Friday, April 2, 2021

Review - "Radical Sacrifice: The Rise and Ruin of Fitz John Porter" by William Marvel

[Radical Sacrifice: The Rise and Ruin of Fitz John Porter by William Marvel (University of North Carolina Press, 2021). Hardcover, 7 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xv,364/496. ISBN:978-1-4696-6185-8. $35]

In rating how well the opposing Lincoln and Davis administrations managed their respective war machines during the Civil War, historians, with sound reasoning, consistently award higher marks to the former. In some ways, however, the no-party Confederate form of government held some advantages over the U.S.'s entrenched two-party system. Although Richmond politics possessed its own measure of internal discord and states' rights opposition frequently hampered the Confederate national war effort, the level of partisan political paranoia that existed in the U.S. Congress, White House, and Cabinet when it came to assessing the loyalty and motives of the army's more conservative officers (all of which reached a feverish state during General George McClellan's tenure at the head of the Army of the Potomac) was extraordinary, and it crippled the Union high command at critical stages of the Virginia campaigns of 1862. Lacking an organized opposition party with which its own high-ranking army officers might be identified, Davis's Confederate government conducted nothing comparable to the U.S.'s partisan purging of high-ranking generals blamed for costly early-war defeats. Army of the Potomac division commander Charles Stone and Fifth Corps commander Fitz John Porter were the two most prominent examples of Union officers sanctioned through politically-fueled accusations of professional misconduct and treasonous disloyalty. Stone was imprisoned for six months after the Ball's Bluff debacle and Porter was court-martialed and dismissed from the service altogether for alleged misbehavior at Second Manassas. The demonstrably false charges made against both generals have been explored by numerous writers and historians already, but William Marvel's new book Radical Sacrifice: The Rise and Ruin of Fitz John Porter is the first full-length biography of its subject. In it readers will find the most comprehensive examination by far of Porter's life, military service, career destruction, and decades-long (and only partially successful) fight to recover rank and reputation1.

The early sections of the book, which explore at some length Porter's family military tradition, his own West Point experiences, and his meritorious conduct on numerous Mexican War battlefields (which resulted in multiple brevets up to major), well establish Porter's pre-Civil War reputation as a distinguished and conscientious officer who earned wide esteem in the antebellum army. The high regard in which he was held by his peers made him a much sought after subordinate officer when Civil War broke out.

Coverage of Porter's Civil War career over the roughly year and a half period beginning with the operations of the Shenandoah Valley column of the 1861 campaign in Virginia and ending with the Army of the Potomac's autumn advance after Antietam (during which the general served as the right-hand man of commanding officers Robert Patterson and George McClellan), is richly detailed in the book and convincingly offers a largely positive portrayal of the general's capacity in a variety of leadership and advisory roles. Opinions still vary widely over how valuable Porter's generalship was to the Union cause (and it would perhaps be not too unkind to observe that some negative portrayals have been unduly influenced by the close association with McClellan), but Marvel constructs a strong defense of Porter's Civil War record that, at least in this reviewer's opinion, doesn't exhibit any glaring interpretive missteps.

Marvel joins a bevy of recent First Manassas Campaign chroniclers in casting the oft-maligned lack of results achieved by Patterson's command in a more understanding light for their being critically hampered by communication delays, withdrawal of the army's best trained troops, and mismanagement from above by General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. Thus Marvel's picture of Porter (as Patterson's chief of staff) emerging relatively unscathed from the fiasco is in line with the best regarded current scholarship.

Porter would be given much more command responsibility during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. In his first real action as an independent commander, on the Virginia Peninsula at the Battle of Hanover Court House2, Porter's attack on a much inferior enemy force was ultimately successful. However, through some bungling and bad luck it was harder earned than it should have been, and the general appropriately receives a mixed grade from Marvel for his handling of the battle. From Beaver Dam Creek through Gaines's Mill and finally at Malvern Hill, Porter demonstrated well the ability to manage a more than creditable defense, and no one really disputes that. You can sense the author's frustration in not being able to uncover contemporary sources (statements after the fact vary and others, including Porter's, are inconsistent) that might shed more light on (1) what exactly McClellan had planned for Porter's augmented corps positioned north of the Chickahominy on the 27th and (2) how that figured in the army commander's overall strategy during the momentous Seven Days period. It is easy to follow Marvel's reasoning that keeping Porter north of the river only made sense if his command was meant to absorb Lee's offensive blow in a manner that would then open the way for a Union offensive directly on Richmond south of the river. If Porter was primarily charged with covering the army during its change of base, that would have been better (and safer) achieved south of the river. Available evidence offers no indication that there was a concrete tactical plan for the army in place just before the Battle of Gaines's Mill. The author's suggestion, given the lack of pre-battle reinforcements and absence of an overall settled upon tactical plan, that it was possible that McClellan (and perhaps Porter as well) did not believe the Fifth Corps vulnerable to being overwhelmed in a single day (the 27th) is worthy of thoughtful consideration, but Marvel is certainly correct to further suggest that it was cutting things far too closely for McClellan to not strengthen Porter earlier in the day and more heavily in men and entrenching tools. As it was, even in its occupation of a strong position with both flanks anchored on swampy ground, Porter's entire command came quite close to destruction.

Porter's closeness to McClellan3, and the latter's clear reliance on him in the field, predictably excited jealous dislike of Porter among the senior generals of the Army of the Potomac. Also, McClellan's critics in the army undoubtedly projected much of their disdain for the commander onto his "pet" subordinate. On the other hand, Porter's own frequent and open criticisms of how other general officers performed their duties, as is well illustrated in the book, also did little to foster high command brotherhood in the army. Additionally discussed in the book is Porter's private correspondence with New York World owner/editor Manton Marble, through which Porter's views and criticisms on the conduct of the war along with inside news from the front were fed to one of the harshest critics of the Lincoln administration. In view of all that, Marvel persuasively argues that indiscretion in both word and correspondence was Porter's most damning professional trait. Through incautiously sharing inflammatory opinions in written correspondence with figures like gossiping capital bureaucrat Joseph Kennedy (the Census Bureau head) and fellow general Ambrose Burnside (who carelessly passed along Porter's private sentiments), Porter harmed himself immeasurably by giving ammunition to those in the civilian and military leadership who sought to impugn his motives and loyalty. That said, Marvel's narrative does persuasively reason from the evidence that Porter's imprudent criticisms of the administration and its favorite generals (which made their way to both Lincoln at the White House and General Pope himself) had no real impact on the performance of his duties in the field. With perhaps a nod toward the paper-thin barrier between military service and political expression that existed within the officer corps of Civil War volunteer armies, Marvel frames Porter's Marble correspondence primarily as yet another exercise of personal and professional indiscretion amid dangerous political seas. From the perspective of a reader presented only with choice excerpts, it's difficult to form conclusions of one's own without examining the full text of the letters, which remain unpublished4.

It wasn't just the results of Second Manassas that had Porter's critics tied in knots either. In seeking answers to why Lee's army was not destroyed at Antietam, the story that Porter actively lobbied his commander against committing Fifth Corps reserve troops to the fight fanned the flames. Though the image of Porter sitting on massive reserves while Burnside was getting smashed on the left still persists today among those with only a casual understanding of the battle, it has been conclusively revealed by a number of modern researchers that Porter's corps was left with only around 3,000-4,000 uncommitted troops at the moment the harshest critics accused him of still hoarding up to 20,000 inert soldiers. In addition to that, Marvel points out that it wasn't Porter who denied Burnside supporting troops after the Ninth Corps was roughly handled by A.P. Hill's late-arriving Confederate division (this false allegation had the effect of further spoiling relations between the two previously friendly generals and would also impact Porter's trial and postwar campaign for reinstatement). Lastly, the author joins many others in his determination that an infamous Antietam quote attributed to Porter, the one that allegedly dissolved any remaining offensive impulses in McClellan's mind late on the 17th by proclaiming "Remember, General, I command the last reserve of the last Army of the Republic" (a absurd story so often repeated that it has become ingrained in the popular imagination), was a later fabrication weaponized for partisan purposes.

Of course, it was his alleged actions earlier at Second Manassas that got Porter arrested, court-martialed, and dismissed from the service. Few Union generals distinguished themselves at Second Manassas, and Porter wasn't one of them, but Marvel's carefully researched recounting of Porter's actions on the Union left effectively refutes all of the non-trivial charges, chief among them the accusation that he intentionally delayed his march to the battlefield, failed to act upon a late afternoon attack order from his superior (General Pope), and actually retreated his command instead of attacking. The trial conducted that winter is addressed in similarly meticulous fashion, with the author outlining a pattern of legal, moral, and ethical malfeasance that beggars description. As presented in the book, the evidence is convincing that conviction was predetermined. The military court was packed with prosecution-friendly (in some way or another) officers, and court procedures of every kind were consistently steered toward aiding prosecution and denying effective defense. Key prosecution witnesses were still considered credible after giving contradictory responses during questioning or after clearly demonstrating strategically plastic powers of recall (ex. McDowell's embarrassing testimony). Many instances of obvious conflict of interest were brushed over, and witness tampering was apparent. Some hostile witnesses who didn't even know the defendant claimed absurd abilities of being able to see into Porter's heart and mind in order to glean intentions (even treasonous ones), and these were uncritically accepted by the court. Documentary evidence was mishandled in multiple ways, including the omission of exculpatory passages from copies submitted to the court. Porter's defense team was also frequently refused permission to enter supporting documents into the record. The list goes on and on. All observers then and now agree that Lincoln possessed a sharp lawyer's mind with more than enough experience to detect the legal shenanigans present in the case summary given him by the court for review, and Marvel agrees with those that see the president's approval of the sentence as a stain on his record.

Marvel's account of Porter's struggles over the ensuing decades to find employment to support his family while simultaneously pursuing an expensive lobbying effort to have his case reexamined and overturned is richly detailed. The book's in-depth coverage of Porter's persistent quest being constantly blocked through presidential and congressional indifference or outright hostility (to the point of politicians like ex-Union general John Logan unabashedly repeating long discredited charges for immediate political advantage) serves as a strong testament to the endurance of the war's partisan rancor. Porter did have some Radical Republican supporters, but the lofty idea put forth that admitting past wrong and rectifying that wrong by doing justice to Porter in the present would be seen in a way that could only elevate Republican stature in the eyes of the public gathered very little support within the party. Even after the Schofield military commission created in 1878 to reexamine Porter's case rejected the 1863 verdict on all points, Republican newspapers and politicians continued to echo the old accusations against Porter for the rest of his life. Official redress was meager, with retirement at the rank of colonel and no back pay being the only concessions that could pass legislative resistance.

Even though Fitz John Porter's close association with George McClellan has likely inspired a certain degree of indifference among Civil War students toward his fate, it remains quite surprising that it's taken so long for a book like this to be published. Writers often find the rise, fall, and redemption arc to be an appealing biography structure, and Porter's life had that in spades along with abundant high-level military and political drama. Exploring the flaws of human nature has always been popular as well, and the Porter story reveals a great many moments when a number of the most respected Union heroes of the war (among them Abraham Lincoln, Edwin Stanton, John Logan, Jacob Cox, and James Garfield) were not at their best. At any rate, whatever one thinks of Fitz John Porter's value to the Union Army, any open-minded reading of William Marvel's primary source-based biography should erase all doubt regarding the baselessness of the trial that ended Porter's career and the motives behind it. Radical Sacrifice is highly recommended reading.

1 - It is difficult to come up with any candidate for the best biographical treatment of Porter before the appearance of this study from William Marvel. The existing literature seems to be more interested in the trial than in Porter's life and military career. Marvel notes that avocational historian Otto Eisenschiml, who authored The Celebrated Case of Fitz John Porter: An American Dreyfus Affair (1950), is considered Porter's chief defender of the last century, but he also wryly observes that the author's penchant for advancing crackpot theories did little to help Porter's reputation. More recently among published book-length studies, Donald Jermann's Fitz-John Porter, Scapegoat of Second Manassas: The Rise, Fall and Rise of the General Accused of Disobedience (2008) weighs the cases for and against Porter's conviction, and prior to that Curt Anders authored a lengthy book titled Injustice on Trial (2002) that examined the proceedings of both the original trial and the Schofield commission.
2 - For the best account of this relatively small Civil War clash see Michael C. Hardy's Battle of Hanover Court House: Turning Point of the Peninsula Campaign, May 27, 1862 (McFarland, 2006). Though the battles of Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines's Mill, and Malvern Hill still lack standalone study, the best single work covering those engagements and Porter's role in them remains Brian Burton's 2001 book Extraordinary Circumstances: The Seven Days Battles.
3 - McClellan and Porter are often presented in the Civil War literature as joined at the hip, but Marvel's vigorous defense of Porter's record in no way extends to McClellan, whose actions the author interprets in much the traditional fashion. On the matter of another key figure in the book, the Stanton of Radical Sacrifice is every bit the same unscrupulous schemer he was portrayed as throughout much of Marvel's biography Lincoln's Autocrat (2015). For an alternate interpretation of the secretary's character, one should consult Walter Stahr's Stanton (2017).
4 - A quick search through the Library of Congress's digital archive comes up empty, suggesting that the collection of Marble papers housed there (and containing the Porter letters) probably has not been digitized yet.

1 comment:

  1. Drew:

    Thanks for this (as always) thorough and insightful review. Having read the book I concur for the most part. The author has done extensive research in primary sources and his coverage of Porter's pre- and post-war careers is ground-breaking. I also found his narrative regarding the two trial proceedings, the political machinations toed to both, and their outcomes to be the most complete and objective coverage to date as to the material elements. The book fell short of my expectations in only two respects. First, we never get the author's direct assessment of Porter's military performance, other than in the form of possible hints. This is not the place to go into detail, but I wish that he had cited and taken up such evaluations as John Hennessy's in 1992 - "an average officer of limited energy" - or Robert E. Lee's in 1867 - "timid" and competent only if given orders. The other disappointment was in the author's brief dismissal of the import of Porter's correspondence with vehemently anti-administration newspaper editor Manton Marble - especially Porter's lengthy September 30, 1862 letter. Although the Porter-Manton correspondence has never been fully published or digitalized, the author quotes the most inflammatory portions of the September 30 letter, yet deals with its import in a brief footnote. In sum, I see this as a highly worthwhile contribution in line with your assessment but wish these two significant areas had been addressed.


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