This book by Licensed Battlefield Guide James Hessler tells the story of Major General Daniel E. Sickles’ actions during the Gettysburg Campaign and afterward.
Lawyer, politician, cad, liar, and probably embezzler. Daniel Edgar Sickles was infamous before the Civil War for murdering his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key, in broad daylight across the street from the White House. Assembling a legal dream team that included future Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and future commander of the Irish Brigade Thomas Francis Meagher, his was the trial of the 19th Century. He was found not guilty, and among the arguments used by his legal team was the claim he was temporarily insane when he shot Key. When people tell Sickles’ story, we normally hear that was the reason he was acquitted, and that it was the first successful use of the temporary insanity defense. According to Hessler, “The legal precedent, which everyone was talking about, was not temporary insanity, but rather that ‘when a man violated the sanctity of his neighbor’s home he must do so at his peril.’ In the end, it was Key’s own adulterous actions, and not Dan’s mental state, that had ensured Sickles’ freedom.” [p. 17] A Democrat, Sickles normally voted with the South on bills and questions before Congress. But with the onset of the Civil War, Sickles became an uncompromising War Democrat, raising a brigade of New York volunteers and becoming a friend of both President Abraham and First Lady Mary Lincoln. Sickles turned out to be an aggressive commander who hitched his wagon to Joseph Hooker’s star. He moved quickly from brigade command to division command and then became a corps commander when Hooker was in command of the Army of the Potomac. “But each successive promotion required an increased ability to coordinate and maneuver larger bodies of troops and to act more independently, but in cooperation with the army as a whole. As a result, Sickles’ rapid promotion to division command, and then again to corps leadership, would become his greatest military shortcoming.” [p. 35] That’s one of the keys to understanding Sickles’ actions at Gettysburg.
Another key is the battle of Chancellorsville, Sickles’ first battle as the commander of the Third Corps, Army of the Potomac. “Some historians have credited sickles with a solid performance at Chancellorsville. Whatever success he enjoyed was really more of a reflection of the Third Corps’ fighting ability than on Sickles’ first true test as a corps commander. His own specific performance was a harbinger of what would follow at Gettysburg. He fought aggressively, but demonstrated questionable military judgment. His misreading of Jackson’s ‘retreat’ on May 2 contributed to a general lack of preparedness for Jackson’s flank attack (although Sickles’ conclusion that Jackson was retreating does not excuse Howard’s lack of readiness.) On the other hand, Sickles has been criticized for failing to organize a more ‘determined’ assault against Jackson’s flanking column. The Third Corps leader was acting under instructions from Hooker to remain cautious. By the time he organized a potentially large scale assault, which would have included nearby infantry and cavalry, Jackson was already striking Howard. On the positive side of the ledger, Sickles and Pleasonton helped stop Jackson’s tidal wave after Howard had been routed. Even allowing for the usually exaggerated post-battle claims of the episode’s significance, of which Pleasonton in particular was accused, the defensive effort demonstrated Sickles’ fighting character: he was willing to stand his ground while others fled. The midnight attack on May 2-3 was vintage Sickles. A professional soldier probably would not have seriously considered launching a nighttime offensive in the Wilderness, but Sickles threw caution to the wind and ordered the attack anyway. The result, as we have seen, was a chaotic mess. Gettysburg scholars routinely point to Sickles’ forced withdrawal from Hazel Grove on May 3 as the primary motive for seizing the higher terrain along the Emmitsburg Road at Gettysburg later that summer. His voluminous postwar writing and speeches suggest otherwise. Sickles was deeply influenced by Jackson’s flanking attack on May 2. At Chancellorsville, Lee had massed his forces on the Federals’ right flank and had almost swept the entire Army of the Potomac out of position. At Gettysburg, Sickles would hold the army’s left flank–determined to not reprise Howard’s role.” [p. 65]
This book is excellent. Hessler writes in a clear and compelling style, and his description of Sickles’ actions at Gettysburg is among the best I’ve ever seen. The book is deeply researched, seemingly with no stone left unturned in the search for evidence. Hessler discusses several viewpoints and points out the strengths and weaknesses of each. In the process he expertly places Sickles’ actions within their historical context. He also goes into the post-Gettysburg controversy between Sickles and Major General George G. Meade. He correctly, in my view, identifies the infamous “Historicus” as Sickles himself. He also discusses Sickles’ participation in creating our national battlefield parks. While not an actual biography of Dan Sickles, this is a complete detailing of what we need to know about this interesting officer. The only quibble I have is with his view of the Radical Republicans. He looks at them as just interested in punishing the South after the war. I believe that to be incorrect. Some did want to punish the South. Others weren’t interested in that. The one issue that united the Radicals was their commitment to equal political and civil rights for African-Americans.
I can give this book my highest recommendation. Students of the war, especially students of Gettysburg need to read this book.