by Richard B. Irwin, Lieutenant-Colonel and Assistant Adjutant-General, U. S. V.
Without going into the intricacies of allegation, evidence, and argument on one side or the other of this many-sided controversy, some account of the proceedings and conclusions of the military tribunals appointed for its investigation seems necessary.
These tribunals were four in number: First, a Court of Inquiry, ordered by the President
September 5th, 1862, and which met and was finally dissolved on the 15th, without taking any action; second, the Military Commission, convened November 17th, 1862; third, the Court
-martial, appointed November 25th, which sentenced General Porter
to be cashiered; fourth, the Board of Officers, appointed by President Hayes
, April 12th, 1878, and upon whose report, reversing the findings of the court-martial, General Porter
was finally reinstated in the service.
In his report of September 3d, 1862, General Pope
made certain representations unfavorable to Generals Porter
, and Griffin
On the 5th, by the same order that relieved General Pope
from command, the President
directed that Generals Porter
, and Griffin
“be relieved from their respective commands until the charges against them can be investigated by a court of inquiry.”
This order appears to have been suspended the next day at General McClellan
's request, and was never executed, all three of the generals named remaining on duty; but on the 5th of November, by the same order that removed General McClellan
from command of the Army of the Potomac, the President
again directed that General Porter
be relieved from command of the Fifth Corps; and this order, issued by Halleck
on the 10th, was put in force on the 12th.
The Court of Inquiry, appointed on the 5th of September, was ordered to inquire into the charges preferred by General Pope
against Generals Franklin
, and Griffin
The detail consisted of Major-General George Cadwalader
, Brigadier-Generals Silas Casey
and J. K. F. Mansfield
, with Colonel Joseph Holt
, and this commission met on the 6th and 8th, adjourned and was dissolved without action, General Mansfield
being ordered into the field on the day last named, and Generals Franklin
, and Griffin
being already there.
On the 17th of November a military commission was appointed by the General-in-Chief
to examine and report on charges preferred against General Porter
by General Pope
A military commission is a tribunal constituted to try civil cases when the functions of the ordinary courts of law are suspended by the state of war. Its authority rests entirely upon the supreme will of the commander.
Its jurisdiction is wholly outside the articles of war by which the army itself is exclusively governed.
When the soldier is arraigned before such a commission, it is for offenses for which, in time of peace, he would be tried by the civil authorities.
The proceeding first contemplated would therefore, at first sight, appear to have been of a character unusual in armies and altogether different from that afterward pursued; however, the distinction was not always strictly regarded during this war, purely military cases being more than once brought before a commission, sitting really as a court of inquiry, as in the Harper's Ferry
case, and in the investigation as to “the operations of the army under the command of Major-General D. C. Buell
, in Kentucky
,” and punishment even inflicted, as in the former, without charges, or arraignment, and without other trial.
No charges preferred against General Porter
by General Pope
have been found, save in his official reports of September 3d, 1862, and January 27th, 1863; and General Pope
testified before the court-martial
that he had in fact preferred none.
In his letter to General Halleck
of September 30th, 1862, General Pope
speaks of “having laid before the Government
the conduct of McClellan
, and Griffin
,” and of being “not disposed to push the matter farther unless the silence of the Government
. . . and the restoration of these officers without trial to their commands, coupled with my banishment to a distant and unimportant department, render it necessary as an act of justice to myself.”
In his reply, October 10th, Halleck
says: “Again you complain that Porter
have not been tried on your charges against them.
You know that a court was ordered for their trial and that it was suspended because all officers were required in the field.
A new court has been ordered, and they are to be tried and the grounds of your charges to be fully investigated.”
On November 25th, 1862, the military commission, having simply met and adjourned, was dissolved and the court-martial appointed.
was now placed in arrest.
As finally constituted the court consisted of Major-Generals David Hunter
and E. A. Hitchcock
, and Brigadier-Generals Rufus King
, B. M. Prentiss
, James B. Ricketts
, Silas Casey
, James A. Garfield
, N. B. Buford
, and J. P. Slough
, with Colonel Joseph Holt
of the Army, as Judge-Advocate
The charges exhibited to the court were found to have been preferred by Brigadier-General Benjamin S. Roberts
on General Pope
's staff at the time of the occurrences.
The first charge, laid under the ninth article of war, alleged five instances of “disobedience of orders” ; the second charge, laid under the fifty-second article of war, contained four allegations covering two acts of misbehavior in the presence of the enemy on the 29th and 30th.
The court found the accused guilty of having disobeyed three of General Pope
's orders that of August 27th, to march on Bristoe
at 1 A. M.; the “joint order” on the morning of the 29th, to “move toward Gainesville
” ; and the order dated 4:30 that afternoon, “to push forward into action at once on the enemy's right flank” ; guilty, also, of having “shamefully disobeyed” the latter order, and of having retreated without any attempt to engage the enemy; but not guilty of having permitted Griffin
's and Piatt
's brigades to leave the battle-field and go to Centreville
The charge of having feebly attacked the enemy on the 30th was withdrawn.
In substance the charges on which Porter
was convicted were two,--that he disobeyed General Pope
's order to march at 1 A. M. on the 28th, and that, in disobedience of orders, he failed to attack, but retreated, on the 29th.
Upon the former we shall not dwell, since even upon the first trial it was shown that Porter
delayed only two hours, on account of the darkness of the night, that he marched at 3, that nothing turned upon his delay, that McDowell
, and Reno
, with less distance to cover, under orders substantially similar, were similarly delayed.
The vital point remains whether Porter
did or did not disobey his orders and fail in his duty by not attacking on the 29th, and by retreating.
The sentence of the court-martial delivered on the 10th of January, 1863, was that General Porter
“be cashiered and be forever disqualified from holding any office of trust or profit under the Government
of the United States
On the 21st of January this sentence was approved by President Lincoln
During the next fifteen years General Porter
continually applied for a rehearing, in the light of evidence newly discovered or not available at the time of his trial.
On the 12th of April, 1878, President Hayes
appointed a board of officers, consisting of Major-General John M. Schofield
, Brigadier-General Alfred H. Terry
, and Colonel George W. Getty
, to examine the new evidence in connection with the old.
The new evidence consisted largely of the testimony and the official reports of the Confederate
officers serving in the Army of Northern Virginia at the second battle of Bull Run
, supplemented by new and accurate maps.of the field of battle.
None of this information, from the nature of the case, was, or could have been, before the courtmartial.
By it, if established, an entirely new light was thrown upon the circumstances as they existed in Porter
's front on the 29th of August.
's orders of the 29th, which Porter
was charged with disobeying, were as follows, the first, known as the “joint order,” having reached him about or shortly after noon:
Generals McDowell and Porter: You will please move forward with your joint commands toward Gainesville.
I sent General Porter written orders to that effect an hour and a half ago. Heintzelman, Sigel, and Reno are moving on the Warrenton turnpike, and must now be not far from Gainesville.1 I desire that as soon as communication is established between this force and your own, the whole command shall halt.
It may be necessary to fall back behind Bull Run at Centreville to-night.
I presume it will be so, on account of our supplies.
If any considerable advantages are to be gained by departing from this order it will not be strictly carried out. One thing must be had in view, that the troops must occupy a position from which they can reach Bull Run to-night or by morning.
The indications are that the whole force of the enemy is moving in this direction at a pace that will bring them here by tomorrow night or the next day.
almost immediately withdrew King
's division, marched it round in the rear by the Sudley Springs
road, did not connect or again communicate with Porter
during the day, and only brought King
's division into action, on the right, at 6:15 P. M.
's right was not in connection or communication with Reynolds
, who held the left of the main line.
Between them was a very wide gap, hidden
by a wood through which Generals McDowell
were unable to pass on horseback, and in which messengers sent by Porter
to communicate with McDowell
and others were captured by the enemy.
The second order did not reach General Porter
till 6:30 P. M., and before the dispositions immediately ordered to execute it could be completed, darkness interposed.
Both orders are based upon the supposition that the enemy was Jackson
; that Longstreet
was not there, and would not arrive till the night of the 30th or the 31st, and that Jackson
was to be attacked in front and flank or rear and crushed before Longstreet
came upon the rear of Porter
's troops near Bethlehem Church he had just received Buford
's dispatch of 9:30 A. M. forwarded by Ricketts
at 11:30 A. M.2
This told of Longstreet
's passage through Gainesville
before 9: 30; it reached McDowell
after 11:30. When McDowell
he found him at the head of his troops, advancing; therefore, when Porter
arrived on the crest of the hills which descend to Dawkin's Branch
, his advance encountered Longstreet
's, already in occupation of the opposite slope.
The board of officers say in their report:
General Porter's-conduct was adjudged [by the court-martial] upon the assumption that not more than one division under Longstreet had arrived on the field, and that Porter had no considerable force in his front.
The fact is that Longstreet, with four divisions of 25,0003 men, was there on the field before Porter arrived with his two divisions of 9000 men; that the Confederate general-in-chief was there in person at least two or three hours before the commander of the Army of Virginia himself arrived on the field, and that Porter with his two divisions saved the Army of Virginia that day from the disaster naturally due to the enemy's earlier preparations for battle.
If the 4: 30 order had been promptly delivered a very grave responsibility would have devolved upon General Porter.
The order was based upon conditions which were essentially erroneous and upon expectations which could not possibly be realized ...
What General Porter actually did do . . . now seems to have been only the simple necessary action which an intelligent soldier had no choice but to take.
It is not possible that any court-martial could have condemned such conduct if it had been correctly understood.
On the contrary, that conduct was obedient, subordinate, faithful, and judicious.
It saved the Union army from disaster on the 29th of August.
The board accordingly recommended to President Hayes
to set aside the findings and sentence of the court-martial and to restore Porter
to his rank in the service from the date of his dismissal.
In the absence of legislation, President Hayes
considered himself as without power to act, and on the 5th of June, 1879, he submitted the proceedings and conclusions of the board for the action of Congress.
On the 4th of May, 1882, President Arthur
, by letters patent, remitted so much of the sentence of the court as had not been fully executed, and thus relieved General Porter
from the continuing disqualification to hold office.
On the 1st of July, 1886, President Cleveland
approved an act “for the relief of Fitz John
” which had been passed in the House of Representatives on the 18th of February by a vote of 171 to 113, and in the Senate on the 25th of June by a vote of 30 to 17.
In accordance with the provisions of this act, on the 5th of August Porter
was once more commissioned as colonel of infantry in the army of the United States, to rank from May 14th, 1861, but without back pay; and on August 7th he was placed on the retired list.