Daniel Edgar Sickles

This entry is part 10 of 17 in the series Union General Officers
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General Daniel E. Sickles

This post was written in the summer of 2013 but he really belongs with this group of generals. At Gettysburg Sickles either helped to win the battle or could have lost it for the Union. It depends on your point of view. We do know that Dan Sickles lost part of his leg. Here, then, is his story.

If the South had a general like Earl Van Dorn who was shot to death by his wife’s lover, the North had Daniel Edgar Sickles who did the reverse and got away with it. Dan Sickles spent his entire life doing things his own way, rather than allowing society to force him to conform.

Sickles was born in New York City on October 20, 1819. His father was a patent attorney and a politician, so he came by his future professions at birth. By 1847 he was practicing law and had been elected to the New York State Legislature.

On September 27, 1852, Sickles married Teresa Bagioli against the wishes of both families, he was 33, she about 15 or 16, although she was sophisticated for her age, speaking five languages.

Meanwhile, Sickles continued his political career as corporation counsel of New York City, a position that he resigned to become secretary of the U.S. legation in London. He returned to America in 1855 after three years. He was elected to the New York State Senate in 1856 and 1857. He was elected as a Democrat to the 35th and 36th United States Congresses, holding office from March 4, 1857, to March 3, 1861.

Sickles had been involved in a number of scandals during his career. He had been censured by the by the New York State Assembly for escorting a known prostitute, Fanny White, into its chambers. It was reported that he took her with him to London and allegedly introduced her to Queen Victoria. All this was done while his pregnant wife remained home in New York City.

It was during this period that Teresa Sickles had an affair with Philip Barton Key II, the son of Francis Scott Key. Key was the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia while Sickles was a Congressman. Sickles had accused his wife of adultery on several occasions but she always denied it to his satisfaction. But on the final occasion she confessed and wrote out a confession at Sickles’ insistence.

When he saw Key sitting outside his house signaling to Teresa. He ran outside of his house on Lafayette Square yelling “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home; you must die”, and with a pistol repeatedly shot the unarmed Key.

Sickles was arrested for murder but pleaded temporary insanity in one of the most controversial trials of the 19th century. Sickles’ attorney was none other than Edwin Stanton, the future Secretary of War. It was the first time that the temporary insanity defense had been successfully used in a criminal trial in the United States. After the trial Sickles and his wife continued their marriage.

Dan Sickles went on to raise a regiment for Union service. He rose quickly from colonel to general in short order. He credibly led the “Excelsior Brigade” at the Battle of Seven Pines and the Seven Days battles. Promoted to major general and commanding a corps, Sickles marched with the Army of the Potomac into Gettysburg on July 2, 1863.

Sickles’ Corps was positioned 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. Unhappy with his position, he moved his troops one mile forward. 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.

Sickles has been both criticized and praised for his actions. Historian Edwin B. Coddington assigns “much of the blame for the near disaster” in the center of the Union line to Sickles. Stephen W. Sears wrote that “Dan Sickles, in not obeying Meade’s explicit orders, risked both his Third Corps and the army’s defensive plan on July 2.”

However, Sickles’ maneuver has recently been credited by John Keegan with blunting the whole Confederate offensive that was intended to cause the collapse of the Union line. Similarly, James M. McPherson wrote that “Sickles’s unwise move may have unwittingly foiled Lee’s hopes.”

Dan Sickles paid a heavy price for his forward thrust. At the height of the battle, he was hit in the right leg by a cannonball. As he was carried by stretcher to the III Corps hospital on the Taneytown Road, he bravely attempted to raise his soldiers’ spirits by grinning and puffing on a cigar along the way. His leg was amputated that afternoon. He would never lead troops in combat again.

Sickles eventually received the Medal of Honor for his actions, although it took him 34 years to get it. 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.” Whether he deserved it or not is up to posterity to decide.

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