Sickles becomes hero by disobeying orders; Profile: A controversial political general from New York makes his mark on the second day at Gettysburg; REMEMBRANCE AT GETTYSBURG


As the men in blue and gray meet at Gettysburg, Pa., to commemorate battles of the Civil War this fall, it is appropriate to give some thought to Union Maj. Gen. Daniel Edgar Sickles, a hero of the Battle of Gettysburg and the driving force behind the creation of the national battlefield park there.

Sickles was a man of many talents and controversies. Born Oct. 20, 1819, in New York, he attended New York University, studying law, and was admitted to the bar in 1846. In 1847 he was elected to the New York assembly.

President Franklin Pierce named him secretary of the U.S. Legation in London, where he served from 1853 to 1855. He was then elected to the New York Senate and served there from 1856 to 1857. From 1857 to 1861 he was a New York representative in Congress.

Sickles first gained national attention in 1859 when he shot and killed his wife's lover, Phillip Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key of "The Star-Spangled Banner" fame.

Sickles' wife, Teresa, several years younger than her husband, had begun having an affair with Barton Key. It seemed that everyone in Washington was aware of the affair, and the two were pegged Disgrace and Disgust. An anonymous note set off a series of events leading Sickles to discover the situation. Despite his own history of infidelity, Sickles was furious. He confronted his wife, and she later wrote a confession and committed suicide.

Temporary insanity claim

Barton Key, unaware of what was transpiring in the Sickles home, arrived at his usual time in Lafayette Square to signal his lover. Outraged, Sickles picked up two pistols and shot the unarmed Key in the middle of the street.

"Of course I killed him," Sickles said at the time. "He deserved it."

The trial lasted 22 days with eight lawyers defending Sickles. His was the first defense to claim temporary insanity from rage and grief. On April 26, 1859, an all-male jury acquitted Sickles of the charges. The Baltimore Patriot wrote, "We may account for the seeming tenderness and extreme delicacy of the prosecution on remembering that the accused was a fast friend of the highest officer in the nation."

Despite his friends in high places and the 1,500 people who came to the courthouse to celebrate the verdict, the consensus was that the political career that Sickles had worked so hard for was finished.

Although his life had been filled with numerous scandals involving monetary indiscretions, drunken brawls and other controversial behavior, Sickles never felt more isolated.

The Civil War gave him something to focus his attention. For many Southerners, the election of Abraham Lincon ended any hope for a peaceful settlement of the controversy over slavery. When South Carolinians threatened Fort Sumter, it was Sickles who urged the president to resupply the Union garrison in Charleston harbor, leading to the Southern bombardment of the fort in April 1861.

Sickles then joined with Capt. William Wiley to recruit soldiers for the Union army. By the middle of May 1861, they had a brigade of 3,000 men with Sickles in command, but the Excelsior Brigade soon ran into difficulty as food, sanitation and shelter became problems. The men were eager to fight but dissension rippled through the ranks as creditors lined up to collect debts. When stories came that the Confederates were about to attack Washington, Secretary of War Simon Cameron told Sickles and his men: "Come."

Despite the fact that Sickles' military experience and training were sorely lacking, the Excelsior Brigade found itself on the Potomac River in Maryland, as part of the division commanded by Brig. Gen. Joseph Hooker.

The practice of watching and waiting while the Confederates were right across the river fostered bickering and insubordination, and just when the action was about to start, Sickles was taken from command. He was forced to return to Washington to fight for the brigade and his former rank.

By a Senate vote of 19-18, Sickles was allowed to return in time for the Peninsular Campaign of 1862. Sickles impressed Hooker by fearlessly placing himself in the thickest of the fighting. The Union army was losing many soldiers to deplorable conditions, inadequate medical care and to the fact that it was being out-generaled by an enemy inferior in number.

Sickles returned to New York for more recruits, but word had spread that enemy bullets drew blood. Recruiting was hard work, even though Sickles attempted to treat the war as a tragic necessity aimed to crush the uprising which, he said, "to this hour never had a pretext."

Though lacking in military training, Sickles demonstrated qualities of leadership. He was promoted to brigadier general in 1861 and major general in 1862. He fought at Williamsburg, Fair Oaks and Malvern Hill in Hooker's division, then commanded the division at Antietam and Fredericksburg.

Sickles took command of the 3rd Corps in February 1863, and on July 2, 1863, that corps was posted on Cemetery Ridge to defend the two hills known as the Round Tops.

In defiance of his orders, Sickles decided to advance to higher ground in a peach orchard west of the Round Tops. The Confederates soon attacked the exposed 3rd Corps salient, and in four hours, Sickles' decision cost 12,000 men killed, wounded or missing.

Toward the close of the second day's fighting at Gettysburg, a cannon ball struck Sickles' right leg. Rumors spread that he was mortally wounded. Before being carried to the hospital, he insisted that a cigar be lighted and placed in his mouth to dispel the rumor. The mound of amputated legs and arms was already high when Sickles was carried to surgery.

While Sickles was under a heavy dosage of brandy, his leg was amputated. He donated the amputated leg to the Army Medical Museum in Washington, where it is still on display, and Sickles went to view it on anniversaries of the amputation.

Sickles' decision to defy orders made him a hero in the eyes of the public and the Lincoln administration. He was awarded the Medal of Honor. His Confederate foe that day, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, said Sickles' aggressiveness had "saved the battlefield to the Union cause."

After the war, President Andrew Johnson appointed Sickles as military governor of the Carolinas in Charleston. A former House speaker, James Orr, said that Sickles' almost "unlimited powers have been exercised with moderation and forbearance," but in 1867, Johnson relieved Sickles, stating that he had used his authority "too strenuously."

'The Yankee King'

In July 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him the American minister to Spain. His daughter, Laura, who was then in her teens, accompanied him. He soon became known as "The Yankee King of Spain." He resigned under pressure in 1873 and left his second wife, Carolina Creagh, and their two children in Spain when she refused to return to the United States with him.

In 1886, he became chairman of the New York State Monument Commission, where he was influential in bringing about the creation of the national battlefield park at Gettysburg. He was removed from the commission in 1912 after $28,000 could not be accounted for.

From 1893 to 1895 he again represented New York in Congress.

There was always something going on in Sickles' life. He was a spendthrift with the combativeness of a fighting cock and a bent for philandering behavior. Sickles had very little contact with his wives after they "betrayed" him in different ways, or his children from either marriage. He didn't attend Laura's funeral when she died at age 38.

Sickles died May 3, 1914, at age 94 at his home in New York. Whatever his faults, Sickles was a patriot; at his burial, three shots rang out at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia in the traditional field artillery salute given to a Union general.


* Oct. 3-4, Living history encampment of the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves at the Pennsylvania Monument at Gettysburg National Military Park; demonstrations at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.; information, National Park Service at 717-334-1124.

* Oct. 10-11, Living history encampment of the U.S. Sharpshooters at Little Round Top at Gettysburg National Military Park; demonstrations at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.; information, National Park Service at 717-334-1124.

* Oct. 17-18, Living history encampment of the 95th Pennsylvania Infantry (Gosline's Zouaves) at the Pennsylvania Monument at Gettysburg National Military Park; demonstrations at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.; information, National Park Service at 717-334-1124.

* Oct. 23-24, Living history encampments of the 35th Ohio Infantry at the Pennsylvania Monument and of the 21st Virginia and 4th North Carolina Regiments at Pitzer Woods at Gettysburg National Military Park; demonstrations at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.; information, National Park Service at 717-334-1124.

* Nov. 13, Third annual Dedication Day parade through the battlefield and villages of Bolivar and Harpers Ferry, W.Va.; sponsored by the Federal Army of the Shenandoah and the Confederate Valley Division; for information, Mark Essig, 800-876-4447.

* Nov. 20, Remembrance Day with a parade to the Albert Woolson Monument at Gettysburg National Military Park for wreath-laying ceremonies; sponsored by the Sons of Union Veterans.

* June 9-11, 2000, Grand Review 2000, marking the 135th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. Harrisburg, Pa.; sponsored by the Great American Civil War Society and the Camp Curtin Historical Society in cooperation with the city of Harrisburg; information, 717-528-8761.

Pub Date: 09/19/99

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad