Sunday, June 19, 2011

Excerpt from "Hero or Coward? General Fitz John Porter"


Monument and Memory

Kimberly S. Alexander and Dane A. Morrison

New Hampshire is the State of my birth, and my daughter, Eva, desires to go and I wish to take her there, to Exeter my [very early?] school home and to Portsmouth my birth place.

Major General Fitz John Porter to General William Buel Franklin, c. 18 June 18941

In1894, retired Major General Fitz John Porter (1822-1901) traveled with his daughter, Eva, to revisit New England and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, places that recalled simpler times in “my boyhood home,” as he wrote to an old friend.2 The decision to return to the Portsmouth that he still called “home” may have been one vexed between memories both cherished and troubled. Perhaps the 72-year old Porter thought of it as the final leg of his life’s journey. His had been unusual: Dedicated to the highest standards of soldiering, stumbling on official censure, recommitted to defending his honor, and ending, ultimately, with exoneration and public accolades.3 On his journey to Portsmouth, amidst reaquaintances and reunions, his thoughts must have returned to the single defining moment of his life, in the year 1862, the year that saw his greatest victories and rapid downfall.

* * *

Long after the final battle had been won, Porter’s wife and staunchest support, Harriet, urged the General to agree to sit for the sculptor for the statue that would later grace Haven Park in Portsmouth. As she confided to sculptor, James Edward Kelly (1855–1933), “That it was she who continually urged Porter forward saying why shouldn’t you go out and show your face—you’ve done nothing wrong. And so she had him go everywhere with her.” Harriet was instrumental in securing and working with Kelly, a renowned artist of powerful Civil War monuments, who had designed the statue of General John Buford, dedicated at Gettysburg Battlefield in 1895. Kelly, who would become a fast friend and even serve as a pallbearer at Porter’s funeral, asked what would have happened to Porter had she not been by his side to which she remarked essentially, that he would have wasted away to a shell. She discussed his casual handsomeness as a young man, but that the “trouble” had ruined his health and she poignantly asked the sculptor to show him as youthful rather than as “the wreck” he had become. During the sittings, their repartee was playful. Harriet interrupted frequently, advising, “Fitz sit up straight,” advising the General to pose as though he were in the saddle, and asking Kelly to obscure his bald spot. Clearly, she had a vision of her husband that she would present to the public.

* * *

Kelly’s grand equestrian monument to Porter at Haven Park in Portsmouth, is a complex representation of this man and his world. The dedication on 1 July 1906, three years after the General’s death and 44 years to the day of his victory at Malvern Hill, was attended by veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic and of the Spanish American War and featured a parade and an oration from his friend and comrade, General Alexander Webb. The four-sided base incorporates a plaque and three panels that commemorate highlights of Porter’s career. Nowhere does the monument attest to the greatest battle he fought—his sixteen-year struggle for exoneration. This seems perplexing until we consider the complicated aftermath of the Civil War, in which, as David W. Blight observes, survivors sought a lens through which "contending memories clashed or intermingled" around "the tangled relationship between two profound ideas¾healing and justice. This “tangled relationship” unfolded even before the planning of the site: First, Portsmouth inhabitants were reluctant to accept the $30,000 gift to the city from Porter’s closest friend and Boston cousin, Richard Henry Eddy, to erect the monument, and then, even during construction, a vandal defaced granite slabs that were being prepared. In an essay on “Myth and Memory,” Schultz and Morrison suggest why Porter’s monument tugged so powerfully on bitter memories, observing, “place takes on a particular mnemonic resonance when associated with extraordinary human events, most often involving tragic, sometimes wasteful sacrifice. A place is remembered far more vividly for those who suffered or died in it than for those who lived in it, and the most memorable places are often those where, it seems, lives were squandered. Tragedy can transform a place into a shrine.” What further complicates the issue is Porter’s grand equestrian is its lack of connection between the place and the events—not surprisingly a common feature of New England’s Civil War monuments. Forty years after the war, Haven Park had come to commemorate the complicated constellation of victories and losses that survivors remembered from the War; for some, the unstated losses—what was left out of the monument, was the more important enshrinement.

Today, most visitors to Portsmouth walk by General Fitz John Porter without a second glance. Yet, it remains an astonishing testament to the memory of a war both distant and ever present in our national consciousness.

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