UNION FIFTH CORPS 26 guns/12,072 men
MAJOR GENERAL GEORGE SYKES

Forty-one-year-old George Sykes was the newest to command of any of the Union corps commanders. He had risen to the head of the Fifth Corps on June 28, three days before Gettysburg, occupying the position Maj. Gen. George Meade vacated when he was suddenly called up to lead the army. Sykes was also the least prepossessing of any of the high officers. Frank Haskell, General Gibbon's observant aide, described Sykes at Gettysburg as "a small, rather thin man, well dressed and gentlemanly, brown hair and beard which he wears full, with a red, pinched, rough looking skin, feeble blue eyes, large nose, with the general air of one who is weary, and a little ill natured." Another described him similarly as "lacking in vigor." Sykes was a career army man, and like many school-trained officers, he observed regulations as a plodding but orderly means to an end. This trait had earned him the nickname "Tardy George" in his West Point days, implying tardiness of mind resulting from caution. The name stuck in the Regular Army where he continued his reputation for having "the slows." It didn't impede his career, however, for the army was an institution which appreciated such steady goers. According to one fellow officer who shared those values,

It would have been hard to find a better officer in the Army than Sykes . . . he was so thoroughly and simply a soldier, that he knew little of politics and cared less. His indifference to all civil matters was a subject of surprise to the civilian appointees who served with him.

He was unsympathetic and methodical, a man of details, diligent and untiring, but never hurried, never flurried; one of the coolest men in danger or confusion that we had in the whole Army. He enforced discipline like a machine and had apparently no more sentiment than a gun- stock.

For all his Old Army reserve, Sykes was a likable man. D.H. Hill, his roommate at West Point, described him as "a man admired by all for his honor, courage, and frankness, and peculiarly endeared to me by his social qualities." (His social qualities must have been considerable indeed to endear Sykes, a New Yorker, to D.H. Hill, a notorious Yankee-hater.) Colonel Lyman sketched him as a "mild, steady man, and very polite." To his subordinates, however, Sykes, with his fine bushy beard, and his stiff, crusty, unemotional manner, was a soldier through and through. For him the Army was life and all that it had to offer. Few officers or enlisted men could boast such a single-minded, lifelong commitment to one ideal.

Born in Delaware, he was the grandson of James Sykes, a noted physician and former governor of the state. He was appointed to West Point from Maryland in 1838 after marrying into a prominent family of that state. An unexceptional student, he graduated 39th out of 56 in the class of 1842 and was immediately dispatched to fight the Seminoles in Florida. By 1846 he had been promoted to first lieutenant, and at that rank fought throughout the Mexican War. Afterwards, he had served continuously in the lonely outposts of the southwest until the guns boomed at Fort Sumter. Many officers from Maryland, his adopted state, which was openly secessionist in sympathy, were resigning to fight with the South. But George Sykes had no qualms about his loyalties. The thought of leaving the U. S. Army never crossed his mind.

When the War started Sykes was in his prime and was recognized as a solid and uncompromising Old Army officer, even if he was a plodder. Thrust into command of the only Regular Army infantry on the field in the war's first battle, First Bull Run, his career soldiers were invaluable in slowing the rout of the wild-eyed Union volunteers after that debacle. He was rewarded for his showing at Bull Run with a promotion to brigadier general in September 1861.

In March 1862, just before the Army of the Potomac embarked on its fighting debut on the Peninsula, Sykes was given charge of a brigade of Regulars, which he led at Yorktown. In mid-May, when the Fifth Corps was organized, Sykes was named to command its Second Division, composed mostly of Regular Army units. Under him, "Sykes's Regulars" (as the division called themselves) stoutly defended their position at Gaines' Mill on June 27, checking the Confederate attack until darkness enabled the Union army to be safely withdrawn. Sykes was first-named in corps commander Brig. Gen. Fitz John Porter's commendations afterwards.

Two months later, at Second Bull Run, Sykes's division in rear-guard action again helped save the fleeing army from destruction. (However, it was army commander John Pope himself who, when he saw Sykes's men marching nonchalantly to the rear at the crisis of the battle, turned them around and put them in a defensive line.)

Sykes, with the rest of the Fifth Corps, was in reserve at Antietam. Soon after being promoted to major general (the appropriate rank for a division leader) in November 1862, he was only lightly engaged at Fredericksburg.

At Chancellorsville, Sykes's Regulars led the Union army's flanking column toward Lee's rear at the beginning of the battle, but Sykes was unexpectedly confronted by a stronger Rebel force and was recalled to Chancellorsville by his nervous army chief, Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker. After this initial clash, Sykes and his men were unused for the rest of the campaign.

Thus, as the battle at Gettysburg approached, Sykes had been little used since the previous summer. He had proven his worth in defense, but never in attack. He had watched as rest of the army had caught up in discipline and fighting ability with his Regulars, and would probably never have advanced beyond his divisional responsibilities if fate hadn't thrust him suddenly into corps leadership after Meade's promotion.

Sykes had the advantages of a full military education and an army career, including long, reliable service as a division commander. His liabilities stemmed from his newness to command at the corps level and his constitutional lack of fire.

At Gettysburg
Sykes, with his First and Second Divisions, marched north from Union Mills to Hanover on July 1. The fighting west of Gettysburg that day allowed Meade to locate Lee's army, and only then did Sykes receive Meade's order summoning his force to Gettysburg--at 7:00 that evening. Having just arrived in Hanover--about 12 miles to the east of their destination--they got back on the road, and after an exhausting night march halted at Bonnaughtown five miles east of Gettysburg.

Sykes's two divisions took to the road again at daybreak on July 2 and turned south near Brinkerhoff's Ridge about two miles east of town. There Sykes's two divisions massed briefly in expectation of an offensive against the Confederate left. Meade soon abandoned that plan, however, and wanted the Fifth Corps closer to the main body of the army, so Sykes turned his men south toward the Baltimore Pike, on which they crossed Rock Creek about 11:00 A.M. The men then rested in the shadow of nearby Power's Hill for a few hours. The Third Division--the Pennsylvania Reserves, which had come from Washington and had made a longer march--reached Sykes around noon. In the middle of the afternoon, Meade ordered the Fifth Corps toward the left of the army with orders to support Third Corps commander Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles.

Lieut. Gen. James Longstreet's 14,000-strong attack struck Sickles before Sykes and his men could get there. Meade soon found out that Little Round Top had no defenders on it, and he ordered Sykes to get the Fifth Corps there on the double, and to "hold at all hazards." Sykes sent for First Division leader Brig. Gen. James Barnes to dispatch a brigade to Little Round Top. Though he didn't find Barnes, the courier with the order was spotted and hailed by Colonel Strong Vincent, who realized the urgency of the situation and led his brigade onto Little Round Top on his own initiative.

Sykes, to his credit, sent a stream of reinforcements to Vincent, and posted Col. William Tilton's and Col. Jacob Sweitzer's brigades to plug holes in the Third Corps line. He got Ayres's division headed in the right direction (though it was soon flanked, and fled) then deployed Crawford's Pennsylvania Reserves when they came up, and cobbled together a line which denied Longstreet's Confederates a breakthrough. Sykes had done a good, hard day's work improvising in defense.

After the fighting on July 2, Sweitzer's brigade and the two Regular Army brigades were not fit for further duty, with too many casualties and men shaken loose from their units. Sykes's line around Little Round Top was bolstered with arriving Sixth Corps brigades and was not engaged on July 3.

Sykes's could not repeat the adequacy of his Gettysburg performance--in the fall campaign Meade thought Sykes acted too slowly ("Tardy George" again) and in the March 1864 consolidation of the army, Sykes was replaced at the head of the Fifth Corps by General Governeur Warren. Sykes was transferred west and finished out the war in Kansas.

For further reading:
Powell, William H. The Fifth Army Corps. New York, 1896
Reese, Timothy J. Sykes' Regular Infantry Division, 1861-1864. Dayton, 1990


Excerpted from "The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America's Greatest Battle" by Larry Tagg