March 31, 2008

The Celebrated Case of Fitz John Porter

My recently-completed book on the life of Orlando Poe necessitated some deep research into the Washington wartime machinations of the Radical Republicans, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, and all the other various high-level politics of that era. Seeing what has transpired over the past five years has convinced me yet again that history tends to repeat itself, especially when the lines between political and military become blurred. Perhaps there really is no line to begin with….

All of which has stirred an interest in learning more about the ordeal of General Fitz John Porter, a George McClellan favorite who was made the scapegoat by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and the Radicals for the Union failure at Second Bull Run. Porter was arrested in November 1862, formally charged with misconduct during that battle, found guilty by a tribunal that was practically hand-picked by Stanton and then cashiered from the army in January 1863. Porter spent virtually the rest of his life attempting to restore his reputation and rank. The Celebrated Case of Fitz John Porter: An American Dreyfus Affair by author Otto Eisenschiml tells the story of Porter’s alleged misdeeds at Second Manassas, his subsequent court martial and conviction, and then the years spent trying to restore his name. The “Dreyfus Affair” aspect refers to the case of Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer who was wrongly imprisoned in the 1890’s for treason.

Published by the Bobbs-Merril Company in 1950, it was the first book-length look into this sorry chapter of American military jurisprudence written by a non-participant. Almost seventy years earlier, General Jacob D. Cox published The Second Battle of Bull Run, As Connected With the Fitz-John Porter Case, (Cincinnati: P. G. Thomson, 1882), which was an anti-Porter paper Cox had read before a society of ex-army and navy officers on February 28, 1882. Eisenschiml’s book however, is far more sympathetic to Porter than Cox’s earlier polemic. Scholar Allen Nevins described it as "a lightly documented, strongly argued, but on the whole convincing brief on behalf of Porter." David Eicher in his Civil War in Books: An Analytical Bibliography tends to agree with Nevins, pointing out that the narrative depends heavily on courtroom testimony, much of which was perjured or hearsay. He also deftly points out that Porter’s case was one of the more interesting postwar battles that emerged unrelated to the creation of Lost Cause folklore.

The book itself is not uncommon in the first edition. As this page shows, there are currently over 40 copies available for sale just on American Book Exchange, a number of which are signed by the author. Nor is it a particularly well-made title, the paper being easily susceptible to browning which was typical of books published during the WWII-era. Nevertheless, as collectors know, the three keys to determining a book’s collectability are “condition, condition, and condition.” As a closer examination of the search shows, finding both the book and dust jacket in fine shape can be difficult.

I’ve noticed that there are also a couple of recent and forthcoming books on this topic. Judging by the titles, they appear to be as sympathetic to Porter as was Eisenschiml’s book from a half-century earlier. In 2003 we saw Injustice on Trial: Second Bull Run, General Fitz John Porter's Court Martial, and the Schofield Board Investigation that Restored His Good Name by Curt Anders. Later this year, McFarland will publish Fitz-John Porter, Scapegoat of Second Manassas: The Rise, Fall and Rise of the General Accused of Disobedience by Donald R. Jermann.

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