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The Last Battle of Fitz-John Porter


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.


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Wednesday, January 17, 2018 
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