In neither army was there another man with a past as garish as Dan Sickles. He was not a trained soldier--he had graduated from New York City politics rather than West Point--but by sheer audacity and aggressiveness he had risen farther than any other political general in the East. A heavy drinker, a shameless skirt-chaser, unstable, a political schemer, Sickles had made himself far and away the most notorious officer on any field he rode onto. Always operating at full tilt, he was flamboyant and controversial, but even his detractors--who were numerous, and included the commanding general--could not deny that he was also personally courageous. Colonel Regis de Trobriand, in command of a brigade under his command, called attention to other admirable qualities, writing later:
He was gifted in a high degree with that multiplicity of faculties which has given rise to the saying that a Yankee is ready for everything. . . . He has a quick perception, an energetic will, prompt and supple intelligence, an active temperament. Naturally ambitious, he brings to the service of his ambitions a clear view, a practical judgment and a deep knowledge of political tactics. When he has determined on anything, he prepares the way, assembles his forces, and marches directly to the assault. Obstacles do not discourage him . . . he has many strings in his bow, if one breaks he will replace it by another.
In him, ability does not exclude frankness. He likes, on the contrary, to play with his cards on the table with his friends and against his enemies.
It was a testament to his political talents that in an army riddled with politics he had unerringly made his way in two short years from a civilian to the command of Third Corps, with the rank of major general. Often leaving his troops in the field to hurry to Washington to curry favor in person, he had assiduously courted the friendship of the President and Mrs. Lincoln. However adept he had proven himself to be at functioning within the army's political environment, however, he was always suspect because of his lack of military knowledge. Maj. Gen. G.K. Warren, chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac, believed that Sickles was not as good a soldier as others of his rank, such as Reynolds, Hancock, and Meade, and would be a poor choice to fight an independent battle, as corps commanders sometimes were called upon to do, "but he did the best he could, and with the corps he had managed very well."
Sickles was born on October 20, 1819 in New York City, the son of a well-to-do patent lawyer. He showed his swaggering self-confidence and contrary nature at a young age by repeatedly running away from home. An effort to instill discipline by sending him to boarding school at the age of fifteen failed when he had a fight with a teacher. After a yearlong stint as a printer's helper, he returned to New York City and began developing his dissolute lifestyle, hanging out with prostitutes and other unsavory characters, a habit which would stay with him throughout his life. His parents again intervened and sent him to live with a mentor, Lorenzo Da Pont, who prepared him for college. After a year with Da Pont, Sickles entered New York University, but when Da Pont died suddenly, Sickles left college to study law. At the same time he began his long association with Tammany Hall politics in New York City. In 1843, at the age of twenty-four, he was admitted to the bar, and soon made himself notorious in Tammany politics while developing a reputation as a high liver. He was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1847, advancing his political career despite such high-profile escapades as escorting prostitutes into the legislative chambers. In 1852 he married. True to his wayward nature, it was against the will of both families--she was sixteen and he was twice her age.
He spent a year abroad as secretary to the minister to Great Britain, where he scandalized the host country by refusing to toast to the health of Queen Victoria at an Independence Day banquet. Returning to America, Sickles was elected state senator in 1855, then member of Congress in 1856. At that point, Sickles, a states'-rights Democrat with a prosperous law practice on the side, a militia officer and student of military affairs, clearly had his sights set on nothing less than the Presidency. His life in Washington continued in the familiar swaggering pattern. He lived far beyond his means, continued his lecherous indiscretions, and made himself a notorious figure in Washington society. Then in 1859 came the Philip Barton Key incident.
Key was the son of the author of "The Star-Spangled Banner," a militia captain, political dabbler, and man-about-town in the capital, where he was known as "the handsomest man in all Washington society." Key had legal business with Sickles, and after a while began trysting with Sickles's wife in a shabby apartment. Sickles found out and shot him dead with an eye for the dramatic setting: in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. After shooting Key, Sickles walked down the street and surrendered himself to the Attorney General of the United States.
At his murder trial, Sickles was defended by a phalanx of lawyers, including the future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. They entered, for the first time in history, the plea of "temporary insanity." After all, Washington was essentially a Southern town, a milieu awash in chivalric notions, a place where a man might taken seriously if he claimed to be driven mad by the shock of his wife betraying him with his friend. After a circus trial, Sickles was triumphantly acquitted.
But then Sickles really shocked the town: he publicly forgave his wife. That, it seems, was unpardonable, and in doing so Sickles finally committed the scandal that ruined his future in Washington. Mary Chesnut, the famous diarist, watched him from House gallery one day and described a man totally ostracized, carefully avoided by every other man on the floor, "left alone as if he had the smallpox."
Too realistic to run again for office, Sickles returned to New York and had just resumed practicing law when the war broke out in April 1861. Over a drink at Delmonico's with a Tammany Hall crony, Captain William Wiley, Sickles realized that the war offered him a chance to retrieve his prominence, this time as a military hero. He decided to raise a regiment with Wiley's help. Recruiting handbills were printed and volunteers began to appear. Soon realizing that, in the curious way the nation was raising an army at that time, a man who mustered in the most men stood the best chance of getting a brigadier general's star from Congress, Sickles soon had raised an entire brigade, dubbing it the "Excelsior Brigade."
With characteristic impudence, Sickles considered it his brigade, independent of New York state authority. As an independent military organization, however, it was supposed to pay its own way, and debts began piling up immediately. Sickles, an old hand at high-level mooching from his Tammany days, got permission to move part of the brigade to Staten Island, and managed to get a loan of a circus tent from none other than P.T. Barnum to provide shelter. Another fourteen hundred men were quartered in a bare hall on lower Broadway. Sickles contracted with a bathhouse to give them all a shower and shave at ten cents each. Sickles himself was pestering Lincoln and everyone he knew in Washington to swear his troop in as United States volunteers. The governor of New York was outraged at Sickles's attempt to place New York volunteers beyond his authority and tried to disband the brigade, and it required a general order from the Secretary of War to bring Sickles down to earth and place the Excelsior Brigade under the governor's control; the regiments became the 70th, 71st, 72nd, 73rd, and 74th New York Volunteers. After 1st Bull Run, with Washington embattled and crying out for more troops, Sickles's brigade was put on a train for the capital, and soon became part of the then-forming Army of the Potomac. Sickles boarded the train and left behind somewhere between $250,000 and $400,000 in debts owed by the brigade--good old Captain Wiley was left holding the bag, and became Sickles's bitter enemy. Meanwhile, Sickles himself was being sworn into the army at the beginning rank of brigadier general.
Once in the Army of the Potomac, Sickles had the immediate good fortune of finding himself in Brig. Gen.. Joe Hooker's division. Hooker was an attention-seeker much praised by newspapermen covering the early campaigns of the army, and Sickles's star rose with that of his superior, even though Sickles was absent (characteristically, personally pulling strings in Washington) during his brigade's fighting at Williamsburg--its heaviest combat on the Peninsula--and again during the Battle of 2nd Bull Run. In the army reorganization following that battle, Hooker rose to the command of the First Corps and Sickles took charge of Hooker's old division in the Third Corps. On November 29, 1862 Sickles was promoted to major general.
At the Battle of Fredericksburg the next month Sickles's division again remained in reserve and saw little action. When Hooker was named new commander of the Army of the Potomac in January 1863, Sickles's heyday had finally come. Hooker had seen him in action on the Peninsula and liked his aggressive spirit--Sickles had wanted to attack the desperately thin Rebel defenses in front of Richmond at the same time McClellan had been intimidated into abandoning his offensive plans--and Hooker placed Sickles in command of the Third Corps on February 5, 1863. Many of the regular army officers expressed objections--Sickles would be the only non-West Pointer among the seven corps chiefs--and a sour mood spread over the officer corps. But more than just being promoted, Sickles's undisciplined personal impulses jibed perfectly with Hooker's own. Many officers complained that Hooker and Sickles had converted the army headquarters into a combination bar and brothel.
It wasn't until Chancellorsville in May 1863, Hooker's only battle as chief, that Sickles finally found his command heavily engaged. He had moved his corps aggressively forward to punish the tail end of what he thought was Jackson's retreating column. When Jackson landed instead on the Federal right flank and crushed it, Sickles had to retreat toward the Union lines, but he still held important high ground at Hazel Grove. Hooker ordered him to abandon Hazel Grove, which, once held by the Rebels and crowded with blazing enemy artillery, compelled the whole Union army to retreat, leaving much of the Third Corps dead on the field. The experience seemed to vindicate Sickles's aggressive judgment, and jaundiced his view of higher authority--the episode would color his attitude in the army's next battle, Gettysburg. It also burned into him an esteem for high ground which would also play an important part in his next performance.
When Hooker was replaced suddenly just before Gettysburg, a whole new faction took control of the army. The new commander, Maj. Gen. George Meade, who detested Sickles's personal habits and distrusted his lack of military education as well as his close association with the now discredited Hooker, put Sickles at the top of his list of enemies, and favored corps chiefs Maj. Gen. John Reynolds and Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock. To make matters worse, the march toward the battlefield was full of frustrating starts, stops, and delays, and Meade blamed Sickles for more than his share of those problems. Too, Meade had put in place a command system whereby Sickles got conflicting orders from himself and Reynolds, whom he had empowered to coordinate three corps which included Sickles's own. By the time Sickles reached the field, feelings between Meade and Sickles were acutely uncomfortable.
Sickles at Gettysburg, then, was a big question mark. There could be no doubt that he would act aggressively; he always operated with a full head of steam--that had been his main asset in an army full of slow, unimaginative commanders. But his history as a politician rather than a trained soldier was a stain his peers couldn't forget, and they could never quite trust him. His weaknesses as a commander, which were his lack of discipline and his inability to take advice, were at their worst, especially under a new commander he did not respect.
| While the battle on July 1 was starting to flare on the ridges west of
Gettysburg, Sickles was with his corps at Emmitsburg, ten miles to the south.
There he received two sets of orders--one, from Meade, to remain in Emmitsburg
and guard the left flank of the army while Lee's army was still at large; and
the other, from Reynolds, to hurry north to Gettysburg. Sickles handled the
situation well, notifying headquarters of the discrepancy, detaching one
brigade from each of his two divisions to stay in Emmitsburg, and rushing
aggressively to Gettysburg with his other four brigades. Since it was Meade's
improvised command structure that had caused the confusion, Sickles's opinion
of the new army commander was at a new low. Maj. Gen. David Birney with two
brigades of his division started their march in mid-afternoon and arrived on
the lower end of Cemetery Ridge a little after 6:00 P.M. Brig. Gen. A.A.
Humphreys with two more brigades arrived about midnight. Sickles spent that
night camped with his men.|
On the morning of July 2, Sickles's last two brigades rejoined him. The portion of the line assigned to him was the Union left flank, touching Hancock's Second Corps on Cemetery Ridge and extending the line south to Little Round Top. Sickles rode to army headquarters at about 11:00 A.M., still unsure--or perhaps just quarrelsome--about exactly where his corps should be. He was rightly concerned about the army's left. Meade was entirely preoccupied with the Union army's right, since that was where all the Rebels had been seen so far, and Sickles got the impression he was being, if not ignored, at least slighted.
Sickles had learned the hard way at Chancellorsville the importance of high ground, and he didn't like the fact that the position assigned to him by Meade was forty feet lower than the Emmitsburg Road, running roughly parallel to his line almost a mile in his front. He also didn't like the fact that his present position was broken up by woods and rocks. As a result, he made one of the most controversial decisions of the entire War--he unilaterally decided to abandon the position assigned by his commanding officer and move his entire corps, the left flank of the Union army, forward nearly a mile to the high ground.
The problems with the new position were immediately apparent, and were grave. Both Sickles's flanks were now in the air, since he had left the Second Corps on his right several hundred yards in his rear on Cemetery Ridge. Sickles's new line was much longer than his old line; now there were not enough men to cover it, nor could the Third Corps reach to Little Round Top, which was the anchor of the army's left. Further, the middle of the position bulged out in a salient--at the Peach Orchard--where it could be threatened from two directions, west and south, and the approaches were hidden.
Just then two divisions of Longstreet's corps struck him. Within an hour, Sickles's entire Third Corps was overwhelmed. At about 6:00 P.M., after the salient had been crushed and the men of the Third Corps were reeling back, Sickles abandoned his threatened headquarters, and at that moment was nicked in the right knee by a cannonball, too lightly to spook his horse but enough to shatter his leg. He was carried off in a stretcher with his cap over his eyes. To let the men know that he was alive and to take heart, he took out a cigar, bit off the end, lit it, and puffed on it ostentatiously as he was being taken off the field.
Sickles's right leg was amputated just above the knee a few hours later. Some would say the loss of his leg saved his reputation after his insubordination and the subsequent disaster to his corps that afternoon. His days as a field general were over.
For further reading:
Pinchon, Edgcumb. Dan Sickles: Hero of Gettysburg and "Yankee King of Spain." Garden City, 1945
Robertson, William Glenn. "Daniel E. Sickles and the Third Corps." in Gary Gallagher, ed. The Second Day at Gettysburg, Kent, 1993
Sauers, Richard Allen. A Caspian Sea of Ink: The Meade-Sickles Controversy." Baltimore, 1989
Stevenson, James. History of the Excelsior or Sickles' Brigade. Paterson, 1863
Swanberg, W.A. Sickles the Incredible. New York, 1956