American Civil War: Major General Fitz John Porter

Major General Fitz John Porter. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

 Fitz John Porter - Early Life & Career:

Born August 31, 1822 in Portsmouth, NH, Fitz John Porter came from a prominent naval family and was a cousin of Admiral David Dixon Porter.  Enduring a difficult childhood as his father, Captain John Porter, battled alcoholism, Porter elected not to go to sea and instead sought an appointment to West Point.  Gaining admission in 1841, he was a classmate of Edmund Kirby Smith.  Graduating four years later, Porter ranked eighth in a class of forty-one and received a commission as a second lieutenant in the 4nd US Artillery.  With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War the following year, he prepared for combat.         

Assigned to Major General Winfield Scott's army, Porter landed in Mexico in the spring of 1847 and took part in the siege of Veracruz.  As the army pushed inland, he saw further action at Cerro Gordo on April 18 before receiving a promotion to first lieutenant in May.  In August, Porter fought at the Battle of Contreras before earning a brevet promotion for his performance at Molino del Rey on September 8.  Seeking to capture Mexico City, Scott attacked Chapultepec Castle later that month.  A resounding American victory that led to city's fall, the battle saw Porter wounded while fighting near the Belen Gate.  For his efforts, he was brevetted to major.  

Fitz John Porter - Antebellum Years:

Following the end of the war, Porter returned north for garrison duty at Fort Monroe, VA and Fort Pickens. FL.  Ordered to West Point in 1849, he began a four-year term as an instructor in artillery and cavalry.  Remaining at the academy, he also served as adjutant until 1855.  Sent to the frontier later that year, Porter became assistant adjutant general for the Department of the West.  In 1857, he moved west with Colonel Albert S. Johnston's expedition to quell issues with the Mormons during the Utah War.  Serving as the force's adjutant, Porter returned east in 1860.  First tasked with inspecting harbor fortifications along the East Coast, in February 1861 he was ordered to aid in evacuating Union personnel from Texas after it seceded.  

Fitz John Porter - The Civil War Begins:

Returning, Porter briefly served as chief of staff and assistant adjutant general for the Department of Pennsylvania before being promoted to colonel and given command of the 15th US Infantry on May 14.  As the Civil War had commenced a month earlier, he worked to prepare his regiment for battle.  During the summer of 1861, Porter acted as chief of staff first to Major General Robert Patterson and then Major General Nathaniel Banks.  On August 7, Porter received a promotion to brigadier general.  This was backdated to May 17 to give him sufficient seniority to command a division in Major General George B. McClellan's newly-formed Army of the Potomac.  Befriending his superior, Porter began a relationship which would ultimately prove devastating for his career.

Fitz John Porter - The Peninsula & Seven Days:

In the spring of 1862, Porter moved south to the Peninsula with his division.  Serving in Major General Samuel Heintzelman's III Corps, his men took part in the siege of Yorktown in April and early May.  On May 18, as the Army of the Potomac slowly pushed up the Peninsula, McClellan selected Porter to command the newly-formed V Corps.  At the end of the month, McClellan's advance was halted at the Battle of Seven Pines and General Robert E. Lee assumed command of Confederate forces in the area.  Recognizing that his army could not win a protracted siege at Richmond, Lee began making plans to attack Union forces with the goal of driving them back from the city. Assessing McClellan's position, he found that Porter's corps was isolated north of the Chickahominy River near Mechanicsville. In this location, V Corps was tasked with protecting McClellan's supply line, the Richmond and York River Railroad, which ran back to White House Landing on the Pamunkey River. Seeing an opportunity, Lee intended to attack while the bulk of McClellan's men were below the Chickahominy. 

Moving against Porter on June 26, Lee assaulted the Union lines at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek.  Though his men inflicted a bloody defeat on the Confederates, Porter received orders from a nervous McClellan to fall back to Gaines' Mill.  Attacked the next day, V Corps mounted a stubborn defense until being overwhelmed in the Battle of Gaines' Mill.  Crossing the Chickahominy, Porter's corps joined the army's withdrawal back towards the York River.  During the retreat, Porter selected Malvern Hill, near the river, as site for the army to make a stand.  Exercising tactical control for an absent McClellan, Porter repelled numerous Confederate assaults at the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1.  In recognition of his strong performance during the campaign, Porter was promoted to major general on July 4.

Fitz John Porter - Second Manassas:

Seeing that McClellan posed little threat, Lee began marching north to deal with Major General John Pope's Army of Virginia.  Shortly thereafter, Porter received orders to bring his corps north to reinforce Pope's command.  Disliking the arrogant Pope, he openly complained about this assignment and criticized his new superior.  On August 28, Union and Confederate troops met in the opening phases of the Second Battle of Manassas.  Early the next day, Pope ordered Porter to move west to attack Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's right flank.  Obeying, he halted when his men encountered Confederate cavalry along their line of march.  A further series of contradictory orders from Pope further muddled the situation. 

Having received intelligence that Confederates led by Major General James Longstreet were on his front, Porter elected not to move forward with the planned attack.  Though alerted to Longstreet's approach that night, Pope misinterpreted the meaning of his arrival and again ordered Porter to launch an assault against Jackson the next morning.  Reluctantly complying, V Corps moved forward around noon.  Though they broke through the Confederate lines, intense counterattacks forced them back.  As Porter's assault was failing, Longstreet opened a massive attack against V Corps' left flank.  Shattering Porter's lines, the Confederate effort rolled up Pope's army and drove it from the field.  In the wake of the defeat, Pope accused Porter of insubordination and relieved him of his command on September 5.

Fitz John Porter - Court-Martial:

Quickly restored to his post by McClellan who assumed overall command following Pope's defeat, Porter led V Corps north as Union troops moved to block Lee's invasion of Maryland.  Present at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, Porter's corps remained in reserve as McClellan was concerned about Confederate reinforcements.  Though V Corps could have played a decisive role at key points in the battle, Porter's admonition to the cautious McClellan of "Remember, General, I command the last reserve of the last Army of the Republic" ensured that it remained idle.  Following Lee's retreat south, McClellan remained in place in Maryland to the irritation of President Abraham Lincoln

During this time, Pope, who had been exiled to Minnesota, maintained an ongoing correspondence with his political allies in which he scapegoated Porter for the defeat at Second Manassas.  On November 5, Lincoln removed McClellan from command which resulted in a loss of political protection for Porter.  Stripped of this cover, he was arrested on November 25 and charge with disobeying a lawful order and misbehavior in front of the enemy.  In a politically-driven court-martial, Porter's connections to the relieved McClellan were exploited and he was found guilty of both charges on January 10, 1863.  Dismissed from the Union Army eleven days later, Porter immediately commenced efforts to clear his name.

Fitz John Porter - Later Life:

Despite Porter's work, his attempts to secure a new hearing were repeatedly blocked by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and officers who spoke in his support were punished.  Following the war, Porter sought and received aid from both Lee and Longstreet as well as later garnered support from Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and George H. Thomas.  Finally, in 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes directed Major General John Schofield to form a board to reexamine the case.  After extensively investigating the case, Schofield recommended that Porter's name be cleared and stated that his actions on August 29, 1862 helped to save the army from a more severe defeat.  The final report also presented a scathing image of Pope as well as placed a large amount of the blame for the defeat on III Corps commander Major General Irvin McDowell.      

Political wrangling prevented Porter from immediately being reinstated.  This would not occur until August 5, 1886 when an act of Congress restored him to his prewar rank of colonel.  Vindicated, he retired from the US Army two days later.  In the years after the Civil War, Porter was involved in a number of business interests and later served in New York City government as commissioners of public works, fire, and police.  Dying on May 21, 1901, Porter was buried in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Fitz John Porter." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General Fitz John Porter. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Fitz John Porter." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).