Fitz John Porter was born on August 31, 1832, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He was the son of Captain John Porter and Eliza Chauncey Clarke. Porter’s father was the commander of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and his family included several prominent naval officers, including admirals David Dixon Porter and David Glasgow Farragut and Commodore William D. Porter.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
Porter received his early education at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. In 1845, he graduated from the United States Military Academy, eighth in his class of forty-one cadets.
U.S. Army Officer
After graduating from West Point, officials brevetted Porter as a second lieutenant in the 4th U.S. Artillery, stationed at Fort Monroe, Virginia. Authorities commissioned him as a second lieutenant on June 18, 1846, and promoted the soldier to first lieutenant on May 29, 1847.
Like many future Civil War officers, Porter served in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Officials brevetted him to captain on September 8, 1847, for bravery at the Battle of Molino del Rey during the Mexican-American War. During the capture of Mexico City, enemy forces wounded Porter at the attack against Belén Gate (September 12-13, 1847).
Following the war with Mexico, Porter served as a cavalry and artillery instructor at the United States Military Academy from 1849 to 1853. He later was adjutant to the Academy’s superintendent, Major General John Gross Barnard, until 1855. In 1856, Porter briefly served at Fort Brady, Michigan, until officials sent him to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he served as assistant adjutant general in the Department of the West.
On March 19, 1857, Porter married Harriet Pierson Cook of New York. The union produced four children.
From 1857 to 1858, Porter served under future Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston in the Utah Territory during the Mormon Rebellion. Prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, Porter reorganized the defenses of Charleston Harbor, South Carolina until late 1860. He then aided in the evacuation of army personnel from Texas after the Lone Star State seceded from the Union on February 2, 1861.
When the Civil War began, officials promoted Porter to colonel on May 14, 1861, and they placed him in command of the newly-created 15th U.S. Infantry. In July 1861, Porter’s friend, Major General George B. McClellan, consolidated several army units under his own command to form the Army of the Potomac. In August, McClellan had Porter promoted to brigadier general of volunteers, effective May 17, so that he could serve as a divisional commander in the new army.
During McClellan’s ill-fated Peninsula Campaign in 1862, Porter initially commanded the 1st Division of the 3rd Corps. In May 1862, McClellan created the provisional 5th Corps and placed Porter in command. During the Seven Days Battles, Porter performed well at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek, the Battle of Gaine’s Mill, and the Battle of Malvern Hill. Officials promoted him to major general of volunteers on July 4, 1862, for his distinguished service during the Peninsula Campaign.
Clash with John Pope
When McClellan’s army withdrew from the Virginia Peninsula, the War Department attached Porter’s 5th Corps to Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia during the Northern Virginia Campaign (July-September 1862). Porter did not hide his displeasure about the reassignment or his dislike of Pope. Porter earned the ill will of Pope supporters, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and President Abraham Lincoln, when they viewed copies of telegrams Porter sent to Major General Ambrose Burnside that were critical of Pope.
Second Battle of Bull Run
At the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862), Porter ignored several unclear or contradictory directives that Pope issued. Porter also did not execute a direct order to strike the flank of Stonewall Jackson’s command because Porter had information that Pope did not have when he issued the order. Porter knew that Confederate General James Longstreet’s division had arrived on the battlefield and had covered Jackson’s flank. An attack against Jackson would have been suicidal because it would have exposed Porter’s flank to Longstreet. Following the Union defeat, Pope placed much of the blame on Porter and relieved him of his command.
McClellan saved Porter’s career temporarily when he returned him to the Army of the Potomac to take part in the Maryland Campaign. Porter was present at the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862), but McClellan held his corps in reserve.
On November 5, 1862, President Lincoln removed McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac. The demise of Porter’s friend exposed Porter to his political and military enemies. Pope renewed his attacks against Porter for his performance at the Second Battle of Bull Run, and later that month, army officials arrested Porter and relieved him of command. On November 27, Porter appeared before a court-martial in Washington, and officials charged him with disobeying orders at the Second Battle of Bull Run. The highly politicized trial, which was open to the public, became a cause célèbre. Radical Republicans maligned Porter, while McClellan’s Democratic supporters championed him.
Unfortunately for Porter, his political enemies may have influenced the makeup of the court. On January 10, 1863, the court found Porter guilty. On January 21, the court dismissed Porter from the army and “forever disqualified from holding any office of trust or profit under the Government of the United States.”
After losing his commission, Porter spent the next two decades trying to restore his reputation. For years, Radical Republican politicians resisted and blocked any attempts by Porter and his supporters to clear the fallen general. Finally, in 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes (a former Union general) commissioned a board, chaired by Major General John Schofield, to review the court’s findings.
Considering new evidence obtained with the help of Confederate general James Longstreet and Robert E. Lee plus the support of luminaries such as Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and George H. Thomas, the review board ruled in Porter’s favor. The board’s final report, issued on March 19, 1879, stated that
we have the honor to report, in accordance with the President’s order, that in our opinion justice requires at his hands such action as may be necessary to annul and set aside the findings and sentence of the court-martial in the case of Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter, and to restore him to the positions of which that sentence deprived him—such restoration to take effect from the date of his dismissal from the service.
Despite the Schofield Commission’s findings, Porter had to wait several more years for exoneration. In 1881, Republicans in the House of Representatives defeated a proposal to restore Porter to his rank of major general and compensate him with the sum of $75,000. Porter’s efforts toward restoration looked bleak when James A. Garfield (a member of the original court-martial that convicted Porter) followed Hayes as president. On May 6, 1882, Porter achieved a modest measure of redemption when President Chester A. Arthur, who succeeded Garfield after he was assassinated, restored the general’s rights to hold public office. In 1884, the Democratic Party gained control of the House of Representatives and American voters elected Grover Cleveland as the first Democratic president since before the Civil War. On August 5, 1886, Cleveland approved legislation restoring Porter to the rank of colonel (to rank from May 14, 1861) but without back pay. Satisfied that he was exonerated, Porter retired from the military two days later.
During his post-war career, Porter worked as a mining superintendent in Colorado and as a businessman in New York. After President Arthur restored Porter’s full rights, the general also held several public offices in New York City, including the commissioner of public works, police commissioner, and fire commissioner.
Porter died at age seventy, on March 21, 1901, at Morristown, New Jersey. He was buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.