In one of the greatest miscarriages of military justice during the Civil War, Fitz-John Porter was cashiered for failing to obey an order which a later inquiry determined was impossible of execution. Born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, August 31, 1822, and A cousin of David D. Porter, the New Hampshire native received an appointment to West Point from New York.
Graduating from West Point in 1845, he was posted to the artillery. Wounded at Chapultepec, he earned two brevets in Mexico and transferred to the adjutant generals department in the 1850s. He was Albert Sidney Johnstons adjutant during the operations against the Mormons. His Civil War-era assignments included: first lieutenant, 4th Artillery (since May 29, 1847); brevet captain and assistant adjutant general (since June 27, 1856); colonel, 15th Infantry (May 14, 1861); chief of staff, Department of Pennsylvania (summer 1861); brigadier general, USV (August 7,1861, to rank from May 17); commanding division, Army of the Potomac (October 3 1861-March 13, 1862); commanding 1st Division, 3rd Corps, Army of the Potomac (March 13-May 18, 1862); commanding 5th Corps (a provisional organization until July 22), Army of the Potomac (May 18-November 10, 1862); and major general, USV (July 4,1862).
Following initial service as a staff officer under Robert Patterson he began his long-lasting and damaging friendship with McClellan. He led a division to the Peninsula and saw action in the operations against Yorktown. When McClellan created two provisional corps he appointed Porter to the command of one of them. At Beaver Dam Creek and Gaines Mill--at the start of the Seven Days--he displayed excellent generalship in the defensive fighting. Again at Malvern Hill he played a leading role in covering the withdrawal of the army. For this series of battles he was awarded a second star and was brevetted regular army brigadier. His command was sent to reinforce Pope in northern Virginia--an assignment for which he made no secret of his displeasure. At 2nd Bull Run he was ordered to attack the flank and rear of Stonewall Jackson's command. But no attack was launched because the order was based upon faulty information and the indications that Longstreet was then present on the field. An 1878 inquiry under John M. Schofield found that Porter was right in not committing his men to a doomed assault which Longstreet would have crushed. It further found that Porters actions probably saved the Army of Virginia from an even greater disaster. However, these findings came too late to save his military career. After serving in reserve under his friend McClellan at Antietam he was relieved of command on November 10, 1862, and placed under arrest. In the trial for disloyalty, disobedience of orders, and misconduct in the face of the enemy he was damaged by his friendship for the now-deposed McClellan and his own anti-Pope statements. There was a political atmosphere to the court which was composed of Stanton appointees, most of whom received promotions, brevets, or higher commands for their service on the panel. Porter was found guilty on January 10, 1863, and sentenced to be cashiered from the army. Eleven days later the sentence was carried out, and Porter spent much of the remainder of his life trying to get his name cleared. The 1878 Schofield board was a first step and, following its recommendations, President Chester A. Arthur remitted the sentence four years later. By a special act of Congress in 1886 he was recommissioned an infantry colonel, to rank from May 14, 1861, but back pay was denied him. Two days later, with his battle largely won, Porter was retired at his own request. In the postwar years he was involved in mining, construction, and the mercantile businesses. He refused an appointment in the Egyptian army and served as New York City's police, fire, and public works commissioners.
The controversy over Porter's guilt or innocence has continued among historians, most of whom conclude that the only offense committed by that talented officer was indiscretion. He died in Morristown, New Jersey, May 21, 1901.
Source: "Who Was Who In The Civil War" by Stewart Sifakis
This page last updated 04/05/05
RETURN TO CIVIL WAR BIOGRAPHY PAGE