Author Interview--William Marvel (Radical Sacrifice) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with William Marvel about his new book Radical Sacrifice: The Rise and Ruin of Fitz John Porter, published by the University of North Carolina Press in March 2021.

Part 1

Let's turn to Manassas and the trial--how did Porter get himself into such hot water with John Pope that he eventually got court-martialed (which apparently, if I understood the arguments correctly, should have happened right away, not months later).

WM: First, yes—charges for a specific offense were supposed to be initiated as soon as possible or not at all. That was at least partly to prevent conniving accusers from saving up minor charges long enough to accumulate a seemingly significant case.

To be sarcastic about it (as Porter might have been), you could say that he got into hot water because he joined Pope’s army on the eve of a disastrous defeat for which Pope needed a scapegoat. In the simplest terms, that’s true, too, but Porter gave Pope ammunition for his charges with his own indiscreet correspondence. In July, in reply to a prodding letter about Pope from the name-dropping gossip who headed the U.S. Census Bureau, Porter disparaged Pope personally and professionally, and that functionary showed the letter to Secretary of State William Seward, who took it to the White House. Pope was still in Washington then, and saw it. He therefore knew that Porter thought poorly of him, and seemed to keep a secret list of Porter’s every digression from his orders, even if they fell within the discretion Porter should have been accorded as a corps commander. When the campaign ended in a retreat to the defenses of Washington, Pope went to the president, who apprised him of dispatches Porter had sent to Burnside showing disgust with Pope’s arrogance, with his obvious confusion about where the enemy was, and with his conflicting orders. That gave Pope additional evidence of what Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt later called Porter’s “animus” against Pope, and allowed him to create the impression that Porter’s contempt impelled him to deliberately disobey Pope’s orders so as to undermine the success of his campaign.

There were several supplementary allegations, but it was principally Porter’s failure to advance against the enemy on August 29 that Pope lit upon as his excuse for charges. Porter arrived at Dawkin’s Branch about noon, and thanks to Irvin McDowell he essentially waited all day in the same spot. McDowell stopped him from engaging the enemy at noon, when it might have done some good. Then, after a hasty conference, McDowell left him with the impression that he should wait until McDowell moved into position between him and the Union forces at Groveton. McDowell never did move into that gap, and never answered any of Porter’s increasingly urgent messages. When Pope’s order to attack the enemy’s flank and rear finally reached Porter that evening, Porter already knew that the enemy flanked him, rather than the other way around; under those circumstances it was too near dark to begin an attack, so he called it off. That was the excuse for court-martialing him, and relieving Pope of the blame for a botched campaign. Of course, blaming Porter for the disaster also relieved President Lincoln of the implied responsibility for having appointed Pope, and for having abandoned McClellan’s campaign in order to send his troops to be mishandled by Pope.

And what stood out with the trial was that it was difficult to decide who the worst of the bunch was. There was Pope seeking to deflect blame, McDowell, Stanton, and Holt. What was somewhat surprising was that Lincoln, as a lawyer, did not take a closer look at the verdict considering how botched the whole case was? Who do you see as the worst of the group bringing down Porter?

WM: There is no one in that gang who doesn’t seem worthy of scorn to me. Pope was interested in shedding opprobrium for the disaster, while Benny Roberts and Thomas C. H. Smith were abetting him for the professional patronage he could offer them. Edwin Stanton was serving the Radicals with whom he had aligned himself, trying to bury McClellan through Porter, and hoping to mitigate the increasing appearance of administration bumbling. The infallibly biased evidentiary rulings in the trial reveal that the court members, to a man, deserve far more discredit than history has apportioned them for participating without complaint in such a travesty. David Hunter, James A. Garfield, Benjamin Prentiss, and John Slough all harbored significant political bias; James Ricketts and Rufus King were personally interested, each having committed blunders at Second Bull Run that might be prosecuted if Porter were not found guilty; Silas Casey had a personal score to settle with Porter; Ethan Allen Hitchcock was an old fool whom Stanton had alternately bullied and curried into doing what he wanted. Stanton had worked personally on both Hitchcock and Napoleon Buford at his dinner table the night after the trial opened, and most court members probably had some tacit understanding that voting for conviction would win favor of one kind or another at the War Department.

The principal evil genius was Holt, however. Stanton, who knew him from the Buchanan cabinet, had brought him into the new position of judge advocate general on September 3, 1862, just as he got wind of a chance to court-martial Porter as a proxy victim in place of McClellan. It was probably with Stanton’s help that Holt recognized the value of the Burnside dispatches to show that Porter despised Pope before the battle, and to create the impression that he might have deliberately undermined Pope. But it was Holt, all by himself, who salvaged the court detail of generals who had been carefully chosen for their bias or malleability. Porter’s lawyer, Reverdy Johnson, came close to forcing Pope to admit that he had been the one to file the complaint, and under the Articles of War his position as commander of the army to which Porter belonged required that the president himself appoint the members of the court-martial. Under the pretense that the charges had been filed by Benny Roberts, an underling, the members could be appointed by the general in chief, and Henry Halleck was never a match for Stanton’s badgering; he would have acquiesced to almost any list Stanton handed him. Had Johnson succeeded in exposing Roberts as nothing but Pope’s agent, Holt and Stanton might have been forced to allow Lincoln to seat a new court that would almost certainly not have reflected the unanimous bias that Stanton had engineered. Holt, by the way, held onto the power of his post through most of the Grant administration, and he used it adroitly to stymie all Porter’s attempts at a rehearing.

But it’s Lincoln whose part is the most disappointing. He seemed prejudiced against Porter from the outset, believing all Pope’s accusations. Lincoln actually presented Pope with the Burnside dispatches that offered the court an excuse to credit malice aforethought, and he personally composed the first order for a court of inquiry. He also admitted, just as the trial began, that he considered Porter guilty. Then there are the extensive political advantages he would gain from Porter’s conviction, which would have dampened any enthusiasm he had for trying to find fault with the verdict—and with no appeal process for courts-martial, Lincoln was the last official in line with a duty to give the court record an objective review. As judge advocate general, Holt was supposed to review the case for fairness as well, but since he acted personally as judge advocate in the trial he was effectively reviewing his own performance. As always, he gave himself superlative and undeserved credit for justice and probity, and when the president asked him to provide the customarily balanced summary of the case Holt instead gave him a devastating prosecutorial argument. Lincoln failed to recognize that self-serving jaundice. He failed to note the court’s infuriating inconsistency in its rulings on evidence, or the absurd emphasis Holt put on Thomas Smith’s claim of having telepathically deduced that Porter was “a man having a crime on his mind.” It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Lincoln’s prejudice in the case, and his desperate need for the political relief the verdict brought him, robbed him of the incentive to start poring over a handwritten transcript more than 900 pages long. If the court had sentenced Porter to death, Lincoln might have dug deeper, but he was probably also influenced by his too-trusting belief that his war minister, his judge advocate general, and nine generals were acting honestly and impartially—and by his eagerness for some news that was flattering to his administration.

The only mitigating factor I can offer, for Lincoln, is that the transcript was so cumbersome, and the testimony complex and confusing. Holt may have provided him with the booklet Pope’s henchmen published with only the prosecution testimony, but there was no printed copy of the defense testimony.


This group of individuals who brought Porter down held on to their grudges in part to hide their failures, but they even got individuals like John Logan who was not part of the Army of the Potomac involved. Why Porter? There were dozens of failed officers, why do so many work so hard to keep Porter discredited, even with overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

WM: It’s a complicated case, as I was saying in defense of Lincoln. Even with the trial transcript condensed into a 215-page book, it took me quite a while to comprehend just how much perjury and imagination went into it to elicit a guilty verdict. Pope had his collaborator Smith draw maps with the Confederate positions falsified to comport with his tale, and some of those maps are in the O.R. Atlas, seeming to contradict Porter’s version of events. Only someone who was willing to invest long hours of close examination could ever realize how badly the facts had been misrepresented. U.S. Grant had to spend days on it, even after Porter provided him with a close comparison of all the distortions alongside the documentation that exposed them. The general public had neither the time nor the resources for such a close examination, and tended to take sides based on politics, particularly in this case. Among the fervently political, truth depended on partisan affiliation almost as much then as it seems to today. That was what brought Logan into it. As a consummate political opportunist, he used Porter as the Democratic punching bag that the trial was meant to make him, excoriating him on the Senate floor and in the National Tribune in order to win the soldier vote. Logan’s papers include five bound volumes of letters from veterans who praised him for skewering that vile traitor, and many of them offered their own dubious tales of having heard or seen this-or-that incriminating detail at Bull Run or elsewhere in Porter’s career. Every one of those letters was written at least two or three years after an army board had exonerated Porter at the end of a far more extensive review than the original trial.

This all sounds like a perfect conspiracy theory, so many people willfully destroying one person for their own benefit. As we were talking my mind went to the Dreyfus Affair as an example of an officer, in this case, a French one, being scapegoated based on his religion and a sham trial to hide the true identity of a spy working for the German government. How frequent are cases like Porter’s?

WM: That’s a difficult question to answer with any degree of confidence. Without investing a lot of time and effort studying each of the more controversial cases, it’s impossible to be certain whether charges were justified in any instance. After the years I spent working on Stanton, I’m afraid that unjust dismissals and false accusations were not uncommon. The three cases that I looked at closely all involved false charges and biased courts, or simply arbitrary imprisonment, and they all bore the mark of Stanton. His imprisonment of Charles Stone, without trial or even charges, was a heinous injustice that Stanton inflicted to cement his relationship with the Radicals. His vendetta against Porter arose from even more focused political and personal motives. The court-martial of Surgeon General William Hammond had its roots in Stanton’s desire to be rid of a perfectly competent and even visionary official he could not bend to his will. Hammond’s humiliation also was effected through false charges and false testimony. After the trial, Holt's office deftly exaggerated the charges on which he had been convicted in order to counteract the opprobrium that came Stanton’s way for persecuting Hammond. Holt was Stanton's department propagandist, you see, as well as his hatchet man.

Equally interesting, or disconcerting, is how many well-deserved court-martial convictions may have been overturned in the interests of political or personal favoritism. Holt’s recommendation for the dismissal of charges against Henry W. Benham is virtually unknown, for example, but is just as suspicious as his prosecution of Porter, his manipulation of Mary Surratt’s clemency recommendation, and his apparent solicitation of perjury in numerous postwar cases.


It is mindboggling to think of the amount of falsified information you had to wade through for this book. How much are people still using Pope's false narrative today?

WM: As recently as 1990 a pair of amateur historians tried to rehabilitate Pope with a biography that accepted most of his misrepresentations. They focused almost exclusively on the papers of Pope and his collaborators, missing all the judicial improprieties and contradictory testimony in the trial. A decade later, Pete Cozzens published a more realistic depiction of Pope’s capacity for self-delusion. Most serious historians have since come to recognize that the charges against Porter and his trial amounted to a political hit. It’s nevertheless often still argued that he deserved at least to be removed from command for his lack of confidence in Pope, as though a soldier has no right to private opinions about his superiors even when they are accurate and justified. The only argument I’ve not seen made, and one that has some merit, is that Porter’s indiscreet communications about Pope wrought harm by diminishing Pope’s confidence in Porter. Had Pope given more credit to Porter’s reports of Longstreet outflanking them, their army might have avoided such disaster, but that supposes Pope was at all capable of questioning his own fairy tale of Confederate retreat. I doubt that he was.

You illustrate so well that we not only deal with a fog of war but also smoke created afterward by participants for their personal gain. For students, either graduate students in a reading seminar or undergraduate students in a Civil War lecture course, what are a few lessons you would hope they take from your book?

1. While contemporary, primary sources are always preferable to recollections, all sources are suspect in some manner, and require individual scrutiny.

2. Don’t be afraid to challenge more than a century of accumulated opinion on any topic, because it can take that long for credible contradictory evidence to surface.

3. Be aware that modern political prejudices often influence the interpretation of historical events just as insidiously as politics influenced those same events at the time they happened.

You have published more than ten books already, dare I ask what the next project(s) is/are?

WM: To be exact, the Porter biography was my nineteenth book. I had invested seven or eight months and about 8000 miles of travel in a book on Northern opposition to the Lincoln administration when the most crucial manuscript repositories in the Northeast and Washington decided to shut down. I’ve therefore shifted at least momentarily to examining conditions in the Confederacy early in 1864, so I can conduct research in the “free states” of the South. Universities and historical societies there seem more courageous about taking calculated risks to continue their mission, and that allows me to keep pursuing mine.

I appreciated this interview about a groundbreaking work. But Mr. Marvel would do well to exercise a little of that empathy toward librarians and archivists that he wants historians to extend to Porter. Libraries and archives "decided to shut down" out of a sense of responsibility toward their staffs and patrons (and following CDC and local guidelines), despite the inconvenience it may have caused him. As a staff member of one such institution, I can only say his comments impugning our courage and judgment during this crisis are unfortunate.