A disgraced general. An unpopular and perhaps unqualified general. A disgruntled general. Muddled orders. An embarrassing rout on the battlefield. An eventual court-martial. All the ingredients for a military scandal. All the ingredients of the court-martial of Fitz John Porter.
The court-martial of Fitz John Porter during the Civil War is largely forgotten today, but at the time, it was one of the most sensational trials of the 19th century, and the matter was still being debated – and eventually decided – long after the last shots of the war were fired.
Fitz John Porter was a major general in the Union army, with a long and distinguished military record. After the beginning of the Civil War, Porter moved quickly up the ranks in the U.S. Army, finally landing as a major general in the Army of the Potomac under the command of his good friend General George McClellan. McClellan gave Porter command of one of the Corps of the Army of the Potomac, the V Corps.
McClellan, however, was quickly falling out of favor with his [ad#adsense]superiors, including President Lincoln, due mostly to his inability to gain any ground against Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. After the ill-fated Pennisular Campaign, McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was shattered – and one of the casualties was Porter’s V Corps, who found themselves under the command of Major General John Pope as part of the Army of Virginia.
Porter had no confidence in Pope, and wasted no time communicating this to McClellan and General Ambrose Burnside. Burnside and McClellan agreed with Porter’s low opinion of Pope’s abilities, and Burnside shared Porter’s communications about the matter with General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and President Lincoln. Porter’s concerns about Pope were not welcome with Halleck, Stanton, and Lincoln, nor was any friend of McClellan’s; Pope had, in fact, been appointed to his position to replace McClellan, due in part to his close friendship with Lincoln.
The situation between Porter and Pope came to a head during the Second Battle of Bull Run. On August 27, 1862, Stonewall Jackson, heading the Army of Northern Virginia, took Pope’s supply depot at Manassas, near the site of the First Battle of Bull Run. A panicky Pope began to issue a conflagration of orders to his generals, orders that were often confusing at best, and often just bizarre.
On August 29, 1862, Porter received one of the many confusing and contradictory orders that Pope issued. This message ordered Pope to attack the Confederates on the right flank, but to simultaneously remain in contact with the neighboring division, commanded by Major General John F. Reynolds. Not only were Pope’s orders conflicted, but Pope, unaware that Longstreet’s division had arrived on Porter’s right, directed Porter on an almost certain to be suicidal mission, one that Porter, by this time aware of Longstreet’s whereabouts, declined to accept, knowing that moving right while still remaining with Reynolds’ troops would be impossible.
The next day, Pope repeated his orders, and Porter reluctantly complied. Just as Porter had feared, about 30,000 Confederates were waiting for the 5000 men of the V Corps. The Confederates made short work of the V Corps, and them went on to cut a wide swath through Pope’s men. Pope was delivered a sound defeat. Enraged by the routing he’d suffered, Pope relieved Porter of his command on September 5, charging Porter with insubordination.
At first it seemed that Porter would escape with no more than a demotion. His V Corps was returned to McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, while Pope was sent West to the Dakota Uprising. Porter remained allied with his old friend McClellan – an alliance that would cost him dearly in the days to come.
Continue to The Court-Martial of Fitz John Porter, Part 2