Civil War Goats and Scapegoats
by H. Donald Winkler, Cumberland House, 2008, $16.95
Books with titles like Civil War Goats and Scapegoats are usually shallow Civil War fare better suited to the bathroom shelf than the library. Author H. Donald Winkler’s new collection isn’t exactly groundbreaking scholarship. But it is more provocative than most of the books with which it will likely be lumped.
Winkler’s list begins with Robert E. Lee in the Battle of Cheat Mountain, the September 1861 skirmish in western Virginia that garnered the future legend some ugly headlines. In the grand scheme the battle meant little and seems— along with Lee’s selection as “goat”—a poor choice. But the infamous Ball’s Bluff affair is a no-brainer, and Winkler details the October 1861 clash that ended with Senator Edward Baker dead and Union Brig. Gen. Charles Stone censured. The combination of Baker’s popularity—he was a close friend of President Abraham Lincoln—and the rumored Southern sympathies of Stone produced a hysterical clamor for answers. Radical Republicans, a special object of Winkler’s derision, made Stone a scapegoat, condemning the officer to months in jail. Stone was eventually exonerated, but the affair shattered his career and deprived Union forces of a capable officer.
Winkler likewise explores the case of Maj. Gen. Fitz-John Porter, a similarly ugly story of political meddling that unfolded in the wake of Maj. Gen. John Pope’s defeat at Second Bull Run. Citing Porter’s failure to follow orders, Pope blamed his subordinate for the disaster. A military court agreed, but Winkler concludes otherwise. The author attributes Union disasters at Fredericksburg to Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, William B. Franklin, and Henry Halleck; Chancellorsville to Joseph Hooker; and Petersburg to Ulysses S. Grant, George Meade and the hapless Burnside.
Southern goats at Gettysburg, Winkler finds, were Lee and a hesitant Richard S. Ewell, while Meade’s subsequent failure to pursue Lee earned him goat horns as well. Pretty standard stuff.
Turning to the west, Winkler contrasts Grant’s capture of Fort Donelson and poor performance at Shiloh; the Battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga and John Bell Hood’s crushing defeats at Franklin and Nashville.
Reflecting more contemporary thought, Winkler wisely closes with a chapter on Henry Wirz, the Andersonville Prison commandant blamed and eventually hanged for the deaths of some 13,000 Yankee prisoners. In his epilogue, the author awards his goat of the war award for performance in a single battle or campaign to Gideon Pillow “for his pitiful performance at Fort Donelson” in February 1862.
“If the politicians had left Maj. Gen. George McClellan alone,” Winkler declares in a chapter about McClellan’s unsuccessful Peninsula Campaign, “he might have won the war in 1862.” It’s easy enough to point fingers at nosy politicians for army troubles, but the author overreaches here in blaming Republican Benjamin Wade and Washington radicals for making the timid McClellan “perhaps the biggest political scapegoat of the war.” And in the next chapter Winkler all but acknowledges as much, blaming McClellan’s failure on “bad decisions, bad intelligence, bad weather, and a new field commander named Robert E. Lee.”
In his choices Winkler offers no real surprises. He occasionally writes as if unsure of his audience, at one point referring without explanation to “the ‘era of suspicion’ and the ‘Rebel scare’,” and at another stating too simply that “Southern cavalry were more effective because Southerners had ridden horses most of their lives, while Northerners had not.” One would hope that a book that claims to employ the latest scholarship would reflect more original research. Winkler’s bibliography features secondary sources almost exclusively, and in his acknowledgements the author thanks virtually every big-name Civil War historian writing today.
Civil War Goats and Scapegoats won’t do much for serious Civil War students, but it does offer an interesting look at war’s underside—something too few buffs appreciate. And if Winkler relies too much on the work of other historians, he at least chooses it wisely.
Originally published in the September 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.