Sickles at Gettysburg

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.

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7 comments

  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    I am thrilled: not only is the book review in total agreement with my assessment, but I also get to discuss my favourite Civil War scoundrel, “Dirty Dan”(DD) Sickles !Exchanging with another Dirty Dan Fan (DDF) last night, we agreed that DD’s life is pretty much a III Act play waiting for its Broadway debut (Hamilton Shmamilton).

    Act I is the trial. We learn a couple of things about DD at this time: he is VERY powerfully connected, and he already knows the importance of marketing (circulating the “confession” of adultery forced from his wife was then “leaked” to the press to curry favour) ACT II would cover his military era. I bought Sear’s book, Chancellorsville, for the expressed purpose of understanding DD’s role in that battle. I am part of the contingent who was under the impression that DD chose the high ground in Gettysburg as a result of his bad experience at Hazel Grove, so I am hoping that further reading will offer more insight into this differing point of view presented above. After DD is critically wounded on the battlefield, he is sent to Washington, DC to recover. Again, we see his marketing prowess take hold, as he begins to rework his battle narrative and lobby none other than Mr. Lincoln, himself (who visited Sickles bedside on 5 July) The smear campaign against Meade is officially launched! Act III is punctuated by debauchery, deceit, and eventually, disgrace. It seems that being part of DD’s personal life is hazard duty, as he was devoted to only himself. His second wife was reduced to pawning her exquisite jewelry, in order to cover the debt of DD’s opulent lifestyle. The relationship with his daughter was distant, and her early demise was particularly sad to read about. In the last scandal of DD’s long life, a significant amount of money entrusted to him disappears from the monuments commission. The final chapter closes on his life: DD is booted from the commission in disgrace. Thee End 🙂

    I once read an interview with Hessler, and one of the topics covered was how negatively people react when they discover his interest in DD. Hessler continues explaining that people actually express revulsion over both DD and his (Hessler’s) interest in the topic. I can relate. I have actually had people question my character based on this interest of all things DD. We are fortunate that Hessler IS a Dirty Dan Fan, and that he has served up this great delight of a book for all of the rest of us DDF to read and enjoy. Bravo!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Shoshana. I would have to say, though, that I don’t see Hessler as a Sickles fan. He had some very harsh things to say about Sickles. I think he finds Sickles to be an interesting character study, and that’s pretty much it.

      1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

        Hmm. I am probably not using the right word (Fan) I don’t “admire” Sickles, but I am a huge fan of the study of Sickles. I believe that was what the interview was saying about Hessler, too. Whenever I have participated in discussions about Sickles, I have a tick list of those items that I find particularly appalling.

        I hope that your readers don’t come away thinking that Sickles is my hero or something. Yikes! 😦

        1. I was worried for a few moments there. 🙂

          1. bob carey · ·

            Shoshana,
            I would start Act I with Sickles career in Albany. There is a local story, told by tour guides of the Capitol Building, that as a member of the Assembly Dan once introduced his escort ( a local working girl) as the Governor’s daughter.
            Sickles proves beyond any doubt that truth is far more interesting than fiction.

  2. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    Hi Bob,

    I forgot about that little episode! I also thought that we could go back further and mention his efforts to help the US purchase Cuba, too. Shucks, by the time I am finished with the play, it will be longer than the original post, and maybe a sequel will be required 🙂

    1. bob carey · · Reply

      “Sickles the Musical” ???

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