Daniel Edgar Sickles (1819-1914)

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.

Born in New York City, Sickles learned the printer's trade, studied in the University of the City of New York (now New York University), was admitted to the bar in 1846, and was a member of the New York Assembly in 1847. 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 Congresses).

In 1859, in Lafayette Park, next to 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 wife, Teresa Bagioli Sickles. He was tried on a charge of murder, but was acquitted after a sensational trial involving the first use of the insanity defense in US 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. Oddly, the public seemed more outraged by Sickles' reconciliation with his wife after the trial than by the murder and his unorthodox acquittal.

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. 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 Peninsula Campaign and the Battle of Antietam, and then succeeded to a divisional command.

Sickles was a close ally of Major General 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' division fought with distinction in the Battle of Fredericksburg, and in 1863, as a major general, he assumed command of the III Corps. 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 Joseph 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 George G. Meade ordered Sickles' 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 James Longstreet's corps, primarily by the division of 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.

Sickles preserved the leg's bones and donated them to the Army Medical Museum in Bethesda, Maryland, 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. And 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. And that his movement away from Cemetery Ridge may have violated orders, but it was the correct move because it disrupted the Confederate attack, redirecting its thrust, effectively shielding their real objective, Cemetery Hill. (There is a germ of truth in that point of view and historians have argued about it ever since.) Sickles also managed to get himself awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions, although it took him over 30 years to do so.

Despite his one-legged disability, Sickles remained in the army until the end of the war and was disgusted that Ulysses S. Grant would not allow him to return to a combat command. In 1867 received the brevets of brigadier general and major general in the U.S. 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 1873, 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.

Sickles was president of the New York State Board of Civil Service Commissioners in 1888 to 1889, was sheriff of New York in 1890, and was again a representative in the 53rd Congress in 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. 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."

Sickles lived out the remainder of his life in New York City, dying in 1914. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.