On a cold February day in Washington, twenty years after Major General Fitz John Porter had been convicted and sentenced for treason, the House of Representatives considered a Bill, Number S-1844. The Bill was for the relief of General Porter, a man who, until 1863, had been a Civil War major general, as high as a man could go, at that time, in the United States army. The Bill, if it passed, would be an official exoneration of the charges, which had been leveled at Porter by his superior officer, Major General John Pope, the man who commanded the troops at the Battle of Second Manassas in August 1862.
That battle was an embarrassing and a monumental defeat for the Union army and the nation. Pope blamed one man for the defeat, Major General Fitz John Porter. A court martial was completed in January 1863 and Porter was found guilty of disobedience of orders and cowardice in the face of the enemy and drummed out of the army in abject and total disgrace.
Porter suffered the dishonor and humiliation of the court martial sentence for nearly two decades. All the while he continued to fight for his innocence and free himself of the terrible stigma of the military tribunal’s decision.
In 1883, long after the Battle of Second Manassas had become one more painful memory of the bloody War Between the States, a congressman from Alabama, Joe Wheeler, a former Confederate cavalry commander, gave a grand speech. He spoke in support of a House Bill to reverse the court martial conviction of 1863. The bill passed and President Chester Arthur commuted Porter’s sentence. It wasn’t until 1893 that President Cleveland, a Democrat, signed the order that officially cleared Porter of all charges and restored him to rank.
Joe Wheeler was quite a guy. Porter’s champion in Congress, Wheeler was a plain spoken man and a good speech maker. Although he was a Southerner from Alabama, which had been one of the slave states before the war, Wheeler was an admirer of Abraham Lincoln. Furthermore, Congressman Wheeler had come to believe with all his heart and soul that Porter, a good man and a fine soldier, had been terribly wronged. Joe Wheeler decided it was time to set things right. Twenty years was a long time to make right such a terrible wrong but, in Porter’s case, it was high time to correct the miscarriage of justice.
“Mr. Speaker,” Wheeler began in his strong resonant voice, “As regards the conduct of man to man, the highest command given is that he do unto others even as he would that others should do unto him. When a wrong is done to any man it [justice] should be restored to him twofold …”
There was no apology in Wheeler’s words. His message was as important as life and death. He meant every word.
“General Porter does not ask that the Scriptural precept be meted to him that to him should be restored two-fold for the wrong that has been done to him.”
“No.” Wheeler’s words gained strength with the conviction he felt. “The demand for justice does not come from General Porter. This demand for justice comes from the people of the United States. That he has been the victim of a great wrong has been incontrovertibly proven to the American people. General Porter has suffered and his family has shared his cup of bitterness.”
Wheeler drew out each word separately to show the immenseness of the tragedy.
“Yes, Mr. Speaker, for the fifth part of our century the pangs … of … a … living … death … have … been … their … portion.”
Congressman Wheeler’s voice grew as somber as the grave.
“What he now endures, what he has borne for so many years, he must support for the short term God may will that he remains with us. Then the grass, perchance rose be-decked, may grow over a grave marked by a broken shaft on which will be engraved only the words, FITZ JOHN PORTER.”
Wheeler launched into a review of Porter's fighting accomplishments.
“Fitz John Porter, the brave soldier, the human ideal of chivalry, was the only member of his class who won the brevet of a field officer on the plains of Mexico. He was the man selected to instill honor and chivalry into the minds of the military students of our country, the Chevalier Bayard of the Army of the Potomac. He was the man who, already covered with glory on twenty fields of battle, selected to command McClellan’s rear guard from June 26, 1862.”
Wheeler next told of one of Porter's greatest victories; the defense of Malvern Hill.
“In the darkest hours seen by the 100,000 men that the gallant and skillful McClellan had pressed to the very gates of the Confederate capitol, Fitz John Porter rallied and aligned the dispirited troops. Owing to Porter's skill and courage the sun went down on the night of July 1  upon the triumph of Malvern Hill, a victory so brilliant and so signally due to that officer as to call for the thanks of the nation. This is the man, who was deliberately selected for immolation.
“The disaster to Pope’s army (at Manassas), which occurred within sixty days from Porter’s victory at Malvern Hill, required a scapegoat and a blood sacrifice. When men in high places need a victim, one can always be found. John Pope … and others … needed such a victim and … he … was … found.”
Wheeler paused. His speech was nearly finished. His voice became a soliloquy.
“I have never seen General Pope nor do I wish to criticize General Porter’s assailants. The evidence justifies every word I have said. My object in saying these words to the lovers of right throughout our land is to add my feeble mite toward the establishment of truth, the vindication of honor, and the upholding of the sublime principles of justice.”