The Last Battle of Fitz-John Porter
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

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.”




The battle rages

In 1900, following the death of Mrs. Eddy, Porter wrote to the mayor of Portsmouth and then to each trustee of the planned memorial begging them not to begin work until after his death. They did not have long to wait. Porter died on May 21 the following year with his wife Harriet and their four children at his side. Portsmouth trustees argued over the need to make a death mask of Porter’s face for the monument, but Harriet and Kelly had agreed to show the general as a younger man. Porter’s tombstone in Brooklyn reads only “I have fought the good fight.”

But the battle had just begun as members of the “Rebellion in Portsmouth” suggested that the city should now give back the Eddy bequest. Porter’s court martial, according to these “old veterans” had been fair. Porter did “shamefully fall back and retreat” in 1862, they said, quoting the original military trial. His exoneration, they believed, was a political stunt by Democrats based on “Confederate evidence.” Therefore Porter did not deserve a monument, they said.  Citizens in favor of the monument, in turn, praised Porter as a hero in the editorial pages of the local papers.

So the battle turned to new territory. Despite his prominence among Civil War monument designers, some Portsmouth trustees questioned whether James E. Kelly, a New Yorker, was the right man for the job and should get the entire $30,000. And who would get the accrued interest on the endowment?  Trustees divided on political lines. Some wanted estimates and designs from 10 local artists and sparred with Kelly’s attorney. When trustees tried to spend some of the bequest on expenses in Portsmouth, political opponents accused them of corruption.

In May of 1902 Kelly arrived in Portsmouth with a model of his planned statue and met privately with city aldermen. Officials tentatively settled on Kelly as the sculptor and Haymarket Square (near the John Paul Jones House today) as the site. By August the committee noted that building and installing the granite pedestal to the monument would cost $7,000. That money at least, some argued, should go to local artisans. “Mr. Kelly would not get as much as he expected,” the newspaper reported, “but he was very anxious to do the work.”

Kelly responded with a publicity barrage. A dramatic full-page photograph in Harper’s Weekly, for example, showed him working on the larger-than-life clay model of Porter astride his steed.


Breaking new grounds

From the outset many suggested that Haven Park, nestled among trees between Pleasant Street and the South Mill Pond, was the ideal spot for the memorial. Porter had spent his first three years in a house on Livermore Street that now faces the park. He had returned there during summers as a student at Phillips Exeter Academy. The park was later created from land donated by the Haven family.

The Havens, some argued, had created a peaceful green space by tearing down two colonial houses and wanted no structures of any kind built there. Market Square was out of the question, most agreed, because a statue of Gov. John Langdon was planned for that central site. Historic Haymarket Square where Middle Street bends to meet Court and State streets was still the alternative location, but too small, some said, for the huge monument. Local legend says this plan offended members of the Baptist Church who did not want to view the rear end of a horse through church windows.

There was another scuffle early in April 1903 when a change in city administration left three openings in the Porter Memorial Committee. But the Haven Park site was confirmed two weeks later when, without ceremony, workers broke ground for the planned monument. Kelly was completing his plaster model in New York. According to Eddy’s bequest, the monument had to be dedicated on July 1, the anniversary of Porter’s victory in the Battle of Malvern Hill.

Plans were to excavate a 10-foot deep hole and set a concrete base for the heavy memorial, but at five feet the diggers hit bedrock. The rush was on to place the heavy granite block in time for the July 1 dedication and the newspaper reported each step. The blocks were set by May and the base was ready by June, but the monument, still in New York, remained unfinished. By September , according to the Boston Herald, the citizens of Portsmouth could not “puzzle out” what was delaying sculptor Kelly. Kelly had been sick, but he finally delivered the large bronze sculpture by June and a photograph of it appeared on the front page of the newspaper.




Undedicated for years

The statue was not fully in place in time for the required July 1 dedication. Porter’s statue stood in Haven Park for weeks with its head covered, first by a meal-bag, then draped in an American flag. Suddenly Porter’s face was revealed.  One local paper hailed the anonymous figure who apparently climbed the statue to remove the covering in the dark of night in September 1904.  The public had grown tired, the newspaper suggested, of the “queer and foolish actions” of the Porter Memorial Committee. The group had “monkeyed” around with the dedication and “all business connected with it has been hopelessly bungled.” Vandals defaced the undedicated memorial weeks later when Gen. Porter was seen wearing a white duck sailor hat and a flag was tied to the tail of his bronze horse.

The following year was a landmark in Portsmouth history. The body of John Paul Jones, the most famous part-time city resident, was discovered in France. The world’s largest dynamite explosion to date eliminated Henderson’s Point, a spit of land in the Piscataqua River. And the Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the deadly Russo-Japanese War was signed here. Amid all the action, Fitz-John Porter’s statue had yet to be officially dedicated.

“The nearer it comes to final completion,” a reporter wrote of the monument, “the more trouble seems to crop out.”

The latest problem was an inscription on the plaque attached to the granite monument pedestal. Something in the text had been changed before it was cast into bronze. It is not clear what words offended the newly installed Portsmouth city administrators, but they did not last long. “No time was lost,” the paper reported, “and with a hammer and chisel…the inscriptions were chipped from the tablet.”

Battle won at last

At last the dedication was set for July 1, 1906. The event, according to the Eddy bequest, had  to occur on the anniversary of Porter’s greatest battle. The Battle of Malvern Hill  is depicted on the bas relief sculpture on the side of the monument. But there was one final snag. That year the date fell on Sunday. A cluster of locals protested that it was disrespectful to hold a military parade and festivities on the Sabbath. Others pointed out that no firearms were allowed in Haven Park, so there could be no military salute or armed soldiers on the grounds.

The debate raged, but the dedication exercise went on as scheduled. To comply with the Haven family will, a set of wooden bleachers was built out over the street so that men bearing arms were not required to sit within the boundary of the peaceful park.  A young woman named Dorothy Adams, a direct descendant of President John Adams, tugged on a cord. The veil covering the now-familiar bronze statue fell away. The band played the “Star Spangled Banner.”

“I think that all are convinced that Maj. Gen Fitz-John Porter was a man to be honored,” Mayor Marvin announced within a few yards of Porter’s birthplace. “He was an exemplar of how a man should conduct himself under fire and under the criticism of his superior officers. He showed what a man can be both in war and in peace.”


Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is editor of the popular history Web site where this article appears exclusively online. His latest book is Maritime Portsmouth: The Sawtelle Collection (2011) edited by Richard M. Candee that accompanies the exhibit running at the Discover Portsmouth Center through August.2011