Daniel Edgar Sickles
|Daniel Edgar Sickles
|October 20, 1819– May 3, 1914 (aged 94)
Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles
|Place of birth
|New York City, New York
|Place of death
|New York City, New York
|United States of America
|Years of service
|III Corps, Army of the Potomac
|American Civil War
|Medal of Honor
|U.S. Minister to Spain, U.S. Representative from New York
Daniel Edgar Sickles (October 20, 1819 – May 3, 1914) was a colorful and controversial American politician, Union general in the American Civil War, and diplomat serving at various points in his career in the London Embassy and later as U.S. Minister to Spain from 1869 to 1874. Elected offices included membership of the New York State Senate and of the U. S. House of Representatives. When the Civil War started, he used his political office to secure a commission in the Army, helping to raise a volunteer brigade from his home state. He is considered one of the most famous, or infamous, of the "political generals."
He received the Medal of Honor, although very late in his career. He was one of a very few high ranking officers who did not graduate from Westpoint Military Academy. He did perform with some distinction in several battles during the Civil War, especially at the Battle of Chancellorsville, but disobeyed orders at the Battle of Gettysburg. Since he was also wounded—he lost a leg—he escaped disciplinary action. A womanizer, controversy dogged his career. He is mainly remembered in history as the first man in the United States to escape a charge of murder—he shot Philip Barton Key in 1859—on the grounds of temporary insanity. He also courted controversy by claiming responsibility for the victory at Gettysburg.
Undoubtedly gifted, he appears to have been more interested in self-promotion than in promoting the interests of the constituents whom he represented. Although he achieved high office and high military rank, and represented his nation overseas, it is difficult to identify a single altruistic achievement of note. His career shows that ability to get elected does not of itself guarantee worthiness to hold elected office. He had no moral vision of what it means to serve the public, yet still earned inclusion in the Encyclopedia Britannica while the lives of countless individuals who live for the sake of others and not for their own glory but who did not hold such high office as a General Sickles did, went unsung.
Early life and politics
Sickles was born in New York City to Susan Marsh Sickles and George Garrett Sickles, a patent lawyer and politician. (His year of birth is sometimes given as 1825, and, in fact, Sickles himself was known to have claimed as such. Historians speculate that Sickles deliberately chose to appear younger when he married a woman half his age.) He learned the printer's trade and studied in the University of the City of New York (now New York University). He studied law in the office of Benjamin Butler, was admitted to the bar in 1846, and became a member of the New York Assembly in 1843.
In 1852, he married Teresa Bagioli against the wishes of both families—he was 33, she only 15, although she was sophisticated for her age, speaking five languages. In 1853, he became corporation counsel of New York City, but resigned soon afterward to become secretary of the U.S. legation in London, under James Buchanan, by appointment of President Franklin Pierce. He returned to America in 1855, was a member of the Senate of New York State from 1856 to 1857, and, from 1857 to 1861, was a Democratic representative in the United States Congress (the 35th and 36th United States Congresses).
Murder of Key
Sickles' career was replete with personal scandals. He was rebuked by the New York State Assembly for escorting a known prostitute, Fanny White, into its chambers. The couple also reportedly traveled to England (without his pregnant wife) and Sickles presented White to Queen Victoria, using as her alias the surname of a New York political rival. In 1859, in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, Sickles shot and killed Philip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key and U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, whom Sickles had discovered was having a blatantly public affair with his young wife, Teresa. He was tried on a charge of murder, but was acquitted after a sensational trial involving the first use of temporary insanity as a legal defense in U.S. history. (His defense attorney was Edwin M. Stanton, later to become Secretary of War.) Sickles "withdrew" briefly from public life due to the notoriety of the trial, although he did not resign his congressional seat. The public was more hostile to Sickles' reconciliation with his wife after the trial than to the murder and his unorthodox acquittal. It would ultimately cost him his political career in 1861, as the country prepared for war.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Sickles desired to repair his public image and was active in raising United States volunteers in New York. He was appointed colonel of one of the four regiments he organized. He was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers in September 1861, becoming one of the most famous political generals in the Union Army. In March 1862, he was forced to relinquish his command when the U.S. Congress refused to confirm his commission, but he worked diligently to lobby among his Washington political contacts and reclaimed both his rank and his command on May 24, 1862, in time to rejoin the Army in the Peninsula Campaign. Because of this interruption, he missed his brigade's significant actions at the Battle of Williamsburg. Despite his complete lack of previous military experience, he did a competent job commanding the "Excelsior" Brigade of the Army of the Potomac in the Battle of Seven Pines and the Seven Days Battles. He was absent for the Second Battle of Bull Run, having used his political influences to obtain leave to go to New York City to recruit new troops. And he missed the Battle of Antietam because the III Corps, to which he was assigned as a division commander, was stationed on the lower Potomac, protecting the capital.
Sickles was a close ally of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, who was his original division commander and eventually commanded the Army of the Potomac. Both men had notorious reputations as political climbers and as hard-drinking ladies' men. Accounts at the time compared their army headquarters with a rowdy bar and bordello.
Sickles was promoted to major general on November 29, 1862, just before the Battle of Fredericksburg, in which his division was in reserve. Joe Hooker, now commanding the Army of the Potomac, gave Sickles command of the III Corps in February 1863, a controversial move in the army because he became the only corps commander without a WestPoint education. His energy and ability were conspicuous in the Battle of Chancellorsville. He aggressively recommended pursuing troops he saw in his sector on May 2, 1863; these turned out to be elements of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's corps, stealthily marching around the Union flank. He also vigorously opposed Hooker's orders moving him off good defensive terrain in Hazel Grove. In both of these incidents, it is easy to imagine the disastrous battle turning out very differently for the Union if Hooker had heeded his advice.
The Battle of Gettysburg marked the most famous incident, and the effective end, of his military career. On July 2, 1863, Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. George G. Meade ordered Sickles's corps to take up defensive positions on the southern end of Cemetery Ridge, anchored in the north to the II Corps and to the south, the hill known as Little Round Top. Sickles was unhappy to see a slightly higher terrain feature to his front, the Peach Orchard. Remembering the beating his corps took from Confederate artillery at Hazel Grove, perhaps, he violated his orders and marched his corps almost a mile in front of Cemetery Ridge. This had two effects: It greatly diluted the concentrated defensive posture of his corps, by stretching it too thin; and it created a salient that could be bombarded and attacked from multiple sides. Meade rode out and confronted Sickles about his insubordination, but it was too late. The Confederate assault by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's corps, primarily by the division of Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws, smashed the III Corps and rendered it useless for further combat. Sickles fell victim to a cannonball that mangled his right leg. Carried by stretcher to an aid station, he bravely attempted to raise his soldiers' spirits by grinning and puffing on a cigar along the way. His leg was amputated that afternoon and he insisted on being transported back to Washington, D.C., which he reached on July 4, 1863, bringing some of the first news of the great Union victory, and starting a public relations campaign to ensure his version of the battle prevailed. This version would not portray Meade favorably, and thus President Lincoln's opinion of him began to deteriorate, especially in reference to his inability to crush the retreating Confederate Army.
Sickles had recent knowledge of a new directive from the Army Surgeon General to collect and forward "specimens of morbid anatomy… together with projectiles and foreign bodies removed" to the newly founded Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C. He preserved the bones from his leg, as well as the cannonball that shattered it, and donated them to the museum, along with a visiting card marked, "With the complements of Major General D.E.S." For several years thereafter, he reportedly visited the limb on the anniversary of the amputation. It has since become the property of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, where it is on display alongside other celebrity bones, including the hip of General Henry Barnum and vertebrae from assassin John Wilkes Booth and President James A. Garfield.
Sickles was not court-martialed for insubordination after Gettysburg because he had been wounded, and it was assumed he would stay out of trouble. Furthermore, he was a powerful, politically connected man, who would not be disciplined without protest and retribution. Sickles ran a vicious campaign against General Meade's character after the Civil War. Sickles felt that Meade had wronged him at Gettysburg and that credit for winning the battle belonged to him. In anonymous newspaper articles and in testimony before a congressional committee, Sickles maintained that Meade had secretly planned to retreat from Gettysburg on the first day. While his movement away from Cemetery Ridge may have violated orders, Sickles forever asserted that it was the correct move because it disrupted the Confederate attack, redirecting its thrust, effectively shielding their real objectives, Cemetery Ridge and Cemetery Hill. Sickles's redeployment did in fact take Confederate commanders by surprise, and historians have argued about the real ramifications of Sickles's actions at Gettysburg ever since.
Sickles managed to get himself awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions, although it took him 34 years to do so. The official citation that accompanied his medal recorded that Sickles "displayed most conspicuous gallantry on the field, vigorously contesting the advance of the enemy and continuing to encourage his troops after being himself severely wounded."
Despite his one-legged disability, Sickles remained in the army until the end of the war and was disgusted that Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would not allow him to return to a combat command. In 1867, he received the brevets of brigadier general and major general in the regular army for his services at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg respectively. Soon after the close of the Civil War, in 1865, he was sent on a confidential mission to Colombia (the "special mission to the South American Republics") to secure its compliance with a treaty agreement of 1846, permitting the United States to convey troops across the Isthmus of Panama. From 1865 to 1867, he commanded the Department of South Carolina, the Department of the Carolinas, the Department of the South, and the Second Military District. In 1866, he was appointed colonel of the 42nd U.S. Infantry (Veteran Reserve Corps), and in 1869, he was retired with the rank of major general.
Sickles served as U.S. Minister to Spain from 1869 to 1874, and took part in the negotiations growing out of the Virginius Affair. He continued his reputation as a ladies' man in the Spanish royal court and was rumored to have had an affair with the deposed Queen Isabella II. In 1871, he married again, following the death of Teresa in 1867, to Senorita Carmina Creagh, the daughter of Chevalier de Creagh of Madrid, a Spanish Councillor of State, and he fathered two children with her.
Sickles was president of the New York State Board of Civil Service Commissioners from 1888 to 1889, was sheriff of New York in 1890, and was again a representative in the 53rd Congress from 1893 to 1895. For most of his postwar life, he was the chairman of the New York State Monuments Commission, but he was forced out by a financial scandal. He had an important effect on preservation efforts at the Gettysburg Battlefield, sponsoring legislation to form the Gettysburg National Military Park, buy up private lands, and erect monuments. One of his key contributions was procuring the original fencing used on East Cemetery Hill to denote park borders. This fencing came directly from Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C. (site of the Key shooting). Of the principal senior generals who fought at Gettysburg, virtually all have been memorialized with statues at Gettysburg. Sickles is a conspicuous exception. But when asked why there was no memorial to him, Sickles supposedly said, "The entire battlefield is a memorial to Dan Sickles." However, there was, in fact, a memorial commissioned to include a bust of Sickles, the monument to the New York Excelsior Brigade. It was rumored that the money appropriated for the bust was stolen by Sickles himself; the monument is displayed in the Peach Orchard with a figure of an eagle replacing Sickles's likeness.
Sickles lived out the remainder of his life in New York City, dying of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1914. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
In popular media
Sickles appears prominently in the books Gettysburg and Grant Comes East, the first two books of the alternate history Civil War trilogy by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen.
Sickles life was highlighted by scandal. He was regularly scrutinized for his involvement with questionable women and was closely linked to other rumored playboys, such as General Hooker. Sickles is famed for having been the first man to escape a murder charge on the grounds of temporary insanity. His actions regarding Gettysburg are also highly significant. Sickles presence on the second day of the battle arguably had a great effect on its overall outcome and he had a large part in interpreting the aftermath of the battle as well. Sickles took great efforts to see that the battlefield was preserved for future generations.
- Britannica online, Daniel Edgar Sickles. Retrieved November 9, 2007.
- Robert W. Beckman, "Daniel Edgar Sickles," in Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, eds. David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000). ISBN 9781576070666, 1784.
- Larry Tagg, The Generals of Gettysburg (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Publishing, 1998), 62.
- Beckman, 1785.
- Beckman, 1785-86.
- Beckman, 86.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Beckman, W. Robert. "Daniel Edgar Sickles." In Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, edited David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, 1784-1786. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. ISBN 039304758X
- Eicher, John H. and David J. Eicher. Civil War High Commands. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0804736413
- Keneally, Thomas. American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2002. ISBN 0385501390
- Roberts, Sam. Review of The Congressman Who Got Away With Murder by Nat Brandt. New York Times, March 1, 1982. "Sex, Politics and Murder on the Potomac" Retrieved May 18, 2020.
- Tagg, Larry. The Generals of Gettysburg. El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Publishing, 1998. ISBN 1882810309
- Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders'. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964. ISBN 0807108227
This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
All links retrieved June 23, 2022.
- Daniel Edgar Sickles at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
John P. Hale
|U.S. Minister to Spain
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