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blogbrainsmallSeacoast History Blog #120 
July 3, 2011

It took almost three days to write tomorrow’s feature on the Fitz-John Porter statue. It was a good use of my brief time here on earth. I started out knowing a little about Porter the Civil War general who was court-martialed in 1862 and spent the next 16 years trying to regain his reputation. I wasn’t sure why the guy’s statue was in HavenPark, but now I know. He was born in 1822 in one of the stately homes on Livermore Street that faces the park. What I didn’t know what that his father died and his mother moved on when he was only three. Porter spent summers there while a student at PhillipsExeterAcademy, but basically he had nothing to do with his hometown until he returned in 1894 as an old man. So except for distant family connections, the man on the horse in the park never really had much to do with Portsmouth. And Portsmouth, in turn, has never really had much to do with him. (Continued below) 

 

 

There is a lot about Porter and his court martial on the Web, so I wanted to write about his Portsmouth connection. Why do we have this elaborate larger-than-life sized bronze monument? Who sculpted it? Who paid for it?

This kind of research can take weeks because it requires plodding thru newspapers on microfilm. There is really no other way to dig up the details and I am not very good at that kind of research. My eyes don’t last long, and I simply don’t have the time – freelance rates being what they are -- to devote weeks, even days to a small town footnote to history.

Porter_News_Clippings

But in Portsmouth, more often than not, some ardent historian has already beaten a path through the bushes. This story was no exception. There had to be at least 50 clippings about Porter and his Portsmouth monument in the vertical file at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. Librarian Carolyn Marvin left the folder out for me and I fell into it like a kid jumps into a kiddie pool in July. Historian Ray Brighton had written about the monument in the 1990s when the city was debating whether to spend a bundle to clean and repair the thing.

Other researchers had been there too. Dick Adams did a lecture on Porter a decade ago. Historian Richard Winslow, who is a whiz with the microfilm machine, had clearly done a lot of digging. I recognize his handwriting everywhere I go in the archives as he scribbles the date on Xerox copies and printouts of newspaper clippings. The whole story was there, laid out for me like a red carpet. Actually it was laid out more like a jigsaw puzzle of a red carpet. I still had to assemble the pieces.

Six hours later I knew a lot about the Fitz-John Porter Memorial. Two days of writing and rewriting, and I had the story done. It ran to 2,000 words, and I could have doubled that. I was fascinated by the way the petty politics in Portsmouth seemed to mirror the politics Porter himself suffered through with his court martial appeal. And as we so often find when digging deep into local history – the politics then is haunting similar to the politics now. I spent three years on the city’s Old Statehouse Committee – a subcommittee that met off and on for decades without really accomplishing a thing.

I did the best I could in the brief time allotted to make the story as interesting as possible. How interesting, you ask, can a story about the building of a Civil War monument really be? Very, I hope, because in the mustard seed we see a microcosm of our own lives and our own times. Those are the stories I like best – the ones where history repeats itself and we discover how similar we are to our ancestors. And I especially like the ones where hard-working historians have been inside the maze before me. I love fallowing the breadcrumbs they left behind and discovering the details for myself.

So thanks Ray and Richard and everyone who collected all those clippings years ago. And I say “you’re welcome” to the history writer that comes along next in the next generation and picks up where I left off.

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© 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved

 

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