Fitz-John Porter Court-Martial: 1862-63

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Fitz-John Porter Court-Martial: 1862-63

Defendant: Fitz-John Porter
Crimes Charged: Disobedience of orders in violation of the Ninth Article of War; misbehavior before the enemy by shamefully retreating, in violation of the Fifty-second Article of War
Presiding Officer: D. Hunter
Court: E. A. Hitchcock; Rufus King; M.Prentiss; James B.
Ricketts; Silas Casey; James A. Garfield; N. B. Buford;J. P. Slough.
Chief Prosecutor: J. Holt, Judge-Advocate-General
Place: Washington, D.C.
Date of Trial: November 1862-January 1863
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Cashiered and dismissed from the army and disqualified from holding any office of trust or profit under the government of the United States

SIGNIFICANCE: Following the defeat of Union forces at the Battle of Second Manassas (Bull Run) in August 1862 Major General John Pope, the commanding officer, attempted to place blame on Major General Fitz-John Porter. The ensuing court-martial was politically motivated and the verdict is widely believed to have been a great injustice.

Fitz-John Porter was a New Hampshire native, born in 1822, and a career military officer. He graduated from West Point in 1845, and was appointed to the artillery. He fought in the Mexican campaign under General Zachary Taylor in 1847, and was wounded at Chapultepec. He returned to West Point as an instructor from 1849 to 1855, and then went back to service in the adjutant general's department as a captain, and participated in the campaign against the Mormons. Following the outbreak of the Civil War he proved a very successful leader and was rapidly promoted, becoming a colonel in the 15th Infantry in May 1861, and then a brigadier general of the United States Volunteers in August 1861. He commanded a division of the Army of the Potomac from the fall of 1861 to the spring of 1862, and in July of that year achieved the rank of major general in the volunteers. During his service with the Army of the Potomac he became a close friend of General George Brinton McClellan, an alliance which proved damaging to him in the political climate that ensued.

Porter's Retreat at Second Manassas

Porter's court-martial followed the defeat of Union forces by Confederate troops at the Battle of Second Manassas (Bull Run) in August 1862. Porter had been given command of a provisional corps created by McClellan when the latter was general in chief of all armies, a position from which he was removed by President Lincoln in March 1862 because the president believed that McClellan was not moving rapidly enough against Confederate troops. Fitz-John Porter's command was ordered to northern Virginia to reinforce the troops of General John Pope.

On August 29 General Pope transmitted orders to General Porter stressing the importance of driving the enemy from Manassas, and in successive orders instructed Porter to begin a march at 1 a.m. in order to make contact with the Confederate forces after daylight. Pope's order stated that Porter's line of march would bring him upon the right flank of Stonewall Jackson's troops and that he was to attack their rear and flank. However, Pope's understanding of the military situation was inaccurate: he did not know that on August 29, 10,000 Confederate troops under General James Longstreet had linked up with the rear of Jackson's forces, making it impossible for Porter to attack the flank and rear of Jackson's troops. Instead, Longstreet launched an attack on the Federal flank, Porter was forced to retreat, and General Pope's forces were defeated.

Court-Martial Follows LincolnPope Meeting

General Pope met with Fitz-John Porter on September 2. Porter explained the situation that had confronted him, and Pope told him that he fully accepted the explanation and had no intention of taking any proceedings against his subordinate. However, Pope's reputation was tarnished by the defeat, and McClellan became commander of all troops in the Washington area. On September 17 the bloodiest battle of the war was fought at Antietam, with 12,500 casualties on the Union side and 11,000 Confederate soldiers killed or wounded. General McClellan forced the Confederate army to retreat, but enraged President Lincoln by not pursuing it into Virginia. Shortly before Antietam, General Pope had had a meeting with President Lincoln which, as he subsequently testified, had "opened my eyes to many matters which I had before been loth to believe." In November Fitz-John Porter was relieved of his command and ordered court-martialled, although the charges were not brought by General Pope, but by Brigadier General B. S. Roberts, the inspector-general of Pope's Army of Virginia. In November General McClellan's military career also came to an end when President Lincoln replaced him with General Ambrose Burnside.

There were two charges against Fitz-John Porter. The first was that of a violation of the Ninth Article of War, by disobedience of orders. There were five specifications. The first related to Porter's not marching at 1 a.m. as ordered, but deciding to delay his start until 3 a.m. The others related to his failure to attack the rear and flank of Jackson's troops. The second charge was a violation of the Fifty-second Article of War, misbehavior before the enemy, the misbehavior being his retreat following the attack by General Longstreet. There were four specifications, although the last was immediately withdrawn.

Porter Found Guilty on Key Charges

The court-martial met continuously for 45 days. A large number of officers testified, including General Pope, both against Porter and on his behalf. At the end of the session General Porter submitted a lengthy statement summarizing his defense. The core of his argument was that it is well established in military law and practice that an order does not require passive obedience unless the commander and the officer ordered are physically together; in this case General Pope was 11 miles away from Porter, and the orders took several hours to reach him. Pope was not aware of the military situation that Porter confronted when he received the orders, and therefore he (Porter) used 'judicious discretion" in attempting to carry them out. He did not dispute that he had delayed the start of his march until 3 a.m., but argued that his men were exhausted from the previous day's march and needed rest. Also it was extraordinarily difficult to move wagons and artillery pieces on muddy roads on a very dark night. To the more serious charge of failing to attack the enemy's rear and flank, Porter emphasized that when he sent the order General Pope did not know that Longstreet's line had linked up with Jackson's. Porter's march did not bring him upon the rear and right flank of Jackson's forces, but upon the front of Longstreet's, making it impossible to carry out the order. To have attempted an attack upon the combined forces would have risked the destruction of his, and a worse defeat for the entire Union army under General Pope.

The court delivered its verdict on January 10, 1863. Although found "Not Guilty" on the 4 and 5 specifications of the first charge, which pertained to allowing one of his brigades to march to Centreville on August 30, Porter was declared "Guilty" of the major charges of disobedience and misbehavior. The sentence of the court was that he "be cashiered and forever disqualified from holding any office of trust or profit under the Government of the United States." The proceedings, findings, and sentence were transmitted to President Lincoln, who approved and confirmed them on January 21.

In his defense General Porter indicated the political nature of the proceedings by referring to General Pope's change of mind after his meeting with the president. Historians have also pointed out that the officers for the court were carefully selected by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and many received promotions after reaching their verdict. Fitz-John Porter immediately set out to clear his name, a task which he pursued assiduously for years. In 1878 a board of general officers reviewed the case and reported in Fitz-John Porter's favor, agreeing with his argument that to have attempted an attack would have been wrong. In 1881 Chester Arthur succeeded to the presidency following the assassination of James A. Garfield, who, as a young brigadier, had served on Fitz-John Porter's court-martial. In 1882 President Arthur remitted that part of Porter's sentence which disqualified him from holding office under the United States. In 1886, by a special act of Congress, he was recommissioned as a colonel in the artillery, to date from May 14, 1861. Although back pay was denied, Porter considered this a vindication, and retired at his own request two days later.

David I. Petts

Suggestions for Further Reading

Hattaway, Herman, and Archer Jones. How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War. Champagne, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

Official Records, Series I, Volume XII, Part II, Supplement (Eisenschiml, Otto, The Celbrated Case of Fitz-John Porter)

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Fitz-John Porter Court-Martial: 1862-63

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