Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Booknotes: Radical Sacrifice

New Arrival:
Radical Sacrifice: The Rise and Ruin of Fitz John Porter by William Marvel (UNC Press, 2021).

I've always wanted to learn more about Fitz John Porter than what was generally available. There always seemed to be more interest among authors in Porter's court-martial and struggle to regain rank and reputation than there was in discussing the rest of his life and the details of his brief Civil War career. Thus I was very happy to learn last year that a biography, William Marvel's Radical Sacrifice: The Rise and Ruin of Fitz John Porter, was in the late stages of development. That its author is one of my favorite Civil War historians made that news all the better.

From the description: "Born into a distinguished military family, Fitz John Porter (1822-1901) was educated at West Point and breveted for bravery in the war with Mexico. Already a well-respected officer at the outset of the Civil War, as a general in the Union army he became a favorite of George B. McClellan, who chose him to command the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac. 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."

There are two main connecting threads to follow along the path leading to the general's dramatic downfall, both surrounding the embarrassing Union defeat at Second Bull Run. In the first, Porter becomes his own worst enemy by allegedly allowing his loyalty to McClellan and his politics affect his performance of military duties. In the other thread, the one most directly related to the book's title Radical Sacrifice, outside forces in the form of vengeful Radical Republican officers and politicians (with, again, the general's close relationship with McClellan being a grave offense in those circles) make an example of Porter in an attempt to cleanse the army high command of ideological opponents.

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." While Marvel's title choices often tend to be rather provocatively-worded expressions of his main theme (ex. "Lincoln's Mercenaries" and "Lincoln's Autocrat"), it it worth repeating that, at least in my opinion, the actual contents inside typically express far more nuance and critical balance than one might superficially gather from the title's meaning and tone.

In Radical Sacrifice, Marvel "lifts the cloud that shadowed Porter over the last four decades of his life, exposing the spiteful Radical Republicans who refused to restore his rank long after his exoneration and never restored his benefits. 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." Pretty much every close student of the trial (and, by the way, I am not in that group) agrees that any truly impartial examination of the charges would have resulted in Porter's exoneration, but critiques remain. I'll be very interested to read how Marvel addresses disapproving opinions regarding Porter's generalship and professional behavior that persist through to today. I'm looking forward to diving in sometime soon.


  1. I tend to agree with Stephen Sears in "Controversies and Commanders", that while Porter was wronged in the proceedings, he was a deeply flawed general.

    1. Or, as John Hennessy put it, "an average officer of limited energy".


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