Fit/ John Porter (see Plate B2) was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to a naval family that included Commodore David Porter and Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter. He attended Exeter and was appointed to West Point, graduating in 1845. He was assigned to the artillery, and during the Mexican War he was wounded in the attack on Mexico City and received two brevets for gallantry. After the war he was assigned as an assistant artillery instructor at West Point until 1855. He was then adjutant of the command sent to Utah in 1857, serving there until 18(50.
At the outbreak of the Civil War he was made colonel of the 15th US Infantry, as well as a brigadier-general of volunteers ranking from 17 May 1861. He served as chief of staff under Gen. Robert Patterson in the Shenandoah Valley during the First Bull Run campaign, before being recalled to help George McClellan whip the new Army of the Potomac into shape.
Porter commanded a division of III Corps at the outset of the Peninsula campaign, moving up to command of
V Corps during the Seven Days' Battles. He displayed outstanding leadership in extricating his corps from constant attacks by superior Confederate forces, withdrawing to Malvern Hill, where he oversaw a huge defeat of the attacking Confederates (1 July 1862). For this action he was promoted to major-general of volunteers, as well as receiving a brevet to brigadier-general in the regular army.
When McClellan's army was withdrawn from the Peninsula to aid Pope's army in northern Virginia, Porter was ordered to come to Pope's aid: but New York Times reporter William Swinton, who covered the Army of the Potomac, wrote that "the order which Pope sent at half-past four, did not reach Porter till about dusk. He then made dispositions for attack, but it was too late. It is, however, more than doubtful that even had the order been received in time, any thing but repulse would have resulted from its execution."
Afterwards, Porter, who despised Pope, was discovered to have written about the latter in insubordinate terms. Knowing how close Porter was to McClellan, Pope, unable to have McClellan himself court-martialed, instead charged Porter with disloyalty, disobedience and misconduct in the face of the enemy. Porter, who advised McClellan not to commit his
V Corps to a final attack at Antietam (17 September 1862), and hence allowed Lee to escape total defeat, was relieved from command after McClellan's own relief left him unprotected. He was tried by a military commission. Charles Wainwriglu, a McClellan supporter who suspected that the actual reason was the friendship between McClellan and Porter, added: "On the whole I cannot say that I am sorry, for I think I shall like Reynolds quite as much, and have a great deal more respect from him."
Porter (seated, center) and his staff at his headquarters, photographed not long after the battle of Gaines' Mill (27 June 1862), where Porter had managed to extract his corps from heavy Confederate assaults. A close associate of McClellan, Porter fell when McClellan fell, but in fact his bad advice at Antietam essentially ensured that Lee would manage to save his army from destruction.
The commission found Porter guilty, and on 21 January 1863 ordered him "forever disqualified from holding any office of trust or profit under the Government of the United States." Wainwright felt that "From the manner of getting up the charges and of the formation of the court, I made up my mind at once that the case was to go against him. It was necessary for the Administration that it should: some scapegoat had to be found for the shortcomings of their pet, Pope, and in Porter they could hit a friend of McClellan at the same time. He may have been guilty of everything charged against him, or he may have been perfectly innocent, of this I know nothing; his condemnation was a foregone conclusion."
Porter spent the next 16 years seeking reinstatement to the US Army. Finally, a board headed by Gen. John M.Schofield exonerated Porter on 19 March 1879, and recommended his reinstatement. The current president. Republican Rutherford B.Hayes - who had actually lost the election but obtained office through political maneuvering -declined to act on the board's findings. Finally, on 4 May 1882, President Chester Arthur - a Democrat on the opposite side of the political fence from Hayes - ordered a full remission of the findings of the Porter court-martial, restoring his rank as a colonel of infantry from 14 May 1861. Porter died in Morristown, New Jersey, on 21 May 1901, and was buried in Green-Wood Cemeterv, Brooklyn, New York.
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