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This Day (Antediluvian Edition)

August 8th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

On this day 150 years ago, Union general Fitz-John Porter dated a photograph of himself and his staff at Harrison’s Landing, on the James River, and, on the reverse side, signed it, “To Gen. Grindley with the compliments of Fitz John Porter.” According to The Photographic History of the Civil War, the image was actually taken a few weeks earlier, after the Battle of Gaines’s Mill: “Had it not been for General Philip St. George Cooke and his cavalry … Porter and his staff would not be enjoying the luxuries portrayed in the … photograph,” we are told. Except that Cooke’s famous charge was also a famous failure, and one that ended his career with the Army of the Potomac. (Cooke’s son-in-law, J. E. B. Stuart, got the last laugh on that one.)

Anyway, Porter is the one in the chair, but don’t ask me about General Grindley. One would assume he’s Colonel James Grindley, of Porter’s Fifth Corps, and yet according to Wikipedia, on this date he hadn’t even enlisted yet, let alone become a general! We do know, from Porter’s annotation, that the African American woman on the right is “Mrs. Fairfax, Chief Cook & Bottle Washer.” That employment description is interesting: after all, it’s the title of a number in the Broadway musical The Rink, which originally starred Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera. (Enjoy the audio of Rivera here.) More generally, however, “chief cook and bottle washer” is an idiom suggesting someone who does everything. It can be used sincerely, ironically, or just plain bitterly, depending on whether you are Chita Rivera or Fitz-John Porter.

And speaking of Porter, what’s really interesting about this photograph is that it shows the general just before his whole life and career really went south (no pun intended). This is just after the Seven Days’ Battles, you see, and Porter’s friend, General George B. McClellan, is on the outs and the hated General John Pope is on the rise. As Pope was taking charge and preparing for the inevitable Confederate offensive, there was plenty of grumbling in the ranks. Writes one historian:

If [General William B.] Franklin was a close friend of McCellan’s, Porter was a closer friend. McClellan closeted himself with Porter for advice and discussion more than he did with any other general. As Porter advanced up the Rappahannock, he sent a stream of telegraphs to his friend, Gen. Burnside, that contained some highly disparaging references to Gen. Pope and Pope’s capabilities. Unknown to Porter, these messages were automatically read by Halleck, Lincoln, and possibly Stanton. To make matters, worse, their contents were forwarded to Pope by someone unknown.

Oh, that does make matters worse! Never send a telegraph that you wouldn’t be comfortable seeing on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper, right? Anyway, it must have been awkward when Porter was forced to join Pope’s new Army of Virginia, and then it just got worse when Pope was crushed by Lee’s men at the Second Battle of Manassas at the end of August. Pope exacted his revenge, however: he blamed the loss on Porter and had him court-martialed for violating articles 9 and 52 of the Articles of War, to wit: disobeying a lawful command and misbehaving before the enemy. After an epic trial, Porter was convicted and left the army. After another investigation, Porter was exonerated in 1878, but four years later things still weren’t completely settled, with Ulysses S. Grant being moved to protest Porter’s innocence in the North American Review.

All of which is to say, the photograph above has an antediluvian feel to it, don’t you think?

PS: The blogger Dimitri Rotov recently wrote several fascinating posts (here, here, and here) on the art of giving good orders, one of those things historians forget to consider when judging the outcomes of Civil War battles. If that interests you, then check out the introduction to Fitz-John Porter, Scapegoat of Second Manassas by Donald R. Jermann. His discussion of the drawbacks of on-the-job training for whipper-snapper Civil War generals is excellent.

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