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.
“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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