Portus Baxter (December 4, 1806 – March 4, 1868) was a nineteenth-century banker, farmer, and politician from Vermont. He served as a U.S. Representative from the state's 3rd Congressional District from 1861 to 1867.
Baxter was born in Brownington, Vermont, the son of William and Lydia (Ashley) Baxter. After attending local schools, he graduated from Norwich Military Academy in 1824, and entered the University of Vermont in Burlington. He left UVM in 1826 after his father's death, and was responsible for administering his father's estate. (In 1852, UVM conferred on Baxter the honorary degree of master of arts.) He moved to Derby Line, Vermont in 1828 where he engaged in agricultural and mercantile pursuits, which took him down the Connecticut River valley and into Canada. He was one of the original incorporators of the Connecticut and Passumpsic Rivers Railroad, which was planned to run almost the entire length of the state on the eastern border.
He became interested in politics early in his career. Baxter served as Assistant Judge of Orleans County from 1846 to 1847. He was the only Whig delegate from New England who supported Zachary Taylor for president in 1848. He also strongly supported Winfield Scott in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1852. He became a Republican when the party was founded, and was a presidential elector for John Fremont in 1856.
In 1860, after many years of urging, he finally ran for Congress, was successful and eventually served three terms, from March 4, 1861 to March 3, 1867, in the 37th, 38th, and 39th Congresses. During the 38th Congress, he chaired the Committee on Expenditures in the Department of the Navy. He also served on the Agriculture and Elections Committees.
Baxter's time in Congress coincided with the four years of the American Civil War, and he was such a proponent of Vermont soldiers he earned the nickname, 'the soldier's friend.' One Vermonter's letters document instances where Mrs. Baxter, and other wives and daughters of Vermont's Congressional contingent, were strong supporters of the efforts of the Christian Commission. Baxter also frequently visited the regiments in the area immediately surrounding Washington, D.C., watching out for a son who had joined the 11th Vermont Infantry, and sponsoring others in their efforts to get promoted. During the bloody Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, Baxter and his wife spent so much time in the hospitals in and around Fredericksburg, Virginia, tending to wounded soldiers, that they themselves suffered from exhaustion and eventually had to leave to recuperate.
Post Civil War
He remained in Washington, D.C. after completing his last term. Baxter suffered from asthma, and he died of pneumonia after a few days' illness. His was buried in the village cemetery in Strafford, Vermont. There is a cenotaph to his memory in Brownington's village cemetery.
Baxter General Hospital, the Civil War soldier's hospital in Burlington, was named for Baxter, as was Portus Baxter Park in Derby Line.
His wife, Ellen Jannette Harris (1811–1882), daughter of Judge Jedediah Hyde Harris of Strafford, whom he married on June 19, 1832, survived him by fourteen years. They had eight children, four of whom lived to adulthood. The most notable was Jedediah Hyde Baxter, who served as Surgeon General of the United States Army.
Judge Harris was the business partner of Senator Justin Smith Morrill. Baxter and Morrill became close friends as a result of the connection to Harris, with Morrill referring to Baxter as "one of nature's noblemen" and Baxter consciously patterning his business and political career on Morrill's.