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The Last Battle of Fitz-John Porter
Fitz-John_Porter_Monument_small

 

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.”

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Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is editor of the popular history Web site SeacoastNH.com 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

 

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