The Ordeal of Fitz John Porter
An Article Contributed by Eric J. Wittenburg
It is clear that Maj. Gen. John Pope, commanding officer of the Army of Virginia, had the necessary information to prepare himself for the arrival of Longstreet's Corps on the battlefield of Second Manassas. On August 28th, while John Gibbon's brigade was engaged with Jackson in the opening phase of the Second Manassas fight at the Brawner Farm, John Buford sat on his horse at Gainesville, east of Thoroughfare Gap, and personally counted 17 regiments of infantry, two batteries, and a regiment of cavalry of Longstreet's Corps pass him by. He reported this to division commander Brig. Gen. James Ricketts, who passed it on to Irvin McDowell. For reasons that are unclear to this date, McDowell did not pass on the information to Pope. Even if he had, I suspect that Pope would have ignored the report, since he was so completely fixated on Jackson.
In the interim, McClellan sent Porter, his best subordinate commander, with the Fifth Corps to Pope's aid. This was done very reluctantly, and somewhat belatedly, since McClellan properly viewed Pope as a rival. When Porter marched up from the Peninsula, he arrived in the area of Manassas Junction on August 29th, as the battle raged along the railroad cut. Pope sent an order to Porter to bring his command to the area where the battle raged, but for reasons that remain murky, the order was carried by Pope's chief medical officer, and not someone accustomed to carrying such dispatches. The language of the order was somewhat ambiguous, but the gist of it was that Porter was to bring his command to the field. That night, as Porter tried to march through ground which was unfamiliar, he and his command got lost in what Porter later described as an impenetrable forest. The morning of the 30th, Pope sent his ADC, Fred Locke, to find Porter and order him to the field. Porter obeyed the order, and brought the Fifth Corps up. When Porter arrived, Pope gave him a direct order to mass the corps for a massive, massed assault on Jackson's center. Porter obeyed, and his 12,000 man assault on the unfinished railroad cut was repulsed, although just barely. Things were quite dicey there for a few minutes...some of Jackson's men used rocks for a moment when their ammunition ran out. That scene is depicted in Don Troiani's print "The Diehards". For the only time during the war, and as a result of this attack, Jackson sent to Longstreet for reinforcements.
Instead, Longstreet ordered an attack by his entire corps. Pope was so focused on Jackson that he was oblivious to the fact that there was an entire 25,000 man corps on his flank, as hard as that is to believe. A sergeant of the 8th Pa. Cavalry of Bayard's brigade spotted Longstreet's preparations, and reported this to his colonel. The colonel sent the sergeant to report this to Pope, who dismissed the report out of hand. In fact, he said something to the effect of "That officer don't know his business". The sergeant returned, and reported this to his colonel. The colonel instead went to John F. Reynolds and reported this fact. Reynolds did a personal reconnaissance, and verified the report. He then rode through a storm of artillery fire thrown out by 16 guns of S.D. Lee's battalion of artillery (which had been on the principal means by which the grand assault on the deep cut) was repulsed, and reported this fact to Pope. Because Reynolds was from the Fifth Corps, and not the Army of Virginia, Pope did not believe Reynolds at first, but Reynolds insisted. Pope sent Buford and his brigade to recon, but before they could report, Longstreet launched his sledgehammer blow, which would have destroyed Pope entirely, but for a determined stand by Porter's men on Chinn Ridge, and then in a final stand on Henry House Hill, where the U.S. Regulars literally saved the army from complete destruction.
After the battle, Porter was blamed by Pope for his defeat. Pope claimed that Porter had been insubordinate, and during the fall of 1862, after the Antietam crisis, Pope preferred court-martial charges against Porter. The primary allegation was insubordination. Because the Lincoln administration was (a)greatly embarrassed by the failure of its hand-picked commander Pope, and (b) enraged at McClellan's failure to pursue Lee into Virginia after Antietam, it wanted to send a message to McClellan and try to save some face. So, it selected reliable officers to serve on the court-martial panel, including some of the subordinate officers who served under Porter at Second Manassas. Another officer chosen was Brig. Gen. John Buford's older half-brother, Brig. Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte Buford, who was known to be extremely loyal to Stanton. The deck, therefore, was probably stacked against Porter from the beginning. After a lengthy trial, which included testimony which substantiated Porter's claims, Porter was convicted, cashiered from the army, and banned from holding any public office or federal employment for the rest of his life. Porter's defense was that he could not strictly follow the orders, since the presence of Longstreet's Corps on the battlefield prevented him from doing so.
Porter spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name. Due to some ugly politics, he couldn't get a fair hearing. Finally, in the 1880's, General John M. Schofield convened a panel to investigate the situation. After ample evidence was presented, including testimony from Longstreet himself, the panel found that Porter had been wrongly convicted, that he should be reinstated, and that he was entitled to his pension. It took another several years and a Congressional enactment, but Porter was eventually restored to his Regular Army rank of colonel and his pension restored. His name and the injustice were finally cleared. Thus ended the sorry saga of the man who was generally considered to be the finest soldier in the entire Army of the Potomac. The truth is that court-martials were appropriate, but not of Porter. Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny was grossly insubordinate at Second Manassas. I firmly believe that if he had not been killed at Chantilly on September 1, Kearny would have been court-martialed and cashiered from the army, not Porter. Perhaps McDowell also should have been court-martialed, also. Col. Thornton Brodhead, of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, mortally wounded at the cavalry fight at the Lewis Ford on August 30 in the closing engagement of the Battle of Second Manassas, wrote a deathbed letter to his wife on August 31, accused McDowell of being a traitor. This letter was published in the Detroit newspapers, and a great hue and cry was raised about it. As a consequence, a court of inquiry was eventually held to clear McDowell's name. Personally, I think that there may have been something to those allegations. Certainly, the court-martial and conviction of Porter for using common sense was a travesty of justice that should never have happened.
Instead, he was a victim of the politics of high command, which was undoubtedly a great loss to the Republic.