Major General Fitz John Porter had commanded the Fifth Corps in the Federal Army of the Potomac, having been promoted to that command by his friend, Major General George B. McClellan. Last August, Porter was temporarily reassigned to Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia, and during the Battle of Second Bull Run, he was ordered to attack the Confederate right flank. Porter refused because, unbeknownst to Pope, the right flank had been heavily reinforced.
Pope alleged that Porter had willfully disobeyed orders so that Pope would be defeated and his army taken over by McClellan. These allegations were not addressed after McClellan regained overall command of both his and Pope’s armies in September. But when McClellan was removed from command in November, Porter was removed as well and the charges against him were revisited.
A court-martial convened in December to investigate formal charges that Porter had violated the 9th and 52nd Articles of War (i.e., he had failed to obey orders which resulted in a battlefield defeat). But the underlying reason for the investigation was that the Republicans in Washington, led by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, wanted to erase any influence McClellan might still have over the Army of the Potomac (especially following the disaster at Fredericksburg), even if they had to discredit one of his closest friends to do it. Stanton made sure to pack seven of the nine court positions with those politically opposed to McClellan and Porter:
- Silas Casey had been removed from command by McClellan after the Battle of Seven Pines
- N.B. Buford was assured by Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase that his son would get a promotion
- James A. Garfield (future U.S. president) was a staunch Republican aligned with Chase
- E.A. Hitchcock worked under Stanton and would follow orders
- David Hunter was aligned with the Radical Republicans whom McClellan detested
- James Ricketts and Rufus King were under investigation themselves for their conduct at Second Bull Run and would be expected to do as directed to clear their names
Prominent Republican Alexander K. McClure conceded that the court had been “studiously organized to convict.” When a War Department official noted to Stanton that the court “will convict General Porter whether guilty or not,” Stanton said nothing.
Army officers followed the court-martial in the newspapers, and Major General George G. Meade wrote his wife in late December, “From present appearances the trial of Fitz-John Porter is going rather hard against him.” Porter had a sense that this was more than just an investigation into his performance at Second Bull Run. He wrote prominent Democrat S.L.M. Barlow, “I have seen sufficient of the court… to know their conclusion is a foregone one, if not determined by order or the wish of those high in power… I have too many personal enemies & enemies of Genl McClellan on the court.”
- Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1952.
- Sears, Stephen W., Chancellorsville. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 1996.
- Sears, Stephen W., Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, (Kindle Edition), 2017.