Daniel Sickles circa 1859
Often unnoticed by Gettysburg students is that there is some debate as to when Sickles was actually born. The consensus among biographers is that he was born in New York City on 20 October 1819. But numerous contemporary sources actually have his birth year ranging from 1819 to 1825. If we accept the most popular 1819 year of birth, then Dan was a few months shy of his forty-fourth birthday when he fought at Gettysburg.
There is also little reliable information about Sickles’s early years. Sickles simply talked infrequently of his pre-war years and marriage in later life. One accepted fact is that his father, George Sickles, was a real estate speculator whose financial fortunes fluctuated but ultimately ended up quite wealthy--- Dan Sickles would ultimately inherit and squander a large estate from his dad. In 1838, in order to prepare him for college, Dan’s parents installed him into the household of Lorenzo L. Da Ponte, a New York University professor. Also residing under the same roof was Da Ponte’s adopted daughter Maria and her husband, Antonio Bagioli. The Bagiolis had one child, an infant daughter Teresa who was born around 1836. Teresa would become Sickles’s first wife--- so as he was entering his twenties he was living with his wife as she was just learning to walk and talk.
Sickles opened law offices in New York in 1841. He quickly gained a reputation for questionable practices. He was indicted for obtaining money under false pretenses, was almost prosecuted for appropriating funds from another man, was accused of pocketing money that had been raised for a political pamphlet, and charged of improperly retaining a mortgage that he had pledged as collateral on a loan.
His political career began in 1844 when he became involved in New York’s Tammany Hall political machine. Sickles later liked to call himself “a tough Democrat; a fighting one; a Tammany Hall Democrat.”
Modern politics have nothing on the politicians of Sickles’s era. His political career was linked to stories about ballot tampering and theft, deceptive practices, bringing in illegal voters from other districts, and brawls (he was once thrown down a flight of stairs at a rally). But his star political star rose within Tammany throughout the 1850s.
Still a bachelor, he was gaining a reputation for fast and extravagant living. He was called a “lady killer” and one contemporary admitted that Sickles “led the life of a very fast young man”. Money reportedly “poured through his fingers”. He became romantically involved with a prostitute named Fanny White, who ran a bordello in the city. While a member of the State Assembly, he was censured by his outraged colleagues for bringing her into the Assembly chamber. There were even rumors that he collected money from her earnings in exchange for campaign favors. If true, Dan Sickles may be Gettysburg’s only corps commander with “pimp” on his diverse resume.
In September 1852, the nearly thirty-three year old Sickles shocked his family when he married the Bagiolis’s daughter, Teresa. The same girl whom Sickles had played with when she was an infant was now a sixteen year old student at a Catholic boarding school. Much to the objections of both his and her parents, they were married by New York’s mayor in a private civil ceremony. Why had a rising political star married a teenager? An anonymous family acquaintance later said that Teresa was pregnant. Teresa gave birth to a daughter, Laura, whose birth date is actually unclear, but there is some contemporary suggestion that it occurred in mid 1853, which would potentially leave the summer of 1852 (before the marriage) open as a conception date. But his marriage does not seem to have cured his own chronic womanizing, which he would continue for his entire life.
In May 1853, Dan accepted a post as assistant to James Buchanan, the new American minister in London. Sickles won over Buchanan, who was much impressed by Sickles’s abilities, and Sickles and Buchanan set sail for London in August 1853. Teresa did not initially accompany him so the prostitute Fanny White apparently accompanied him instead. While in London, Dan caused an uproar by refusing to participate in a toast to the Queen’s health on 4 July 1854. There was also a claim that Dan even introduced the prostitute to Her Majesty. But Teresa and new daughter Laura reached London in the spring of 1854, and Teresa quickly became a favorite of Buchanan, a sixty-two year old bachelor. Some historians believed that Teresa and Buchanan had an affair, with Sickles's approval, but this interpretation would be questionable if Buchanan was a homosexual as some historians believe.
Dan and Teresa returned to New York at the end of 1854. Decades before he would help develop Gettysburg National Military Park, he organized a special committee that was instrumental in the creation of New York’s Central Park. Despite considerable opposition, Sickles helped consolidate advocates of the park, obtained consensus on a site, and convinced the governor to sign legislation. Dan’s motives were not entirely pure; he freely admitted that he participated in a syndicate to purchase one thousand building lots near the park. Nearly fifty years later, Sickles would watch thousands enjoy the park and admit, “I sometimes feel a complacent pride in the recollection that I helped to create this park.”
In 1856, Sickles was elected to Congress in November by a wide margin, while his mentor Buchanan was also voted into the White House. Dan and Teresa arrived in Washington for Buchanan’s inauguration in March 1857 set up their household on the fashionable and prestigious Lafayette Square, literally across the street from the Executive Mansion. President Buchanan was a frequent guest. Washington wives played an important role in their husband’s careers and Teresa had significant social obligations. She was expected to attend a party nearly every other day and night. It was not uncommon for available bachelors to act as escorts for married women when their politician husbands were unavailable. Dan was meanwhile focused on his rising career. He worked late hours and traveled frequently.
KEY AND THE MURDER TRIAL
Shortly after arriving in Washington, Sickles met Philip Barton Key, a United States Attorney General and son of Francis Scott Key, composer of “The Star Spangled Banner”. Key’s wife had died in the 1850s leaving him with 4 children. He claimed that his wife’s death had shattered his health he was increasingly unable to attend to his professional duties. But his supposed poor health did not prevent his attendance at Washington parties where he was a favorite of every Washington hostess and a known ladies man himself. Key was nervous that Buchanan might replace him, and Sickles generously agreed to intercede on his behalf. Thanks to Sickles, Key was reappointed to his position.
Philip Barton Key
Key and Sickles quickly became friends and Key increasingly accompanied Teresa to functions when Sickles was traveling or attending late night Congressional sessions. This was not unusual by itself but gossip began to grow concerning Key and Teresa. When a young clerk was caught spreading rumors that Teresa and Key had spent time together at an inn, Sickles confronted Key, who vehemently denied the charge. Key had lied: he and Teresa were having an affair.
Key and Teresa began to meet in a rented house on Washington’s Fifteenth Street, a poor neighborhood only two blocks north of Lafayette Square. Key also took to signaling Teresa from Lafayette Square by waving a white handkerchief while standing across from the Sickles house. He carried a pair of opera glasses, which he would use to detect her signals from inside the house.
Unfortunately for Key, on 25 February 1859, Sickles received an anonymous letter that informed him about the house on Fifteenth Street, which Key rented as the letter said: “for no other purpose than to meet your wife Mrs. Sickles. He hangs a string out of the window as a signal to her that he is in and leaves the door unfastened and she walks in and sir I do assure you with these few hints I leave the rest for you to imagine.”
The evening of 26 February, Dan extracted a full written confession from Teresa. She admitted, in writing, to meeting with Key in the house on Fifteenth Street, as well as in the Sickles house when Dan was away.
The next day was a Sunday, 27 February. Phillip Barton Key was unaware of Teresa’s confession and had approached the Sickles house several times already that day. As Key passed the house, he would twirl his white handkerchief slowly, an obvious signal for Teresa to come out and play. Sickles noticed and shouted, “That villain has just passed my house! My God, this is horrible!” Sickles armed himself with a revolver and two derringers, along with a hat and overcoat.
Key was on the square’s southeast corner near Pennsylvania Avenue, across from the President’s Mansion. Sickles rapidly approached Key, shouting, “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my house- you must die!” Dan produced a gun and fired at close range. The first shot only grazed Key, who still cried out “Murder!” The two men began to struggle. Sickles hit Key two inches below the groin with a second bullet. Key slumped onto the ground at Sickles’s feet. Sickles pulled the trigger again. It misfired. He cocked the gun yet again, placed it on Key’s chest, and fired. This time the bullet entered below Key’s heart. His chest filling with blood, Key fell backwards. Sickles now put the gun to Key’s head. Again it misfired.
Harper's Magazine Rendition of the Murder Scene
Since Lafayette Square was crowded, there were numerous eyewitnesses who now began to intervene between the two men. Sickles stood with the gun and asked, “Is the scoundrel dead?” Sickles was led away and Key died shortly thereafter; the chest wound had been fatal. Congressman Sickles surrendered himself to the Attorney General and was led off to jail.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the murder of Philip Barton Key, and accompanying trial of Congressman Sickles, was the equivalent of the era’s OJ Simpson trial. It had everything: adultery, politics, celebrity, and murder. Newspapers across the country provided extensive coverage of the so-called “Sickles Tragedy”; it was daily front-page news across the country.
There was significant show of public sympathy for Congressman Sickles. Sickles’s many friends were in evidence when the trial began on 4 April 1859. On the opening day, Congressman Sickles pleaded, “Not guilty”, in a clear and firm tone. There was considerable difficulty in finding an impartial jury who had not already formed an opinion. Several candidates expressed the outright opinion that they would acquit if selected.
When the defense opened, attorney John Graham’s lengthy opening argued that given the heinous discovery of his wife with his friend, Sickles’ mind had become obviously “affected” and that there had not been “sufficient time” for “his passion to cool”. It was this final point that made the trial noteworthy beyond its merely scandalous aspects. The Sickles team had placed what would become known as “temporary insanity” defense before an American jury for the first time.
The jury ultimately found Congressman Sickles “Not Guilty”. Pandemonium and cheers broke out in the courtroom. So many people swarmed Dan to offer their congratulations that police had to escort him out of the court. Most nationwide newspapers praised the verdict. But within only three months of the acquittal, shocking rumors were confirmed that the infamous couple had actually reconciled.
Dan Sickles remained uncharacteristically on the sidelines when he reported back to Congress in December 1859. He had little influence, actively participated in few debates, and was ostracized by colleagues. Southern diarist Mary Chesnut famously observed Sickles “sitting alone on the benches of the Congress…He was as left to himself as if he had smallpox.” When Chesnut asked why he was such an outcast, a friend sniffed that killing Key “was all right…It was because he condoned his wife’s [adultery], and took her back…Unsavory subject.” Thus, it surprised no one when Sickles declined to run for another term. It was a shockingly swift fall for both the husband and wife who had arrived in Washington with so much promise only a few short years before.
Sickles would never quite live down the Key murder. Ultimately, the Key scandal’s most lasting impact on Gettysburg was the fact that it drove Sickles out of Congress; when the war started in 1861 Sickles would be looking for a new career. The disgraced ex-Congressman Daniel Sickles would transform himself into General Daniel Sickles.
Since his last session of Congress ended in March 1861, Sickles was back in New York, practicing law as a private citizen when the American Civil War officially opened in April. There are multiple versions relating how Sickles then joined the army. The most popular version goes that one day while drinking at Delmonico’s, his friend Captain William Wiley offered to raise a regiment if Sickles agreed to command it. Sickles also met with the new President Lincoln, who assured Sickles that he needed every “Democrat of prominence…right up in the front line of the fighting.” Lincoln needed the support of prominent Democrats like Sickles to support his war effort and the two men would mutually exploit each other for the remainder of the war.
Sickles and Wiley decided to raise a brigade rather than a regiment, which was good for Sickles since colonels commanded regiments while brigadier generals commanded brigades. They recruited about 3,000 men and Sickles dubbed his new brigade the “Excelsior Brigade” after the New York State motto (“Ever Upward”).
Sickles Early in the War
On 22 July 1861, the day after the Federal disaster at First Bull Run, the brigade finally received orders to depart for Washington. Having raised a brigade, Sickles probably now presumed that his brigadier generalship was assured. But the Senate would delay his confirmation to brigadier general for several months. Ever the opportunist, Sickles would use his time in Washington to good advantage; further ingratiating himself with Lincoln and making sure that the promotion would go through. He particularly became friends with Mary Todd Lincoln. Many watched in disgust as he was said to call on her at all hours, and escort her when President Lincoln was unavailable, just as Key had done to Teresa.
In the spring of 1862, Sickles finally began to get battlefield experience when his Excelsior Brigade was assigned to Joseph Hooker’s division in the Third Corps. This would have a profound impact on Sickles’s military career. General Sickles saw his first major combat at Fair Oaks (or Seven Pines) on 1 June. Sickles deployed the Excelsiors under fire and actually acquitted himself well; the Excelsiors were praised in both McClellan and Hooker’s reports. The Excelsiors saw more action during the Seven Days’ Battles, and it is during this campaign that Sickles received the majority of his pre-Gettysburg combat experience. He then departed the brigade and spent the late summer of 1862 giving recruiting speeches and as a result, he missed the Second Manassas Campaign and Antietam campaigns.
Sickles finally rejoined his brigade in early November 1862. When Ambrose Burnside took command of the army following Antietam, Hooker’s growing reputation carried him into command of Burnside’s new Center Grand Division, which included the Third and Fifth Corps. Sickles was then promoted to major general and given command of Hooker’s old Second Division of the Third Corps. The promotion was an astonishing advance given that only a few months ago his brigadier generalship was in serious doubt and he had done really little fighting in the interim.
At the battle of Fredericksburg, George Stoneman’s Third Corps consisted of 3 divisions: David Birney’s First Division, Sickles’s Second Division, and Amiel W. Whipple’s Third Division. On December 13th 1862 at Fredericksburg, Sickles and Birney’s divisions were ordered to support General John Reynolds’s attacks from the Federal left against Stonewall Jackson’s lines south of Fredericksburg. One of Reynolds’s divisions under George Meade actually broke a hole in Jackson’s lines, but Meade had no support on his flanks and was ultimately driven back in confusion.
Although Reynolds later praised Birney’s performance; Meade blamed Birney for not directly supporting his attack. Birney resented Meade’s criticism, and when Meade later took command of the Army of the Potomac, it was said that Meade was hated in the Third Corps particularly by Birney. Sickles meanwhile saw almost no combat at Fredericksburg. As 1863 dawned, Sickles still had not really seen any major action since the summer of 1862.
Fredericksburg’s bloody failure led inauspiciously into 1863 for Sickles and the Army of the Potomac. When Burnside was relieved on 25 January, Abraham Lincoln promoted Joe Hooker to command the Army of the Potomac.
One of Hooker’s first orders of business was to settle on his staff. Hooker appointed New Yorker Dan Butterfield as his chief of staff. Like Sickles, Butterfield was not West Point, his father was a founder in the American Express company. Butterfield and George Meade also had a past history together. Burnside had previously replaced Butterfield as Fifth Corps commander with Meade. Butterfield resented being superseded and it created friction between him and Meade. Many of the professionals would also learn to hate Butterfield in his new role as the army’s chief of staff.
General Dan Butterfield
As Hooker reorganized his new army, and although Brigadier General Sickles had commanded a division during only one battle, in which he saw little combat, Hooker placed him in command of the Third Corps. As the highest ranking non-West Pointer in the army, a distinction he would carry into Gettysburg, Sickles’ promotion to major general and command of the Third Corps was an amazing development, even for that politically charged army.
Contemporaries described Sickles as being able to drink to excess on social occasions but he was otherwise generally moderate with alcohol. Meanwhile, Hooker was known for hard drinking, among other social vices. But Hooker, for all his faults, was too good a soldier to let drinking interfere with his duties. Charles Wainwright, who would command First Corps artillery at Gettysburg, confided to his diary: “I should say that his failing was more in the way of women than whiskey.” One brothel-filled section of Washington’s Second Ward had famously become known as “Hooker’s Division.” Sickles had never practiced marital fidelity while at home, and with Teresa exiled in New York, he became close friends with Butterfield, and Hooker. After Hooker’s promotions, much of the Army of the Potomac’s efforts in early 1863 seemed to focus (not surprisingly) on partying in winter quarters. Hooker had a reputation as a hard drinker, mostly from his California days, but he was too good a soldier to let drinking interfere with his duties. Charles Wainwright, who would command First Corps artillery at Gettysburg, confided to his diary: “I should say that his failing was more in the way of women than whiskey."
During the winter of 1863, the three men set the army’s social and morality standards. Captain Charles Adams famously complained: “The Army of the Potomac sank to its lowest point. It was commanded by a trio, of each of whom the least said the better… During that winter (1862-3) when Hooker was in command, I can say from personal knowledge and experience that the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac was a place to which no self-respecting man liked to go, and no decent woman would go. It was a combination of bar-room and brothel.”
One general who was decidedly excluded from this social calendar was the new Fifth Corps commander, George Meade. Already unpopular in the Third Corps following Fredericksburg and resented by the new Chief of Staff, Meade had no interest in their social vices and held the regular soldier’s healthy dose of disrespect for amateurs like Sickles and Butterfield. Throughout that winter, Meade was regularly excluded from Hooker and Sickles’ parties.
General Joe Hooker
Chancellorsville was fought only two months before Gettysburg and Hooker was soundly beaten by Lee in his only battle commanding the Army of the Potomac. Sickles sees major combat for the first time at his level. Of the 17,000 Federal casualties at Chancellorsville, Sickles’ Third Corps suffers 4,100. Sickles also displays an ability to misinterpret battlefield intelligence when he discovers Stonewall Jackson’s legendary flank march in progress and misinterprets it as a retreat. Sickles then displays poor judgment by ordering a midnight attack in the Wilderness on the night of May 2. Finally, on May 3, Sickles (along with 30+ artillery pieces) are withdrawn by Hooker from a key artillery position called Hazel Grove which the Confederate batteries then use to pound Hooker out of his position.
After the crushing Federal defeat at Chancellorsville, Hooker decided to retreat across the Rappahannock River. Hooker called a council of war and Sickles sided with Hooker in favor of a retreat. George Meade seemed to favor advancing, but when criticism of Hooker started appearing in the press and in the army, Hooker and Sickles accused Meade of arguing in favor of a retreat. It is a tactic that Sickles will use against Meade after Gettysburg.
But following Chancellorsville, Hooker began to argue with Washington over his troop dispositions and on June 28, only three days before Gettysburg, Hooker resigned and was replaced by George Meade. Sickles is out of favor with the new commander, and has little inexperience acting independently at the corps level. Working against Meade is that Meade kept Sickles’ buddy Dan Butterfield as Chief of Staff, a move Meade will come to regret.A good example of Sickles’s new problems occur on the morning of July 1. Meade issued contingency orders for the army to fall back onto a defensive line at Pipe Creek in Maryland. Sickles was positioned at Emmitsburg in case Lee should attempt to flank the Federal left. As fighting escalated at Gettysburg, both Generals Reynolds and Howard urged Sickles to come to Gettysburg. Sickles became paralyzed with indecision and will not reach Gettysburg until 7:00 pm on July 1; after the fighting is over.
GETTYSBURG: 2 JULY 1863
That morning, Meade ordered Sickles to anchor the left end of Cemetery Ridge which included Little Round Top. Meade and the Union high command were centering their line on Cemetery Hill (the hook in the fish hook), but were concerned that their flanks were vulnerable. For that reason, it was Hancock on the evening of July 1 who had ordered part of Henry Slocum’s 12th Corps to occupy Little Round Top. The morning of July 2, Meade wanted the 12th Corps reunited on the Federal right at Culp’s Hill. So he ordered Sickles to take the position occupied by the 12th Corps and hold down the left end of Cemetery Ridge, including Little Round Top. Meade sent his son and aide, Captain George Meade, out to ensure that Sickles was in position. But Sickles would not come out of his tent to talk to George Jr. and instead had the Third Corps artillery chief tell Captain Meade that Sickles was confused over his position. Trouble was brewing on the Federal left.
Sickles made several efforts to communicate his uncertainty. At 11:00, Sickles went to Meade’s headquarters and requests assistance in posting his troops. Meade declined to go, but gave Henry Hunt permission to accompany Sickles on a review of the terrain. Meade later claimed that he had absolutely no idea that Sickles harbored doubts about his position. Sickles then informed Hunt that he wanted to move his corps forward to a line that is, at its peak, was nearly ½ mile in front of Cemetery Ridge, running from Devils Den to the Peach Orchard and Emmitsburg Road.
Sherfy's Peach Orchard
The primary disadvantage of Sickles’ position was that the Third Corps was too far in advance of Meade’s army to receive support. Meade’s reinforcements had to cover ½ mile of open ground and Sickles negated Meade’s interior lines. The essentially straight line along Cemetery Ridge, which Meade intended Sickles to occupy, was approximately 1,600 yards in length. Sickles’s Third Corps had roughly 10,675 effectives and he would later claim that he lacked sufficient strength to man Meade’s front. Yet the new position covered a front that was nearly twice as long; approximately 3,500 yards. Despite his efforts to refuse them, his flanks were in the air.
One of the biggest criticisms directed at Sickles was that by moving forward he abandoned Little Round Top--- viewed by many as the key to the Union left because it was the highest defensible point in the immediate vicinity. Not a problem for Sickles because over the next 50 years he would repeatedly lie and say that he did occupy Little Round Top and supervised the placement of reinforcements up there!
At 3:00 pm., Meade called a war council to discuss his next move with his corps commanders. (Meade omitted mentioning this meeting in his testimony before Congress.) In preparation for this meeting, Meade had asked Butterfield to prepare a contingency retreat order--- Sickles and Butterfield would later claim that Meade intended to use this 3:00 meeting to begin his retreat from Gettysburg. This would be the heart of the so-called Meade/Sickles controversy for the next five decades: Sickles claiming that Meade intended to retreat before the victory was won.
But the 3:00 meeting never occured. Gouverneur Warren arrived and announces that Sickles is out of line: nearly ½ mile in front of the Cemetery Ridge line. As Sickles arrived for the meeting, Meade told him not to dismount (the thunder of Longstreet’s artillery was audible on Sickles’s front). Meade then followed Sickles to the Peach Orchard and demanded an explanation. Sickles lamely offered to withdraw back to his intended position on Cemetery Ridge. But it was too late; Longstreet’s attack had opened, shells were flying, and Meade decided that it would be too dangerous to pull back under fire. So Meade decided to keep Sickles in position and instead reinforce his beleagured line. It is a questionable decision in hindsight; throwing in troops to support what they know is a defective position. But Sickles would again use this to his advantage in his later battles with Meade. Sickles would argue repeatedly over the years that Meade approved his new position because he did not pull him out of it!
Dead Horses at Trostle Farm (Sickles' Headquarters)
Longstreet’s attack began at 4:00 and Sickles’s Third Corps was driven out of Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, and Peach Orchard with heavy loss. At the same time, Sickles’s position helped further stretch Longstreet’s already overextended line. Rather than enveloping and driving in the Federal left as intended, Longstreet’s attack degenerated into a series of uncoordinated frontal assaults and when the day ended, Longstreet held most of Sickles’s line; but Meade still held Cemetery Ridge.
Late in the afternoon, perhaps 6:30 pm, Sickles was attempting to rally his crumbling line, when a Confederate artillery shell smashed into his right leg. Gettysburg legend tells us that in a moment of great theatrics, Sickles stuffed a cigar in his mouth and was carried from the field calmly smoking and urging his mend to stand firm.
That night his right leg was amputated and his military career is over—or is it? The amputation of his leg actually turns out to be one of his greatest career moves. He will spend the next 50 years portraying himself as the one-legged hero of Gettysburg. It is significant to note that he would actually learn to use an artificial leg, but would prefer instead to attend battlefield reunions with a crutch and missing leg as a permanent reminder of his sacrifice. Mark Twain met Sickles in later years and came to the conclusion that Sickles “valued the leg he lost more than the one he’s got” and “I’m sure if he had to part with one he would prefer to lose the one he still has.”
AFTER THE BATTLE
The Battle of Gettysburg—viewed as a great victory today—was considered a disappointment in the North because Meade was unable to prevent Lee from escaping back into Virginia. While recuperating from his wound in Washington, Sickles was frequently visited by his friend Abraham Lincoln. During these visits Lincoln expressed his disappointment that Lee had escaped. It seems clear that Sickles helped reinforce Lincoln’s displeasure.
It was this disappointment that led into the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War’s Gettysburg hearings in the Spring of 1864. The committee called nearly all of Meade’s senior officers to testify. Their first witness was Dan Sickles. Sickles was smarting under mild criticism that he had received in the reports of Meade and Henry Halleck. Criticism of his failure to occupy Little Round Top was also in the public domain. Sickles used Congress as an opportunity to justify his decision to move forward---even going so far as to lie and tell Congress that he did in fact occupy Little Round Top. He also began his fifty year assault by claiming that Meade had wanted to retreat at 3:00 on July 2, and that his advance had prevented Meade from abandoning Gettyburg. The heart of the so-called Meade/Sickles controversy is that Sickles addressed criticism of his Gettysburg performance by claiming that Meade had planned a retreat on July 2. Sickles never said it in so many words—but the implication was clear—he deserved credit for keeping the army at Gettysburg and thus was responsible for much of the victory. Sickles also testified that he was positive that Meade could have defeated Lee at Williamsport and prevented an escape. This was an interesting observation since Sickles wasn’t even with the army at that time.
General George Meade
A frequently repeated myth is that George Meade intended to court-martial Sickles and would have done so, were it not for Sickles's missing leg. This is probably incorrect. Meade stated on several occasions that he believed Sickles made a simple error of judgment. Meade’s criticism of Sickles in his battle report was actually mild, and Meade's own Congressional testimony suggests that he would have left the matter alone. But Meade was forced to testify before the committee and demonstrate that he had never intended to retreat and wanted to fight at Gettysburg, taking some of the heat off of Sickles and instead putting Meade on the defensive.
Ironically, although Meade has been portrayed by his own admission as a political novice, he actually beat the committee and Sickles at their game. When Grant was promoted and came east, the committee lost much of their interest and ability to replace Meade. Meade stayed in command throughout the war; he disbanded Sickles’ beloved Third Corps in 1864, and refused to allow Sickles to return to the army. History has clearly come down on Meade’s side in this argument, and for more than anything else, Sickles’ historical reputation gets dragged through the mud. It is for his attempts to attack Meade, and not for his battlefield blunders, that Sickles is so enthusiastically hated by so many today.
AFTER THE WAR
After the war, Sickles was most concerned (like many vets) with getting on with his life. He spent the late 1860s – 1870s on Reconstruction Duty and then served as Minister to Spain. Teresa Sickles died unexpectedly in 1867, leaving him a bachelor again. In Spain, he regained his reputation for entertaining lavishly, well above his annual salary. Dan began a romantic affair with the deposed Queen Isabella II in Paris, and the French press sarcastically dubbed him the “Yankee King of Spain”. But in November 1871, he instead married one of Isabella’s twenty-something attendants, Caroline de Creagh. An acquaintance later insisted that both parties “married in the belief that the other party had plenty of money…But they were temperamentally unsuited to each other, and never agreed on any subject…”
>Even worse, his second marriage did not cure his chronic philandering. In 1873, one anonymous American complained to the Secretary of State, “While in Madrid his conduct with women has been simply disgraceful.” Dan was accused of living in adultery with another woman prior to the marriage and of using “child virgins for the purpose of prostitution.
Sickles resigned his position in 1873 after a dispute with the Secretary of State; and moved from Spain to Paris for a few years. On the positive side, Caroline bore a daughter (Eda) in 1875 and a son (George Stanton) in 1876. Approaching fifty-seven years old, and with a significant physical disability, Sickles was starting a new family at an age when most men were preparing to retire. In late 1879 he decided to return to the U.S. From Gettysburg’s point of view, Sickles timed his tenure abroad perfectly. He returns here in the 1880s just as the old Civil war veterans are getting ready to commemorate the war in large numbers. Given his organizational abilities, and without anything to occupy his time, he throws himself full-blown into veterans’ affairs. Again, the timing is perfect.
During one of his earliest return visits, in 1882, he was asked (as he repeatedly would be), “if there was any serious question as to the position you took that day?” Sickles referred to such questions as “absurdity”, he stuck to his guns and declared that if he had “been in the low ground running from Round Top towards Cemetery Hill” then the Third Corps would have “left Round Top entirely uncovered”.
Sickles was often asked if Meade had ever condemned his movements? “Not that I know of. He certainly never gave me an indication by word or act that he regarded my position at Gettysburg a mistake. Indeed, I do not see how he could have done so for…he looked over my position and declined to interfere with it, when I asked if he would suggest any change.” Recalling the events of 2 July many times during the 1880s and 1890s, Sickles would repeatedly declare, “I would do tomorrow under the conditions and circumstances that then existed exactly what I did on July 2.” In reflecting upon almost thirty-six years of controversy in 1899, “I have heard all the criticisms and read all the histories and after hearing and reading all I would say to them I would do what I did and accept the verdict of history on my acts. It was a mighty good fight both made and I am satisfied with my part in it.”
Sickles Returns to the Trostle Farm
The year 1886 officially changed the nature of Sickles’ involvement with the Gettysburg battlefield. Sickles was appointed the chairman of the New York Monuments Commission for the Battlefield of Gettysburg. For nearly the remainder of his life, Sickles would be consumed by a mission to appropriate and correctly place monuments to all New York regiments, batteries, and ranking commanders on the battlefield. These new monuments would require dedication speeches, typically in front of enthusiastic veterans. Sickles’ new role ensured that he would become a welcome staple at battlefield reunions; refighting the battle to an assorted cast of aging veterans and an increasing number of attendees who had not yet been born when he made his controversial move to the Peach Orchard.
Because of his new prominence at the battlefield, the year 1886 witnessed what historian Richard Sauers called “a rapid escalation of the controversy” between Meade (who had died in 1872) and Sickles. A friend of Meade’s published a letter that Meade had written before his death, in which Meade wrote: “Sickles’ movement practically destroyed his own corps… [and produced] 66 per cent of the loss of the whole battle, and with what result- driving us back to the position he was ordered to hold originally.” Meade claimed these crippling losses prevented him “from having the audacity in the offense that I might otherwise have had”, laying the blame for Meade’s inability to destroy Lee’s army right back into Sickles’ lap. “If this is an advantage- to be so crippled in battle without attaining an object- I must confess I cannot see it”.
During this period, Dan also befriended James Longstreet, his Gettysburg opponent. In Atlanta on St. Patrick’s Day 1892, they both attended a banquet at the “Irish Societies of Atlanta”. That night, the two walked each other home after getting plastered on Irish whiskey. “Old fellow,” Dan asked on route, “I hope you are sorry for shooting off my leg at Gettysburg. I suppose I will have to forgive you for it some day.” A drunken Longstreet exclaimed, “Forgive me? You ought to thank me for leaving you one leg to stand on…”
The two men increasingly became friends during this period, both sharing the distinction of having their Gettysburg performance assailed by critics on both sides. Whether they actually believed it or not, each man would frequently tell anyone who would listen that the other had done right on 2 July 1863.
By the early 1890s, Sickles was not only still active but also very wealthy. His father, George Sickles, had died in 1887 with an estate full of investments and real estate valued between $4 and $7 million. Dan was named administrator of the estate and was left with a series of rental and commercial properties throughout the city. In his mid-seventies, it appeared that Dan would never have to worry financially ever again, but as he demonstrated throughout his life, placing large sums of money in his hands was always a precarious proposition.
A surprising development occurred in 1892 when Sickles was re-elected to Congress--- over thirty years after he had been disgraced in the Key murder trial. Gettysburg literature frequently and inaccurately tells us that Sickles returned to Congress on a one-man crusade to establish Gettysburg National Military Park. Sickles was re-nominated because he had incurred the Democratic party’s wrath when he blasted Democrat Presidential candidate Grover Cleveland’s lack of war record. His nomination was the result of Tammany Hall back-stage maneuvering to prove his loyalty and quiet Cleveland’s critics.
Veteran affairs, but not Gettysburg, were at the top of his agenda. During a speech in Harlem, Sickles said he was going to Congress “for the very purpose” of “keeping up the pensions system or establishing it on a wider basis.” On the eve of election, the Times listed Sickles among those candidates “certain of election”, and on 8 November, over thirty years after his first term had ended, Dan Sickles was once again elected to Congress. The New York Times would later marvel that Sickles was returning at “an age when most men are ready to retire.”
Sickles in His Later years
Throughout the 1890s and early 1900s, Sickles continued to return to Gettysburg, remained head of the New York Monuments Commission, attended monument dedications, and sat on the board of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association. But controversy always followed him. He and his supporters continued to beat up George Meade’s reputation. He was criticized for the size and location of New York’s Monument in the National Cemetery—many thought that the monument was too prominent in the cemetery. At the battle’s thirtieth anniversary in 1893, Sickles and Butterfield were sued by photographer William Tipton after some of their cronies broke Tipton’s camera on Little Round Top. He was removed from the board of directors of the soldiers home in Bath NY when funds were found to be missing. Commendably, he also railed against commercial development on the battlefield; and as a Congressman he assisted attempts to condemn Tipton’s commercial developments at Devil’s Den.
In March 1893, a Congressional sundry bill had allocated $25,000 to preserve and mark the lines of both armies. Sickles developed the concept of what he wanted Gettysburg to be further. As he told one audience, he intended to introduce legislation placing Gettysburg under Federal control, the monuments protected from vandalism, and a military post “to be garrisoned by artillery, to the end that the morning and evening sun may forever salute the flag and the Union which were so heroically defended on this historic ground.”
Dan reported for the 53rd Congress’s third and his final session in December 1894. The Gettysburg history frequently tells us that Sickles had gone to Congress for the sole purpose of designating Gettysburg as a national military park. If true, he certainly waited until the last possible session to do so. In December, he finally introduced a bill “to establish a national military park at Gettysburg, PA”. There seemed little doubt that the bill would pass, and the debate primarily concerned the details.
Sickles’s proposal authorized the Secretary of War to purchase the necessary land from the GBMA to preserve the battlefield and the National Cemetery. Sickles’s bill also authorized the creation of “a suitable bronze tablet” containing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. A late modification designated the park boundaries as "the parcels shown on the map prepared by Maj. Gen Daniel E. Sickles..."
The last point is interesting because the initial boundaries of Gettysburg National Military Park were accepted based on a map that Dan had drawn up. What would become known as the “Sickles Map” remained in effect until 1974, when a Senate Appropriations Committee accepted a National Park Service recommendation to protect additional acreage and eliminate the map as marking the park’s boundary. Not only did Sickles push through the legislation, but for the park’s nearly first eighty years he determined its boundaries. When combined with his battlefield influence, and his role in erecting New York’s monuments, he clearly becomes one of the most influential figures in Gettysburg's history.
The resolution passed through the House and Senate, and on 11 February 1895, the President officially signed the bill establishing Gettysburg National Military Park. It was the most lasting initiative of Sickles’ long career, even if the vast majority of Gettysburg’s modern visitors are completely unaware of his involvement. With Gettysburg’s future attended to, Sickles closed out his final days in Washington. But not surprisingly, he remained busy in “retirement”. He escorted Teddy Roosevelt to Gettysburg in 1904 and lived across the street from Mark Twain in New York.
When Oliver Howard died in 1909, Sickles achieved venerated status as Gettysburg’s last surviving corps commander in either army. He milked the attention for all it was worth. But Sickles was physically a shadow of his former self and a far cry from the lady-killer who prowled around Washington in the 1850s and Joe Hooker’s headquarters in the 1860s.
While Sickles enjoyed his celebrity status, darker clouds were gathering that would attract significant press coverage and severely tarnish his legacy. Sometime during his time in New York, Sickles had become attached to a housekeeper by the name of Eleanor Wilmerding. Sickles’ wife Caroline and now adult-son Stanton had sailed from Europe to New York in 1908. Despite the fact that he had now been away from them for nearly three decades, both seemed to genuinely hope for a reconciliation. Caroline demanded, however, that in order to reconcile, Sickles was to dismiss Wilmerding from the house. Sickles refused to fire Wilmerding so Mrs. Sickles and son Stanton were instead banished to a nearby hotel. The whole soap opera was replayed enthusiastically in the New York newspapers and once again Sickles’ marital life was in the news for all the wrong reasons.
Sickles never reined in his lifelong habit of extravagant spending, and amazingly he blew through his father’s inheritance. General Sickles was broke and war hero or not, his creditors began legal actions, including placing his home in foreclosure. In 1912, Caroline learned that an $8,200 judgment had been placed against Dan, and his household goods were to be sold at auction. Despite their continuing estrangement, Caroline and son Stanton pawned her jewels in a New York pawnshop to pay his debts. But although her sacrifice received extensive press coverage, it did not lead to reconciliation. When Caroline and Stanton journeyed to Dan’s home to notify him of the payment, they were refused admittance on orders of Wilmerding. An exasperated Stanton complained, “My father is completely in the clutches of this woman.”
It was against this financial backdrop that the battle’s fiftieth anniversary, and the end of Dan Sickles’ Gettysburg adventure, arrived in 1913. The General was now in his early nineties, failing mentally, nearly blind, and confined to a wheelchair. It was readily apparent that he was no longer capable of managing his own household affairs, let alone the finances of an organization like the New York State Monuments Commission. Several months prior to the Gettysburg anniversary, New York State’s controller performed an audit of the commission’s books and found that over $28,000 was unaccounted for.
New York State’s attorney general actually intended to initiate criminal proceedings against the entire eight-man commission. But just as he had refused to consider his Gettysburg performance a “misapprehension” of orders, he once again stubbornly held that, for better or worse, his faults were his own. Sickles requested that he be the sole target of the legal proceedings. The state was serious about recouping the money, but ultimately realized that prosecuting a popular ninety-something war-hero was sensitive business. But he was embarrassingly deposed as chairman of the commission.
Although Sickles’ legions of detractors are pre-disposed to believe the worst, a review of Sickles’ mental, physical, and financial status at this stage of his life suggests that the shortfall was probably due more to incompetence than malice. Horatio King, a member of the commission, stated, “It is most unlikely that the shortage was incurred with dishonorable motives or that there will be any criminal prosecution. General Sickles allowed the shortage to occur through laxness rather than design.”
Wife Caroline and son Stanton Sickles intervened once again. Stanton paid $5,000 out of his own pocket. Caroline issued a public appeal for the remaining $23,000. “I wish the public would come to the aid of General Sickles. If I can forgive General Sickles, I think the general public can.”
Most memorable was the response from Helen Longstreet, who wired Sickles from Gainesville that she would try to raise the money from “the ragged, destitute, maimed veterans who followed Lee. When word of her offer was made public, Helen told the newspapers, “My husband always spoke of Gen. Sickles as the hero of Gettysburg. General Longstreet…told him [Sickles] that the taking of the Peach Orchard by Sickles’ corps won the battle for the Union forces…” The state’s attorney general knew that he was facing a potential public relations nightmare, and responded to Mrs. Longstreet. “Your sympathetic and patriotic expressions do justice to your heart, but they do violence to the facts in this case. New York State appreciates her heroes and feels humiliated at the spectacle which this case presents.”
An order for arrest was finally issued on Saturday, 25 January. News reporters staked out the house and watched as Sickles’ valet hung three American flags out of the window. However, New York’s sheriff waited until Sickles’ attorney, Daniel P. Hays, had arranged for Sickles’ freedom with a $30,000 bond from a surety company. Hays and the Sheriff then went to Sickles’ house followed by a revue of reporters. After Sickles signed for the bond, the county charged him a $5.25 serving fee. Sickles summoned Wilmerding to pay the bill. She replied dutifully, “Yes, dear” but tripped on a carpet and scattered the loose change all over the floor.
Sickles then gave the sheriff a letter in which Dan addressed (of all things) criticism of his Gettysburg performance. Sickles included Longstreet’s statement that Sickles’s advance to the Peach Orchard had helped the Union cause. Sickles told the Sheriff: “You will see from the statement of General Longstreet that I won the great and decisive battle of Gettysburg”. Sickles avoided Jail time but the state never received its missing $23,000. He had spent the previous fifty years cultivating his war-hero image. In the end, that image combined with his ability to rally supporters saved him from his chronic financial irresponsibility.
Sickles suddenly seemed to have transformed from celebrity to what one author has since called a “relic of a bygone era”, and an embarrassing one at that. But if the early months of 1913 represented one of the lowest points of Sickles’ public life, the summer still held the promise of Gettysburg’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations. When July 1913 finally and mercifully arrived, newspapers across the country covered the massive Blue and Gray reunion of at least 50,000 veterans. The camps were officially open from 29 June through 6 July and the celebration was an odd mixture of remembrance and side show.
Only a few months shy of his ninety-fourth birthday, Sickles arrived in a wheelchair accompanied by Wilmerding and his valet. This time, his age and infirmity prevented him from making any extended speeches. He was undeniably a center of attention and newspaper reports consistently updated readers on his movements.
Sickles and Wilmerding
Legend tells us that as Sickles and Chaplain Joe Twichell looked out over the field together for one last time, Twichell is said to have expressed surprise that there was still no Sickles statue on the field. Legend tells us that Sickles replied (to the effect) that the whole damned battlefield was his monument. The moment symbolically defines Sickles’s immense battlefield contributions, as well as both his final acknowledgment that he might never receive a statue at Gettysburg.
While we may never see a Sickles statue on the battlefield, but his presence is, in fact, nearly everywhere. Think of him the next time you are at Gettysburg:
- The lengthy “Sickles Avenue” runs over much of his line of battle.
- The Excelsior Brigade monument, even without the legendary missing bust, commemorates both he and the men he raised in New York.
- The marker near the Trostle farm (placed in 1901) denotes where he was wounded, while the New York Monument in the National Cemetery depicts the dramactic moment.
- The back-side of the Lincoln Speech Memorial, dedicated in 1912, credits Sickles with introduction the legislation that estrablished the park and erected the monuments.
- His name sits at the top of the New York Auxiliary State Monument, dedicated in 1925 (after his death) to the memory of all New York commanders who were not individually honoredelsewhere.
- Under his leadership, New York placed eighty-eight monuments on the battlefield, the state monument in the National Cemetery, statues to two generals (Slocum and Greene), and applications for two more (Wadsworth and Webb).
- Locales such as Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, and the Peach Orchard might not have any significance today were it not for his 2 July advance.
- He established the Park’s initial boundaries.
- Even the fence separating the National Cemetery and the local Evergreen Cemetery was the same that stood in Lafayette Square when Dan killed Barton Key.
The whole damn battlefield might not be his monument, but he certainly has his share of it.
DEATH OF SICKLES
Approximately six months after returning from Gettysburg, Wilmerding took ill and died in February 1914. About two months later, Dan suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on 24 April 1914. Lingering in semi-consciousness, he was surrounded by Caroline, Stanton, an attorney, and a nurse when he died at his Fifth Avenue home at 9:10 p.m. on 3 May. Although his obituary contributed to the confusion over his age by noting that he “lived to be almost 91”, he was more likely six months short of his ninety-fifth birthday. He died bankrupt.
The New York Times eulogized “a stirring” career. He was remembered as a “soldier, politician, and diplomat…the last of that galaxy of corps commanders who made possible the achievement of Grant and brought our great civil strife to a triumphant close.”
Sickles Funeral Procession
There was some thought that Sickles would be buried at Gettysburg, but it was confirmed on May 6 that Sickles would be buried at Arlington. It appeared that prior to his death, Sickles had expressed his preference for Arlington to friends. So Sickles, the ultimate amateur soldier, the ultimate political general, rests at Arlington under a soldier’s headstone that is uncharacteristically simple.
DANIEL E. SICKLES
Medal of Honor
Ironically, his military funeral received considerably less opposition than his military opponent, James Longtsreet’s, had received. Several years ago there was an effort to have Sickles re-buried at Gettysburg; but the NPS has steadfastly refused to do so, citing what they believe were his own wishes to be buried at Arlington.