Was He a Fraud, or the Real Hero of Gettysburg? The Truth About Daniel Sickles.

Troops from Alabama and Minnesota, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 2, 1863, painting by Don Triona.

At his death in 1914, Daniel Sickles’ funeral was on par with that of an American President. Sickles story is an odd one. The Honorable Daniel Sickles was a successful lawyer, a Civil War general, and was even awarded (with much controversy) the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was twice elected a Congressman from New York, and served in the state assembly, and later as United States minister to Spain. Daniel Sickles was clearly successful and prominent, but, before his long life was over many questioned his character, and his judgment.

B. General Daniel Sickles, U.S.A.

Sickles had an amazing ability to persuade, and an even shrewder power to influence. Many considered him a brilliant lawyer, politician and debater. One observer of the time said that Sickles was “a lawyer by intuition – careful in reaching his conclusions, but quick and bold in pushing them.” William Marcy, who was the governor of New York, said that Sickles was an excellent debater, and “excelled any man of his years.” There was no doubt of Sickles talents, the larger question rested upon his honesty.

He used his persuasive abilities to sometimes spin questionable stories that usually came to the conclusion that he desired, and, not necessarily the truth. George Templeton Strong, a well-known publicist of that time wrote that Sickles was “one of the bigger bubbles in the scum of the profession, swollen and windy, and puffed out with fetid gas.” Liar, thief, drunkard, philanderer, and murderer were others terms which were used to describe him. Sickles was undoubtedly one of the most controversial characters of his time. But much of the public dismissed the drama, and loved the man. This work tries to find the truth about Daniel Sickles.

The funeral of Daniel Sickles.

Sickles pled temporary insanity when he shot his wife’s lover to death in broad daylight. He was the first person in the nation to use that defense, and he was acquitted. Was he temporary insane, or was Sickles just insanely jealous? Many suggest that he got away with it because of his many political connections. It didn’t hurt that the sitting President of the United States visited the trial and shook Sickles hand in front of the jury. The victim, was unarmed, while Sickles was carrying three hand guns.

Was Sickles the true hero of the battle of Gettysburg? He spent decades trying to convince the public that he, and not George Meade, should have received the credit for the Union victory. According to Sickles, he prevented General Meade from retreating from the battlefield. Meade, a West Point graduate, was a highly respected career military officer with loads of battle experience. Sickles, a lawyer and politician, had no military experience or training, and had been politically appointed as an officer.

The murder of Philip Key by Daniel Sickles.

In his later years, Sickles was recognized as a gifted speaker at veteran’s events and worked hard as a member of the New York military monument committee. He helped raise thousands of dollars to erect military monuments, but at age 92, was arrested and charged with embezzling from the same account he was entrusted to protect. His life was a see-saw of controversies, which, over time, created either loyal admirers, or those who despised and loathed him.

Even as an adolescent, his early behavior began forming its dark side. As a teenager he spoke at political rallies impressing many, and he was quickly noticed as a forceful speaker. When he was seventeen, however, he was accused of stealing $100.00 from a Mr. Peter Cooper. Cooper had been fond of the young man, and felt that Sickles had the potential to become a great minister. He thought that Sickles might be a good candidate to attend Princeton University, which was known for its program in theology. Because of his faith in him, Cooper asked Sickles to help him with a minor business transaction. Young Sickles only job was to transport the funds for the transaction, but, in the end, there was a shortage of $100.00. The research does not indicate the outcome of this accusation of stealing, but this early incident is an indicator of a trend of reckless and irresponsible behavior that followed him throughout his life.

Sickles fascination with women began at an early age. In his youth he began a lifelong passion of frequenting brothels, especially ones located in his home town of New York City, such as, The Diving Bell, The Swimming Bar, and the Arcade on Orange Street. He enjoyed being in the company of women of all varieties, but, especially Irish and non-white prostitutes.

As an adult he began his career in law and politics, and married and started a family. Despite the trappings of responsibility, Sickles strange behavior continued to develop. At the age of 33 he married a 15 year old girl. Even for that period, the age difference raised many eyebrows. Despite being married, and, an elected New York state senator, his obsession with prostitutes continued. In 1856 he was censored by the state assembly for escorting a known prostitute, Fanny White, into the senate chamber. By 1859, then Congressman Sickles, became aware that his child bride had decided to play the romantic field too, and with a good friend of her husband. Sickles and his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key, had a so-called unexpected encounter on the streets of Washington, DC. In a jealous rage, Sickles, shot Philip Barton Key to death. This took place in broad daylight with witnesses, and, in view of the White House. He got off scot-free. After the trial, it was said that Sickles boasted to friends that, “he meant to kill him.”

In 1861 the Civil War was in full swing, and Daniel Sickles was looking for a way to repair his reputation. Despite having no military experience, Sickles gladly accepted a political appointment as an officer in the Union army. As with the other chapters of his life, Sickles, again, became a controversial figure, playing a significant, but controversial role in two of the wars major battles, Wilderness, and Gettysburg. It was here that his life’s work was clearly defined, and by defined by him.

Initially, Daniel Sickles was an officer on the staff of Major General Joseph Hooker, and later, Major General George Meade, both experienced and well trained officers. As noted, Sickles had no military experience, nor, does it seem, that he had any understanding of war strategies. Having these shortcoming did not prevent him from making bold decisions that turned into disasters, and, impacted two major battles. In fact, at Gettysburg, he ignored General Meade’s direct orders and made his own catastrophic one. He was clearly insubordinate, and should have been court martialed. In both battles his actions were grossly negligent, and, in the end, cost lives, instead of saving them. Let’s examine the details.

General George Meade

The Battle of the Wilderness took place in early May 1863, and just outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Daniel Sickles reported to General Joe Hooker, who had a reputation for aggressive fighting. Lincoln was hopeful that Hooker was the man who would avenge the Union’s humiliating defeat at Fredericksburg a few months earlier. Considering that Hooker’s army was more than twice the size of the Confederate forces, the odds of winning were easily on the side of the Union army. Hooker ordered Sickles to set up an artillery position on an elevated piece of land called Hazel Grove. Sickles XI Corp consisted of approximately 20,000 soldiers. Once he was situated on Hazel Grove his scouting reports indicated that there was Confederate movement nearby. Although his intelligence was not complete, Sickles hurriedly concluded that the Confederate army was in full retreat. That was not the case, and, instead of retreating, Confederate General Stonewall Jackson was marching around the union flank and was preparing to attack Sickles. Sickles was then ordered by Hooker to fall back and withdraw from Hazel Grove, but, because he was convinced that the Confederates were retreating, he did not protect his own troops properly, leaving wide openings where his men were vulnerable to attacks, and from numerous sides. As quickly as Sickles XI Corp left the high ground of Hazel Grove, Jackson’s men took the position, and set up over 40 cannons, and began blasting away at the Union army. It was May 2, 1863 and by mid-day there were over 15,000 casualties, and many were Sickles men.

In the end, the much larger Union army was routed by the Confederates, and the Battle of the Wilderness became another success for the Confederate cause. Many historians believe that Joe Hooker lost his nerve, and thus lost the battle, because instead of taking the offensive, he waited for the Confederate army to come to them. In the book, The Battle of Chancellorsville (1896), the author, Augustus Choate Hamlin, blamed the Union loss on Daniel Sickles’ poor judgment. Hamlin “blamed Sickles because he had persuaded Hooker to allow him to make the fatal reconnaissance that isolated the XI Corps and left it without reserves.” Additionally, Hamlin felt that Sickles lack of military training attributed to his not being able to locate Jackson’s men, and most particularly, not realizing that the Confederates were not retreating, but re-directing their advance. Hamlin suggested that despite the obvious indicators that he had made a huge error in strategy, Sickles continued to advance, and his XI Corp was wide open to rebel attack, and many senseless deaths. Hamlin’s opinion of the battle is significant, and it should be considered with the highest credibility, since he was an eye witness participant to the battle. Colonel Hamlin served under General Hooker as a medical inspector during the battle.

There is no dispute among recent historians that at the Battle of Gettysburg, Daniel Sickles deliberately disobeyed his orders that he had received from General Meade. Generally regarded as the most importance battle of the Civil War, Gettysburg was, without question, the turning point of the war. If the Confederate forces had won at Gettysburg, on Union soil, it is likely that Lincoln would have been forced by an unhappy public to stop the war. Daniel Sickles argued for decades afterwards, that he won the battle, not Meade. He even convinced a number of historians of that period to go along with his tale. After a close examination of the facts, it appears that instead of contributing to the Union victory, Sickles nearly lost the battle, and possibly the war.

On July 2 1863 Union General George Meade was lining up his forces to begin the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. He ordered Sickles, commander of the Third Army Corps, to occupy a position just left of the Second Army Corps. Meade’s strategy was to extend the line along Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top, which was also to be occupied. By mid-morning Sickles was in position, but he decided that he did not like the position. Sickles sent a message to Meade that he wanted to move his men to a different spot that offered higher ground. That spot, was known as the Peach Orchard. Sickles thought that if he did not occupy the higher ground, the rebels would take it, and then, set up their own artillery. This is what had happened to Sickles in the battle of the Wilderness, just a few weeks prior. Meade never approved his request. As the battle progressed, and Sickles became aware that Confederate forces were near Seminary Ridge, he disregarded Meade’s direct order, and relocated his men to the Peach Orchard. By doing so, he left Little Round Top unprotected, and he also deserted his position of support to the General Hancock’s Second Army Corp. Because of Sickles advancing so far forward, his left flank was completely exposed. Due to Sickles actions, Meade had to shore up Sickles flank and he sent 5th Corp, remnants of 2 divisions from the 1st Corp, 3 brigades from the 12th Corp, 5 full brigades from the 2nd Corp, and a few brigades from the 6th Corp. In other words, due to Sickles poor judgment, Meade spent additional time and resources trying to fix Sickles mistake. This undoubtedly, cost many unnecessary lives. In the ensuing battle Sickles Third Army Corps was decimated, losing nearly half his 10,000 men, and Sickles himself had his leg blown off.

Sickles ended up in a military hospital in Washington, D.C. and was visited by President Abraham Lincoln. This is where Sickles began spinning his own version of the battle of Gettysburg. Daniel Sickles argued that he, not Meade, had won the battle of Gettysburg, going as far as to tell the President that he had even picked the spot for the actual battle. He elaborated that General Meade’s order was not clear, or specific, and denied that he received any orders regarding Little Round Top. Sickles tried to persuade all who would listen that his Corps had absorbed the Confederate attack and slowed their momentum down before they reached Cemetery Ridge. According to Sickles, General Meade had planned to retreat from the battlefield, but, by Sickles moving his forces forward, it forced Meade to fight. Sickles did not feel that Meade even wanted to fight.

The historical evidence, however, does not support Sickles. In Richard Sauer’s recent work, Gettysburg: The Meade-Sickles Controversy, Sauers determines that Meade did provide clear and specific orders, which were sent several times that day to Sickles, and the orders included specifics about Little Round Top. General Meade, himself, remained silent on the subject, with the exception of his official report where he stated “Sickles had not fully apprehended the instructions in regards to the position to be occupied.” In other words, Sickles lack of experience, coupled with his overall poor judgment, created an unnecessary disaster for Meade’s army at Gettysburg. Clearly Meade was not planning on retreating, and for Sickles to state that, is absurd and suggest that Sickles motives are based solely on discrediting Meade. Sickles version of Gettysburg gained a small level of creditability when Meade did not aggressively pursue Lee’s retreating army. Even Lincoln appeared to be annoyed, “You have given the enemy a stunning blow at Gettysburg. Follow it up, and give him another before he can reach the Potomac.” Meade did pursue Lee’s army, but, the end-all battle that Lincoln wanted, did not happen.

In a time of virtue, and men were praised for character and honor, Sickles frequently, as well as openly, committed adultery, was a notorious drunk, and even stole thousands of dollars from a veteran’s fund, of which he was a trustee. Despite this, he was adored by much of the public, and a popular speaker at veteran’s gatherings. He shared the stage on numerous occasions with U.S. Presidents, and many times the audience preferred Sickles, rather than the President as the speaker. It is difficult to explain, or to understand how, during his time the American public never saw Sickles for the person he was, a fraud.
 
His greatest skill was his ability to convince the public that despite his villainous behavior, he was a great man, and even greater American hero. At the time of his death the Kalamazoo Gazette wrote “General Sickles was a great hero, and the hero of Gettysburg.” The Greensboro Record wrote, “General Daniel Sickles is one of most picturesque and brilliant civilian officers of the Civil War.” The Philadelphia Inquirer glorified him further by stating, “ the gruff old warrior, with one leg shot away in battle, his massive head resembling Bismarck’s was a picturesque figure as he hobbled along on crutches during the last half of his turbulent life.”

A year before he died,  Sickles was arrested for embezzling funds from the New York State military monument committee, which he had been a member for years. His home had to be sold, and other items to settle the lost funds, but there were many in the public who still wanted to support Sickles. On January 28. 1913 an article was published in the Springfield Republican entitled “Southern Woman to Aid Gen. Sickles. Mrs. Helen Longstreet Will Raise Money in the South to Pay Alleged Debt.”

History, as represented a century ago, had it wrong about Daniel Sickles. He was no hero, and certainly not deserving of the Congressional Medal of Honor, or a presidential type funeral, but there was that ego. When asked why there was no monument to himself at Gettysburg, he replied that “the entire battlefield is a monument to me.”

Additional readings:

Gettysburg: The Meade-Sickles Controversy, by Richard Sauer (2003)

The Battle of Chancellorsville, by (1896) Augustus Choate Hamlin (1896)

American Scoundrel:The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles Thomas Keneally (2002)

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