reserves.” Pope also advised Porter to fall back to his right and rear if forced to retreat. Porter never attacked on the 29th, and it was this disobedience that primarily resulted in his court-martial.
There are many flaws in this order. First, due to rough terrain, it was impossible for Porter to extend his line to join with Reynolds. Second, Pope was unaware that McDowell, Porter’s superior, had earlier marched away with half of Porter’s force. Furthermore, Pope assumed that the order was delivered at 5:00 p.m., when in reality it was two hours on the way, arriving at 6:30 p.m. Lastly, Pope, believing what he wanted to believe, thought he had Jackson cornered, without Lee or Longstreet anywhere near, and all he needed was for Porter to attack, and the battle was won.
Porter did not attack because, first, he received the order too late in the day to organize an effective attack, and, second, he felt there was a superior force in his front that would result in a severe defeat. Thus, he used his discretion as commander with local knowledge not to attack. The upper map below shows what Pope thought the situation to be, and the lower map shows the actual situation. Pope thought that Longstreet was not on the field and that Jackson was in a different location than he actually was. But Longstreet had been on the field since noon! Pope, totally delusional despite the evidence, believed Jackson was in retreat.
The following day Porter was ordered and did attack Jackson. Longstreet was only too glad to take advantage of Porter’s open flank and routed Porter from the field. Porter’s corps suffered 2,100 casualties out of 6,500 engaged.
In the aftermath, Pope looked like a total fool, which he was, and the administration looked equally incompetent in placing Pope in command. A scapegoat was needed. Porter, of the “wrong” political persuasion (and a McClellan confidante), was quite convenient. Pope clung to the belief that Longstreet had not arrived on the 29th and that if only Porter had attacked, Jackson would have been the hapless victim. Thus, it was all Porter’s fault, and he clung to this belief even 20 years later.
The court-martial was politically orchestrated for a predetermined result: porter’s conviction. To quote, from Radical Sacrifice: The Rise and Ruin of Fitz John Porter by William Marvel, “By the end of the trial, Porter’s attorneys had deduced that most of the court members were determined to find their client guilty no matter how much evidence weighed against it. Every single objection was decided in favor of the prosecution, often through blatant hypocrisy, and…that the rulings on evidence ‘were so superlatively absurd as to almost destroy every hope of justice.'” At the time, both Pope and the Lincoln administration needed a scapegoat, so Porter was conveniently convicted.
He spent much of the rest of his life trying to prove his innocence. Part of the problem, during the war, was that no one on the Union side really knew when Longstreet arrived on the battlefield. It was not until after the war that Confederate records and soldiers could be consulted. Unfortunately for Porter, it was not politically expedient until long after the war to reopen his case.
Finally, on April 12, 1878, the War Department issued an order creating a board of officers to reexamine the case. After almost a year-long inquiry, the board released its findings on April 2, 1879, “Point by point and unanimously, the board rejected the verdict of the court martial.” But there followed no pardon or reinstatement. Since at least 1869 Ulysses Grant felt certain Porter had done something worthy of punishment. On September 17, 1881 Porter wrote Grant and sent him a copy of a letter General Alfred Terry had written. General Terry (coincidentally, my cousin) had served on the review board. Terry stated that in 1862 he had thought Porter guilty, and only after diving into the record and examining accurate maps did he find that he was mistaken.
Grant did a thorough review of the evidence and in the North American Review for December 1882 concluded “Porter’s conduct at Bull Run as judicious at every turn” and further that “Pope had deluded him and the rest of the public for 20 years.” Finally, a bill to reinstate Porter in the regular army with the effective date of August 5, 1861 was passed in Congress. On August 3, 1886 the Senate confirmed Porter as a colonel in the regular army with the commission backdated to August 5, 1861. Porter immediately asked to be retired.
“Who least deserved his fate” is the question before us. Of Fitz John Porter, resigning Joe Hooker, retreating Joe Johnston, or engineer Warren, Porter was the only one court-martialed and, as I have demonstrated, fraudulently convicted. He suffered by far the worst fate of the four, and it was totally undeserved as found by a subsequent objective review board and by act of Congress. Thus, it should require little deliberation to vote General Fitz John Porter as “least deserving his fate.” In conclusion, Porter was a true “fighting” general and at the proper time was more than willing to pick up his sidearm and his sword and lead his troops forward. Charge!