Radical Sacrifice

The Rise and Ruin of Fitz John Porter

By William Marvel

496 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 16 halftones, 7 maps, appends., notes, bibl., index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-6185-8
    Published: March 2021
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-6186-5
    Published: February 2021
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5782-8
    Published: February 2021

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Born into a distinguished military family, Fitz John Porter (1822-1901) was educated at West Point and breveted for bravery in the war with Mexico. Already a well-respected officer at the outset of the Civil War, as a general in the Union army he became a favorite of George B. McClellan, who chose him to command the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Porter and his troops fought heroically and well at Gaines's Mill and Malvern Hill. His devotion to the Union cause seemed unquestionable until fellow Union generals John Pope and Irvin McDowell blamed him for their own battlefield failures at Second Bull Run. As a confidant of the Democrat and limited-war proponent McClellan, Porter found himself targeted by Radical Republicans intent on turning the conflict to the cause of emancipation. He made the perfect scapegoat, and a court-martial packed with compliant officers dismissed him for disobedience of orders and misconduct before the enemy. Porter tenaciously pursued vindication after the war, and in 1879 an army commission finally reviewed his case, completely exonerating him. Obstinately partisan resistance from old Republican enemies still denied him even nominal reinstatement for six more years.

This revealing new biography by William Marvel cuts through received wisdom to show Fitz John Porter as he was: a respected commander whose distinguished career was ruined by political machinations within Lincoln's administration. Marvel lifts the cloud that shadowed Porter over the last four decades of his life, exposing the spiteful Radical Republicans who refused to restore his rank long after his exoneration and never restored his benefits. Reexamining the relevant primary evidence from the full arc of Porter's life and career, Marvel offers significant insights into the intersections of politics, war, and memory.

About the Author

Award-winning historian William Marvel is the author of many books about the American Civil War, including Lincoln's Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton and, most recently, Lincoln's Mercenaries: Economic Motivation among Union Soldiers during the Civil War.
For more information about William Marvel, visit the Author Page.


“No reader who picks up this book will want to put it down without finishing it. Although other authors have written about the case in the past, William Marvel has finally done justice for Fitz John Porter.”—The Journal of America's Military Past

“Thorough but eminently readable. . . . [A] great read for anyone who is a student of clear, well researched history.”—Civil War Book Review

“[Marvel’s] handling of Porter’s Civil War career reminds us of just how interwoven political considerations, military operations, and matters of personalities and interpersonal friction were during the conflict."—North Carolina Historical Review

“Marvel’s well-researched biography . . . serves as a sobering reminder of the political and personal rivalries that often marred the Union war effort from 1861 to 1865. “—New Mexico Historical Review

"Illuminating, insightful, and persuasive; the amount of detail is truly impressive, both in the descriptions of military operations and in the chronicling of the tortured path Porter had to travel to redemption."--Ethan S. Rafuse, author of Manassas: A Battlefield Guide and editor of Corps Commanders in Blue: Union Major Generals in the Civil War

"William Marvel’s wonderfully crafted biography of Fitz John Porter presents a spirited tale of intrigue, prejudice, deception, and politics. Marvel’s close and skeptical reading of the sources along with a richly detailed account of the whole Porter controversy based on careful and meticulous research will please the most demanding students of Civil War history. This beautifully written and at times moving story deserves a wide readership."--George C. Rable, author of Damn Yankees! Demonization and Defiance in the Confederate South