The Verdict for Fitz John Porter

The court-martial for Major General Fitz John Porter that had begun in December continued into January. Porter had been charged with failing to obey orders to attack the Confederate right flank at the Battle of Second Bull Run. But the underlying reason why Porter was on trial was because he had been closely aligned with Major General George B. McClellan, and now that McClellan was gone, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and the Republicans in Washington wanted all remnants of his influence gone as well.

Porter knew that the court had been packed against him, but he was also confident that he had done the right thing by not obeying orders that would have resulted in not only the defeat but the possible destruction of the entire Federal army. Based on the facts of the case, without the underlying political considerations, Porter was reasonably confident of acquittal. A reporter for the New York Times reviewed the testimony and predicted that “the court unanimously acquits Gen. Porter of the charges against him.”

The court-martial ruling came down on January 10, when it was shockingly decided that Fitz John Porter should be cashiered from the U.S. army and removed from army rolls. Porter reacted by writing McClellan, “The court began to smell your return to power and were influenced by it in their decision.” An editorial in the New York Times noted that the political attacks on Porter and other generals following the removal of McClellan and the disaster at Fredericksburg “are obviously and avowedly made in the interest of the late Commander of the Army of the Potomac (McClellan); while all of them have… the effect of disheartening the loyal North, and giving encouragement to the rebellion.”

The verdict went to President Abraham Lincoln for approval. Lincoln formally declared that “the foregoing proceedings, finding and sentence… are approved and confirmed.” Porter was “to be cashiered, and to be forever disqualified from holding any office or trust or profit under the Government of the United States.” Prominent Republican Alexander K. McClure wrote that Lincoln had approved Porter’s conviction even though he did not believe that Porter had willfully disobeyed orders to deliberately cause a Federal defeat. McClure went on:

“New conditions and grave military necessities confronted Lincoln; and while he did not approve of the judgment against Porter, he felt that Porter and others of his type merited admonition to assure some measure of harmony in military affairs, and he finally decided that to approve the judgment would be the least of the evils presented to him.”

Captain Charles R. Lowell of the Army of the Potomac wrote that Porter had shared McClellan’s disdain for the Lincoln administration, which was “un-officer-like and dangerous. This sort of feeling was growing in the army, and the Government and the Country felt that it must be stopped. Porter was made the example.” By approving the conviction, Lincoln hoped to discourage other generals from openly criticizing their superiors, like William B. Franklin and Joseph Hooker had done with Ambrose Burnside after Fredericksburg.

Porter wrote McClellan, “The hounds succeeded at last. This is a terrible blow, but my conscious innocence will sustain me, and my indignation will enable me to fight it out.” Porter spent the next 16 years trying to clear his name. President Rutherford B. Hayes created a new board that overturned Porter’s conviction in 1879, and President Grover Cleveland persuaded Congress to restore Porter’s rank to U.S. army colonel in 1886. But the message that political turmoil would no longer be permitted in the military was received.


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  • 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.

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