Major General Fitz John Porter (USV)
Fitz John Porter was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on 31 August 1822. He came from a family prominent in American naval service; his cousins were William D. Porter, David Dixon Porter, and David G. Farragut. However, his father Captain John Porter was an alcoholic who had been reassigned to land duty. Fitz John pursued an army career graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy and then the United States Military Academy in 1845. He was brevetted a second lieutenant in the 4th U.S. Infantry.
He was promoted to second lieutenant on 18 June 1846 and first lieutenant on 29 May 1847. He served in the Mexican-American War and was appointed brevet captain on 8 September, for bravery at the Battle of Molino del Rey. He was wounded on 13 September at Chapultepec receiving another brevet promotion to major. He was an original member of the Aztec Club of 1847.
Porter returned to West Point and became a cavalry and artillery instructor from 1849 to 1853. He served as adjutant to the superintendent until 1855. Next, he was posted at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He served under future Confederate Albert Sidney Johnston in the expedition against the Mormons in 1857 and 1858. Until late 1860, he inspected and reorganized the defenses of Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. He aided in evacuating military personnel from Texas after it seceded from the Union.
Porter became chief of staff and assistant adjutant general for the Department of Pennsylvania at the start of the Civil War. On 14 May 1861, he was promoted to colonel of the 15th Infantry. Controversy immediately dogged Porter when John A. Logan accused Porter of helping persuade General Robert Patterson to let Joseph E. Johnston’s force escape out of the Shenandoah Valley and reinforce P.G.T. Beauregard, thus turning the tide at the First Battle of Bull Run.
In August, Porter was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers, backdated to 17 May, so he would be senior enough to receive divisional command in the Army of the Potomac. Porter soon became a trusted advisor and loyal friend to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, an association that would prove disastrous to Porter’s military career.
Porter led his division at the Siege of Yorktown in 1862. McClellan then created two provisional corps and Porter was assigned to command the V Corps. During the Seven Days Battles, he displayed a talent for defensive fighting. He also played a leading role at the Battle of Malvern Hill. He was promoted to major general of volunteers on 4 July 1862.
Porter’s V Corps was sent to reinforce Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia, a reassignment he challenged and complained about, criticizing Pope personally. During the Second Battle of Bull Run, he was ordered to attack the flank and rear of Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s wing of the Army of Northern Virginia. Pope directed him to attack the Confederate right, but also maintain contact with the neighboring division under Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds, a conflict of orders that could not be solved.
Pope was apparently unaware that Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s wing of the Confederate army had arrived making the proposed attack by Porter suicidal. Porter chose not to make the attack because of intelligence that Longstreet was to his immediate front. The next day, 30 August, Pope again ordered the attack, and Porter reluctantly complied. As the V Corps turned to attack Jackson’s right, it presented its own (and the entire army’s) flank to Longstreet’s men. Longstreet’s 30,000 men drove through Porter’s 5,000 men and into the rest of Pope’s forces. Pope was infuriated, accused Porter of insubordination, and relieved him of his command on 5 September.
McClellan soon restored Porter to corps command during the Maryland Campaign, where the V Corps served as the reserve during the Battle of Antietam. He is said to have told McClellan, “Remember, General, I command the last reserve of the last Army of the Republic.” McClellan took his implied advice and failed to commit his reserves into a battle that might have been won if he had been more aggressive. McClellan was relieved of command soon after and Porter was now exposed.
On 25 November, Porter was arrested and court-martialed for his actions at Second Bull Run. His association with McClellan and open criticism of Pope were significant reasons for his conviction at court-martial. Found guilty on 10 January 1863, of disobedience and misconduct, he was dismissed from the Army on 21 January 1863.
Porter declined a commanded in the Egyptian Army after the war, spending the remainder of his public life fighting against the perceived injustice of his court-martial. In 1878, a special commission under General John Schofield exonerated Porter by finding that his reluctance to attack Jackson probably saved Pope’s Army of Virginia from an even greater defeat. Eight years later, President Grover Cleveland commuted Porter’s sentence and a special act of the U.S. Congress restored Porter’s commission as an infantry colonel in the U.S. Army, backdated to 14 May 1861, but without any back pay. Two days later, 7 August 1886, Porter, seeing vindication, voluntarily retired from the Army.
While not fighting for his name, he was involved in mining, construction, and commerce. He served as New York City Commissioner of Public Works, the New York City Police Commissioner, and the New York City Fire Commissioner. He died in Morristown, New Jersey, on 21 May 1901.