Monday, September 7, 2020

Book News: Radical Sacrifice

For his actions at Second Bull Run, Union major general Fitz John Porter was arrested, court-martialed, and dismissed from the service. Modern opinions on Porter run the gamut, but when it comes to the merits of the actual case against him it's probably safe to say that nearly everyone (even those that believe Porter's exit from the war to have been no great loss to the service) can concede that Porter got a raw deal. Much has been published about the case, but I am not aware of the existence of any major modern biography that examines Porter's entire life. However, William Marvel's upcoming Radical Sacrifice: The Rise and Ruin of Fitz John Porter (UNC Press, March 2021) might be just that. As I've mentioned before, I am an admirer of Marvel's writing. His body of work consistently contains bold challenges to accepted wisdom that are always interesting whether you agree them or not.

Judging actual narrative thrust through marketing descriptions has its pitfalls, but Marvel appears to hold Porter's military contributions in high regard. From the description: "Porter and his troops fought heroically and well at Gaines's Mill and Malvern Hill. His devotion to the Union cause seemed unquestionable until fellow Union generals John Pope and Irvin McDowell blamed him for their own battlefield failures at Second Bull Run."

The book argues that Porter's downfall was less about his own actions and more the result of a Radical Republican purge of a McClellan ally in the army high command. More from the description: "As a confidant of the Democrat and limited-war proponent McClellan, Porter found himself targeted by Radical Republicans intent on turning the conflict to the cause of emancipation. He made the perfect scapegoat, and a court-martial packed with compliant officers dismissed him for disobedience of orders and misconduct before the enemy. Porter tenaciously pursued vindication after the war, and in 1879 an army commission finally reviewed his case, completely exonerating him. Obstinately partisan resistance from old Republican enemies still denied him even nominal reinstatement for six more years."

We'll have to wait for the table of contents to appear before knowing how much of Porter's early life is covered in the book, but the concluding sentence suggests the possibility of a comprehensive biography. "Reexamining the relevant primary evidence from the full arc of Porter's life and career, Marvel offers significant insights into the intersections of politics, war, and memory."

1 comment:

  1. Drew: this advance insight is disappointing. I've been hoping that Marvel would take a full, honest look at Porter, his lack of actual real (read: mediocre) performance as a corps commander, and his borderline-seditious correspondence with Manton Marble. Instead, the implication is that we'll get the picture of a tragic figure wrongly ousted for political reasons. I had hoped that the end note in Marvel's biography of Stanton presaged something deeper - that end note correctly indicated that Eisenschiml's book on the court martial is hagiography. I guess we'll find out but this isn't promising.


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