Fitz John Porter's Long Fight to Clear His Name

By Vlahos, Mark | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 19, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Fitz John Porter's Long Fight to Clear His Name

Vlahos, Mark, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter stared hard at Special Order No. 337, issued by the War Department and dated Nov. 10, 1862. By direction of the president, he was relieved of command of the V Corps, Army of the Potomac, and ordered to report immediately to the adjutant general in Washington. For radical Republicans, led by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, it was part of the continuing shakeup of an army "that was not quite responsive to the will of the government."

First Gen. George B. McClellan had been sacked after the bloody Battle of Antietam. Now the target was his right-hand man and favorite corps commander, Fitz John Porter.

For Porter, Special Order No. 337 was the start of an ordeal that would last 24 years.


Tall and handsome, he was born into a family famous for its naval exploits. His grandfather, David Porter, served in the American Revolution as a gunboat captain. Fitz John's father, John Porter, served on the frigate Congress in the War of 1812. Adm. David Dixon Porter of Civil War fame was his cousin.

Breaking from family tradition, Fitz John attended West Point and graduated eighth in his class in 1845. While serving in the Mexican War, he was breveted to major for "gallant and meritorious service" during the storming of Mexico City. After the war, Porter returned to West Point to serve on the faculty, and in 1853, he was made adjutant of the post under Superintendent Robert E. Lee. In 1857, Porter married Harriet Cook of New York.

From 1857 to 1860, Porter served in various assignments typical of an army officer of the period. These included time at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and other Western outposts. With the outbreak of hostilities imminent, Porter was recalled East to handle special assignments, including inspecting coastal fortifications. In May 1861, Porter was commissioned a colonel in the regular army and subsequently a brigadier general of volunteers.

Elevated to corps commander, Porter performed superbly during McClellan's Peninsular Campaign of 1862. Particularly noteworthy was his handling of the V Corps as it sat exposed on the north side of Virginia's Chickahominy River. In what later became known as the Seven Days Battles, Lee struck Porter's exposed corps at Mechanicsville and Gaines Mill. At Gaines Mill, Porter's corps, plus one division of reinforcements (a total of 30,000 troops) held the combined forces of Lee and Jackson (about 55,000 men) at bay for an entire day. Only the weight of the Confederate numbers caused him to retreat as darkness fell.

Porter was the field commander at Malvern Hill and emerged from the campaign a national figure.


He was promoted to major general on July 4, 1862. In August, Porter and the V Corps were rushed North to join the newly assembled Army of Virginia under Gen. John Pope. Porter loathed Pope and frequently belittled his new commander. This disloyalty eventually would come back to haunt him.

To relieve pressure on Richmond and destroy Pope, Lee sent Stonewall Jackson northward. Jackson skirted Pope's army and smashed the Union supply depot at Manassas Junction. Pope set out to bag Jackson, who retired to a strong position along an old railroad cut. As Pope readied for an assault on Jackson, Porter and the V Corps marched toward the battlefield. Pursuing Jackson, Pope played into the trap set by Lee's battle plan.

Unknown to Pope, Gen. James Longstreet's corps and the main Confederate body were rapidly approaching from the southwest to slam into the flank of the Union Army. Meanwhile, Pope sustained heavy losses while attacking piecemeal against Jackson's strong position.

On Aug. 29, Porter led his 10,000-man corps into position on the left flank of Pope's force. Believing that Porter had a clear road ahead that would put him on Jackson's rear and flank, Pope ordered Porter to attack.

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