Mini-Review: Hennessy on Porter, in “Corps Commanders in Blue”

22 10 2014

517bM0P30PL._SL500_AA300_As some of you know, Bull Runnings has this Facebook Page on which I post a lot of stuff that I’ve decided not to put up here. Last night I posted a review – of sorts – of John Hennessy’s essay on Fitz John Porter, Conservatism’s Dying Ember, in Corps Commanders in Blue, a collection of essays edited by Ethan Rafuse. I’ve decided to post it here. I may, or may not, post mini-reviews of other essays in the book if it strikes me to do so. And I may, or may not, post them here, on the Facebook page, or both. So, if you want to be sure to see them, I suggest both subscribing to the blog and following the Facebook page.

I just finished John J. Hennessy’s essay on Fitz John Porter. I recommend it to all. As Tom Clemens said, it is fair and balanced. I want to comment on a few passages of note:

1 – Regarding Lincoln’s decision to hold back from the AotP McDowell’s corps: “It was, perhaps, the most cautious strategic decision of the war, establishing Lincoln as a military thinker whose strategic conservatism far exceeded McClellan’s.” Yes! Hennessy also included Lincoln’s later admission of his mistake. I’ll add that Irvin McDowell (who was not much of a tactician, but a pretty shrewd big picture guy) also knew at the time that AL was playing into the rebels’ hands.

2 – Regarding Porter’s (via McClellan’s) policies in Virginia and whether or not they dovetailed with those of the administration: “To some eyes, he [McClellan] had not been aggressive enough with respect to slavery and too kind to Southern civilians, but he had in fact hewed closely to standing policy.” Again, YES!!! I wish this had been further explored, because there was a lot of “Don’t do what I say, do what I mean” coming from the admin in those days. However, that perhaps would have required a bit more exposition than the essay format allows.

3 – “In Porter’s eyes an immobile McDowell symbolized the perfidy of the nation’s leaders.” While Hennessy doesn’t limit the evidence that Porter interpreted as indicative of perfidy, he left out the issue of the closing of northern recruiting offices. But again, it’s a limited essay, and I can’t think of anything that should have been jettisoned in favor of this tidbit.

4 – “The message [sent by Porter’s relief and dismissal] was clear: the careers of men who mixed their political views and official duties too freely would not thrive.” I think this perhaps should have been worded differently – the message was clear that those who mixed CONTRARY political views and official duties too freely would not thrive. I don’t think there was an abolitionist in the army who felt constricted by Porter’s fate.

These are all minor in the grand scheme of things. Mr. Hennessy did a great job with this essay. I’d really like to see him expand on it, and hope he intends to do so.


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7 responses

22 10 2014
Ted Savas

You didn’t show up last night, so you didn’t get the gig. Sorry. Best Regards,

Theodore P. Savas Managing Director, Savas Beatie LLC 989 Governor Drive, Suite 102 El Dorado Hills, CA 95762 916-941-6896 (phone) / 916-941-6895 (fax) http://www.savasbeatie.com (website) http://www.savasbeatie.blogspot.com (blog)

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22 10 2014
Harry Smeltzer

Damn. All that work on Ace of Spades for nothing.

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22 10 2014
John Foskett

Harry: Thanks for this. I’m supposed to be receiving the book this week and look forward to it – the essays are by an “all star roster”. I do think there’s an aspect of Porter’s cashiering which gets lost given that the basis was his conduct at 2BR. His actions/inactions there were obviously correct. Equally obviously, the court martial was pursued vigorously by Pope because he needed scapegoats. That all said, I’ve always taken the “no harm no foul” viewpoint. Some of Porter’s communications before 2BR (in particular those with Manton Marble) have always struck me as borderline infringements of the Articles of War then in effect as they pertain to the President’s authority. Porter, frankly, was a military officer who should have shut his pie hole on political matters. So, if the lesson of his cashiering was that soldiers should confine themselves to military matters and following orders, it was the right lesson – even if the facts of the specific case were bad. Context, of course, is everything and in the time frame after 2BR but before his trial the infamous Key matter surfaced. Porter, IMHO, merited his role as the “example” even if – again – the facts of the specific case were decided incorrectly.

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22 10 2014
Harry Smeltzer

You’ll be happy to know that Hennessy’s essay with regards to the points you make is like Prego spaghetti sauce – “It’s in there!”

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22 10 2014
John Foskett

Excellent news. Another “so what” element for me is the decision regarding whether McDowell should be sent to the Peninsula or retained to “defend” D.C. There are valid arguments that the Administration overreacted to the threat from the Valley (although see, Early, J. in July, 1864) and should have dispatched McDowell to McClellan. But what would have changed? McClellan persisted in the fantasy that the ANV numbered in the vicinity of 200,000. He also deflated his own “available” numbers (ultimately to the fraudulent assertion in his B&L article that he had a mere 75,000 during the Seven Days). In other words, even if he added McDowell’s 30,000 or so, his disadvantage would have simply gone from 1:2 (at best) to 1.3:2 (again, at best). Even a Grant would have thought long and hard about taking the offensive with those odds. McClellan? IMHO, he would simply have moved on to asking for a transfer of Grant’s and/or Buell’s forces in Tennessee.

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22 10 2014
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks John. The “what difference does it make” argument holds no water with me. I’ve heard it a million times and the “he just would have” line of thought assumes the validity of the thinker’s underlying psychological assumptions. But disagreement is what makes the world go around.

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22 10 2014
John Foskett

Harry: I definitely hear you and that’s most often the best approach because of the twists and turns one can take playing the hypotheticals out too far. I draw the line with Mac because he was such a prevaricator on this issue and I believe to a moral certainty that the McClellan we’ve come to know and love from his own words – to the Administration, to Ellen, and to others – would never have pulled a “Grant” without getting much more than McDowell. Heck, we have him sitting at Antietam staring all of September 18 at an opponent who had suffered losses as egregious as his own and who had started from a strong numerical disadvantage. But if I’m honest I have to admit – I really just don’t like the guy. :)

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