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The Last Battle of Fitz-John Porter

fitz-john_porter_00HISTORY MATTERS

Life was a battle for Fitz-John Porter. Court-martialed and disgraced early in the Civil War, General Porter spent 16 years struggling to exonerate his record and clear his name. But the battle raged on even after his death. More than 40 years after the Civil War citizens of Portsmouth were fighting over where – if anywhere – to place a large bronze monument of Porter on horseback.  (Continued below)


The Battle of Haven Park

The problem wasn’t money. In 1887, the year after Porter was cleared of all court martial charges, his second cousin Richard Henry Eddy of Boston bequeathed $30,000 for a bronze equestrian statue of Porter whom he greatly admired. Portsmouth was the natural location.  Fitz-John Porter was born here in 1822 when his father was commander of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Eddy’s wife was also from Portsmouth, a descendant of the Pickering family. Eddy suggested in his will that the memorial might go in Market Square. Porter was not in favor of the idea and said he wished Eddy had left the money, instead, to his alma mater Phillips Exeter Academy.

Fitz-John_Porter_statue_small“We were like brothers,” Porter once wrote of Eddy. “His estimate of my worth,” exceeded my own.”

Historians today generally see Porter as a political scapegoat. He was cashiered out of the military under President Abraham Lincoln, the most painful of all fates for a West Point graduate, for refusing to follow orders and attack the enemy. Porter, who had better tactical information about the enemy than his commanding officers, knew the attack would be ineffective, even suicidal, so he held back. Rather than appear incompetent, his superiors accused Porter of insubordination and set out to ruin his career. But years later, after one general recanted his testimony, even Ulysses S. Grant was convinced of Porter’s innocence.

As soon as Eddy’s bequest was announced, the Porter statue became a political football in Portsmouth too. Porter had been pardoned by Grover Cleveland, the only democratic president between the Civil War and the Great Depression. “Staunch republicans,” according to a local newspaper in 1887 still considered Porter a coward and a traitor. They vowed to “leave town or wear blinders whenever they pass the obnoxious monument.”

Harriet to the rescue

Drummed out of the military, Porter was broken, but not defeated. While petitioning for a new trial, he served as New York commissioner of public works, as police and then fire commissioner. The former hero of the Mexican War went into the mining business, worked on the railroad, served at the post office, and managed the construction of an insane asylum. His wife Harriet, a New York socialite, was his primary advocate.

Fit-John_Sculptor_Kelly“Harriet is always behind the scenes, pushing him,” says Kimberly Alexander, curator of the Fitz-John Porter exhibit now running at Strawbery Banke Museum. It was Harriet, Alexander says, who convinced her husband to pose for sculptor James Kelly who created statues of 40 Civil War generals. Porter agreed, but only if the statue appeared after his death. Kelly took notes as he talked with Porter and other generals, and it is through Kelly that we see Harriet urging her husband through his depression and isolation.

“He [Porter] wanted to shrink away and hide himself,” Harriet told sculptor Kelly. “But I said to him, ‘What have you done? Why should you hide? Why don’t you go out and show yourself? Show that you are not afraid—that you are not conscious of having done anything.’ And I used to drag him out.”

Kimberly Alexander is co-author of a book on Porter to be published by Blue Tree, LLC of Portsmouth in August. She notes that it was Harriet who convinced the sculptor to depict her husband as a handsome young warrior, not as a balding elderly businessman slowly dying of diabetes. While Porter remained a gentleman and swallowed his shame, it is through his wife, Alexander says, that we feel his pain.

“Harriet’s voice is really really strong,” Alexander says. “She talks about what it was like after the court martial. They were shunned. People would walk across the street to avoid them.”


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