Symposium Spotlight: Fitz John Porter

Welcome back to another installment of our 2021 Emerging Civil War Spotlight series. Each week we have introduced you to another preview of our outstanding presentations that will be shared at the Eighth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium August 6-8, 2021. Today we look at Kevin Pawlak’s topic in our Fallen Leaders theme, Fitz John Porter.

Major General Fitz John Porter

“Take him for all in all, he was probably the best general officer I had under me.” So wrote George B. McClellan of Fitz John Porter.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Porter’s ascension to command rocketed upward. Porter’s prewar experience justified such a rise. He graduated eighth in the West Point Class of 1845, won brevet promotions in Mexico, served as a professor at West Point, and rode alongside Albert Sidney Johnston in the Utah Expedition.

Despite his climb, Porter’s career soon came crashing down. He ran afoul of the Lincoln Administration’s management of the war and was a public critic. In the Second Manassas Campaign, where he served under John Pope, Porter became Pope’s scapegoat for that disaster.

Porter’s associate and the man who gave him corps command in the Army of the Potomac, McClellan, tried to shield Porter from censure. However, McClellan’s removal from command on November 7, 1862, opened the door to Porter. Three days later, Porter lost his command and soon fell under arrest to be put on trial.

John Pope’s charges against Porter amounted to five counts of disobeying a “lawful command of his superior officer” and three counts of misconduct in the face of the enemy during the Second Bull Run campaign. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton personally approved the nine men presiding over the trial. In this highly politicized case, the stakes for Porter were high. A simple majority of judges was all that was required to convict Porter while a two-thirds majority might inflict the death penalty.

The court opened on December 3, 1862, and lasted until January 6, 1863. On January 21, the court declared Porter guilty of both charges. He lost his rank in the United States Army and was barred from ever holding a position in the Federal government.

Porter did not sit idly by and fought the decision for the next 24 years. The case remained politically charged. The 1878 Schofield Board suggested an exoneration of Porter. However, it was not until 1886 that a Democrat-controlled Congress returned Porter to the rank of colonel in the United States Army. He retired five days later.

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4 Responses to Symposium Spotlight: Fitz John Porter

  1. Thank you; I did not know this story. I knew Porter and his5th Corps were held largely in reserve in Antietam on Sept. 17, but played a more important role in Shephardstown a few days later. In my memory, I read heard that Pope carried such a bad reputation for his unjustified, inflated ego, so I find it surprising his charges against Pope for his conduct @ 2nd Bull Run would have been prosecuted, let alone, lead to conviction

  2. This is similar to the persecution of General Warren after Five Forks. Despite his heroism at Gettysburg, he was court martialed, I believe at the behest of Sheridan. Warren’s appeal went on for years and was finally resolved in removal of charges and reinstatement, but Warren had died just shortly before. Chamberlain’s “The Passing of the Armies” goes into this in depth.

  3. What were Pope’s comments upon the decision reversal? If I recall correctly he was in error for not sealing Thoroughfare Gap and the rest is history.

    Porter knew he was under the magnifying glass after 2nd Manassas. Its likely he was not in any position to support Kearny and Stephens at the Battle of Ox Hill (aka Chantilly,) but he should have been begging McClellan for action at Antietam. Another great what if – what Porter he had charged his corps on Lee’s thin lines midday. No one would remember Burnside’s Bridge or Pope’s unfounded charges. A full fresh corps would have driven Lee into the streets of town ala the Union at Gettysburg, IMO, of course.

    1. Except there was no “full, fresh corps”. At the time discussed, Porter had just 3 brigades – Barnes’ brigade of Morell, and the two regular brigades. He would have been advancing over a mile of ground swept by enemy artillery to make an uphill assault. Shades of Pickett’s charge methinks…

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