Monday, May 30, 2011

The Field Glasses and the "Yankee" Balloon

General Fitz John Porter's Field Glasses and the "Yankee" Balloon Episode

In 1862, as part of a new Union strategy to use gas-filled balloons both for surveillance and possible battle, it is General Porter who first scrambles into the basket of a gas-filled balloon, invented by New Hampshire native, Thaddeus Lowe. Porter made the first aerial drawings of Confederate camps at Yorktown using these field glasses. He made use of the surveying and drafting skills he learned at West Point. Note that the field glasses are well used, dented and bent, no doubt due to incidents such as the one on 2 April 1862, which are discussed below. The glasses were put on deposit at Manassas Battlefield by Porter’s daughter Eva in 1947. ( Courtesy of Manassas Battlefield National Park.)

Avidly supported by President Lincoln, who was intrigued by using balloons to spy on the enemy, the balloon was an important – though short-lived--vehicle for reconnaissance for the Union Army. The Union Army Balloon Corps was created, operated by the New Hampshire born aeronaut and balloonist, Thaddeus S.C. Lowe.

General Porter immediately recognized the benefits of balloon surveillance. At 7 am on April 12, 1862, the air of the Union camp just outside of Yorktown was tense and filled with cries of, “The balloon is loose!” In the distance, a hot air balloon floated out over the encampment and toward Yorktown, where the Confederates began firing at it. Porter, who wanted a better look at the enemy and their position, was stuck inside the basket, helpless and unarmed as he was fired upon. Although he began throwing the sand bags overboard, the ropes attached to the gas valve were tied up, about six feet above the basket and he could not control them. Lowe (who was fortunately at the scene) began shouting instructions to Porter. “Open the valve! Climb the netting and pull the valve rope!” The men below took up the call as well. Soon they saw Porter descending from above them. Having reached the rope, Porter opened the valve too much. Acting quickly, he saw a tree and took his chances, jumping into the branches, hanging haplessly tangled in the balloon, the gas filling his lungs. Even before he was safely on the ground, Porter, with his field glasses in hand, began recounting what he had learned of the enemy camp and positions. So well-known was this escapade that it is recounted on the Haven Park equestrian monument.

With scant training, the “Yankee Balloon” episode reveals much about Porter- clever, skilled, fearless with perhaps a touch of recklessness thrown in. It also reveals Porter’s calm and cool demeanor even under direct fire in an air balloon struggling to stay out of enemy terrain with a wind shift. Valor, heroism, courage under fire.

Robert Sneden, a mapmaker for the Union Army, recalled the danger of the incident:

Porter, fearing that he would be carried beyond to the James River unless he could descend, became desperate, climbed out of the car and gave the valve line a hard jerk, which opened the valve wide. It also made him lose his grip on the ropes and he fell into the basket, one half of his body hanging over the side with the balloon 2,000 feet above the earth.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

FJP - Court-Martial Quotes

Conflicting Quotes on the Court-Martial of General Fitz John Porter

"...[Porter] suffered a judgment of infamy for the single offense of having been one of the wisest, noblest, and bravest of our Army's commanders." Alexander McClure

“I do not hesitate to say that, if he had discharged his duty as become a soldier under the circumstances, and had made a vigorous attack on the enemy, as he was expected and directed to do, at any time up to 8 o’clock that night, we should have utterly crushed or captured the larger portion of Jackson’s force before he could have been by any possibility sufficiently reinforced to have made an effective resistance.” General John Pope

“Pope will probably try to blame Porter, and lay the blame of the whole matter on him, on the ground of disobedience of orders. General Porter disobeyed no orders...” Stephen M. Weld, Aide de Camp

“Fitz John Porter has fought more battles, won more victories, and possesses more brains and patriotism, than every man of the court which tried him, and the hounds who assailed him.” The Laconia Democrat, 13 February 1863

“When he came back from Washington, he wanted to shrink away and hide himself. But I said to him, ‘What have you done? Why should you hide? Why don’t you go out and show yourself? Show that you are not afraid – that you are not conscious of having done anything.’ And I used to drag him out.” Mrs. Harriet Cook Porter

Images shown: Maps of 2nd Manassass showing troop locations (assumed) with actual view showing Porter and overwhelming Confederate presence; Porter in full military dress ca. July 1862, just 6 weeks prior to 2nd Manassas, Porter's court-martial.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Dr. Brent Glass, Director, National Museum of American History

Mark your calendars! Dr. Brent Glass, Director of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institute, will speak on the Civil War as part of the General Fitz John Porter: Hero or Coward? lecture series. Join us on Sunday 23 October 2011, 2:00, Strawbery Banke Museum,Tyco Visitor Center.

Further details to follow.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

For Credit Course "New England in the Civil War"

Experience the Past!

HST 410/HST 709 Institute in Local History
New England in the Civil War
11-15 July 2010 8:30-4:30

Dr. Kimberly Alexander, Chief Curator, Strawbery Banke Museum
Dr. Dane Morrison, Professor of Early American History

What was New England’s contribution to the Civil War? What was the experience like for those who fought and those who remained at home? How did the great and the ordinary think and write about their experiences of victory and loss?

In this one-week Institute held at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, NH., we will search for the answers to these questions and more on the site of one of the country’s most respected outdoor history museums. Entering the worlds of soldiers and families, abolitionists and draft dodgers, widows and orphans, we will use Strawbery Banke Museum as text and site. The course will be of particular interest to students in Public History, Education, American and Museum Studies, and Theater, as we explore New England’s Civil War on a 10-acre site comprised of 35 historic houses, replete with gardens, archaeological discoveries, artisans and role-players—along the banks of the Piscataqua River. Through a medley of lectures, discussions, and walking tours, we will go behind the scenes and engage the best practices of museum professionals in art, architecture, education, gardening, and more.

For information on course credit for graduate and undergraduate students, contact or (under "education").

President Abraham Lincoln on FJP Court Martial

JANUARY 21, 1863.

"The foregoing proceedings, findings, and sentence in the foregoing case of Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter are approved and confirmed, and it ordered that the said Fitz John Porter be, and he hereby is, cashiered and dismissed from the service of the United States as a major-general of volunteers, and as colonel and brevet brigadier-general in the regular service of the United States, and forever disqualified from holding any office of trust or profit under the Government of the United States."


General Ellis Spear recalls Civil War experiences

General Ellis Spear

(write up, courtesy of the JLC CWRT)
A native of Warren , Maine a graduate of Bowdoin College , Class of 1858, General Spear commanded the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment longer than any other officer.

In 1862, he was mustered in as captain of Co. G, commanding more than two dozen of his own recruits, and served at the head of that company until promoted after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Gen’l Spear served in all of the engagements of that regiment from Antietam to Appomattox and mustered out of service in 1865 with the rank of Brevet Brigadier General.

Now the Solicitor of Patents for the government in Washington , D.C. , the general has consented to discuss incidents and anecdotes of his distinguished military career during the Great Rebellion of 1861-1865, now 25 years past.

Following General Spear’s appearance, historian Tom Desjardin will answer questions regarding the 20th Maine Regiment and the Civil War in our country.

Tom Desjardin is a historian whose work focuses on the history of Maine and on the Civil War. He is an 11th generation Maine native and holds a Ph.D. from U Maine. He is a leading expert on the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment and its famous commander Joshua Chamberlain. Tom has been particularly fascinated with Spear’s story since meeting his grandson Abbott Spear in the early 1990s and learning about General Spear’s dry wit and dark, tragic perspective on the Civil War. By appearing as Spear around 1890, Tom will give a first-person perspective on the Civil War and actions of the 20th Maine , including the postwar relationships of the veterans and their differing ways of trying to explain their experiences in combat as well as life in camp during the lulls between battles.

Tom has written four books, appeared in a number of television documentaries, and served as the historical advisor to actor Jeff Daniels in his role as Chamberlain in the movie Gettysburg . He has taught history at Bowdoin College and the University of Maine at Augusta and lived and worked for six years at Gettysburg . He is currently the historian for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands.

For more info, please go to

For those interested, some members will be dining at Telly's prior to the meeting. To dine with us, please RSVP by Thursday at 6:30 to ensure room at the table. Those who come unannounced make for a crowded dining experience.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Joshua Chamberlain on FJP

Joshua Chamberlain:

"I would tender any honor in my power to the memory of General Porter, whom I intimately knew, and hold as a splendid type of the soldier, the patriot, the Christian, and the man."

FJP response to being a "traitor" to his country

“Traitor to my country! When did treason so endeavor to maintain the authority of the Government? Traitor to my country! When did treason to labor and peril life to rescue it from destruction? Traitor to my country! Indifferent to the honor of its flag! . . . If the charge had not assumed the solemn form that has been given to it, it would be received everywhere where my whole conduct is known, as ludicrous, false, or the creation of a morbid or distempered brain.”

Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail Symposium

“The Civil War: Race and Representation in New England”

Saturday, May 14, 2011 9 AM – 2 PM
Discover Portsmouth Center, 10 Middle St.

Elizabethada Wright Artist Daniel Minter David H. Watters
Rivier College, Nashua NH Portland, Maine University of NH

Is there a Civil War monument in your town?
Does it make a reference to slaves or abolition?

Liz Wright, Daniel Minter and David Watters will lead a discussion
of attitudes of white Yankees toward slavery and race after the war.

7th Annual Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail Symposium

Co-Sponsored by UNH Diversity Initiatives and Seacoast African American Cultural Center

Free admission. Pre-register for lunch $15 603-431-2768“the-civil-war-race-and-representation-in-new-england”/