Porter (August 31, 1822 – May 21, 1901) was a career Army officer who served during with the Union during the Civil War and is best known for his performance at the Second Battle of Bull Run (aka Second Manassas to Southerners) and his subsequent court martial.
His career was ruined by his political rivals when they called for his court marshal and after the war it took him 25 years to restore his reputation and get restored. Major General Fitz John Porter was found guilty of disobeying a lawful order and misconduct in front of the enemy and removed from command.
Porter came from a family of famous naval officers, including his cousin, David Farragut, the first United States admiral. He graduated from West Point in 1845, eighth in his class, and served with great distinction as an artillery officer in the Mexican War. After the war, Porter served in various posts, including a stint as an instructor of artillery at West Point, where he became good friends with both George B. McClellan and post adjutant Robert E. Lee.
As tensions increased in 1860, Porter traveled to locations in the South in order to prepare for the upcoming conflict, including Charleston, South Carolina, where he advised Major Robert Anderson be placed in charge of the defenses at Fort Sumter. When war broke out, he served as a staff officer, but when his old friend McClellan was asked to take charge of the Army of the Potomac he was transferred to command a division at McMlelland's request. McClellan trusted old friends more than the other corps commanders and wanted subordinates he considered loyal. He relied, in particular, on Porter, who often acted as his surrogate on the battlefield during McClellan's frequent absences. One such instance, the Battle of Malvern Hill, especially cemented Porter's reputation as a superb commander on the battlefield.
After McClellan was relieved of command Porter's corps was reassigned to Major General John Pope. Porter intensely disliked Pope both personally and professionally.
Porter sent a number of telegrams to Major General Ambrose Burnside complaining about Pope's poor leadership and handling of the army and Burnside, who also had a low opinion of Pope, forwarded the letters to McClellan, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and President Abraham Lincoln. Halleck, Stanton, and Lincoln were upset because Pope was there man when they dumped the uncooperative McClellan. Lincoln was especially displeased because Pope was a personal friend.
On August 27, part of the Army of Northern Virginia under Stonewall Jackson seized Pope's supply depot at Manassas Junction. Pope became panicked and sent a flurry of orders including a confused telegram to Porter ordering him to join Pope by morning.
Porter consulted with his commanders about the feasibility of marching that evening, but they were against it even though Pope wanted to move. Finally, they were able to convince Porter that it was too dark and they were unsure of the location of the Confederate forces. As a result the orders to move out in the dark at 1:00am were disregarded.
The next morning Pope got into battle with the Confederates under General Stonewall Jackson. Pope and General Irwin McDowell's troops joined forces and repulsed an attack by the Confederate cavalry division under Major General J.E.B. Stuart. Porter and McDowell then received another confusing order from Pope. In short, the order was unclear about what Porter and McDowell were supposed to do. Pope did not explicitly direct them to attack and he concluded the order with "If any considerable advantages are to be gained from departing from this order it will not be strictly carried out." The result was confusion on the part of everybody involved and it resulted in Porter's court martial.
At the court martial the prosecution obtained testimony from officers under Pope that sought to clear their own names after the disaster of Manassas. For example, McDowell was answering his own court of inquiry regarding his actions at Manassas that led to his banishment from the army. It didn't help that during the trial, Pope supplied his own maps that substantiated his version of the story.
The defense argued that Pope was incompetent and that Porter's actions had saved the army from an even greater defeat. General Ambrose Burnside even left his command to testify on behalf of Porter. In addition, it was testified that the majority of the Union Army agreed with Porter about Pope's poor leadership. The defense also pictured Porter as having been wronged by a petty, incompetent former commander who happened to be friends with the President.
Porter was found guilty and ordered dismissed from the army and he was forever disqualified from holding any office of trust or profit under the Government of the United States.
Porter immediately set about attempting to overturn the conviction. He set about surveying and mapping the battleground to develop a map of every tree, bush and hill in the vicinity of his corps. Then he recorded the testimony of anyone he could get to cooperate in order to record exact positions during the battle. With the help of his friends, especially the increasingly powerful McClellan, he began petitioning famous figures to write letters on his behalf. They used their influence to try to get state and local lawmakers to pass resolutions condemning the government for dismissing Porter.
He also tried to draw attention to the make-up of the court. They were Republicans,as was the President, and had fixed a court to rule against him in order to protect its own interests. The government refused to re-investigate and officers who spoke out in support of Porter were punished.
The newspapers were also controlled by Republicans and they said that Porter was a traitor who had escaped the punishment he had deserved. The New York Times even wrote that he ought to have been executed.
When the war ended, Porter wrote to both Lee and General Longstreet asking for their assistance. Both Lee and Longstreet replied, Longstreet in great detail, and Porter used the evidence to garner supporters to send petitions to President Andrew Johnson asking for a new trial. He also had supporters in Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and George H. Thomas. President Johnson had no power to hold a new trial and, despite his support for Porter, he was unwilling to revisit the decision. Finally, in 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes commissioned a board to investigate.
On March 19, 1879, the commission issued a report recommending that the court martial be set aside and Porter be restored. The report found Porter guilty of no wrongdoing and credited him with saving the Union Army from an even greater defeat.
No matter though. Political opposition still prevented Porter from obtaining reinstatement because of Republican presidents. Finally in May of 1863, a bill passed Congress to restore Porter to his regular army rank of Colonel but with no back pay. Two days later, vindicated, Porter retired from the army, but he would not receive an official pardon until Grover Cleveland took office in 1885.
About his balloon trip...one early April morning in 1862 General Porter hopped into a balloon basket and took off. The retaining cable snapped and the observation flight, at the mercy of the wind, floated over the Confederate lines. Porter, not knowing where he might end up reckoned to be captured when he finally came down. Fortunately for Porter, the wind shifted and the balloon was blown back toward the Union lines and he pulled the valve and descended to the ground.