American Civil War: Major General Daniel Sickles

Major General Daniel Sickles. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Daniel Sickles - Early Life:

Born October 20, 1819 in New York City, Daniel Sickles was the son of George and Susan Sickles. Raised in the city, Sickles studied at New York University before electing to pursue a career in law like his father. Joining the office of Benjamin F. Butler, he passed the bar in 1846 and the following year was elected to the New York Assembly. A Democrat, Sickles was an active member of the Tammany Hall political machine.

During this time, he became involved with a well-known brothel owner named Fanny White. Bringing her to Albany, he toured her through the State Assembly Chamber. Learning of this, the Assembly officially censured the young politician. Despite his activities with White, Sickles married Teresa Bagioli, the sixteen-year old daughter of a friend, on September 17, 1852. It was speculated that Teresa was pregnant at the time of the wedding and the couple's first child, Laura, was born the following year.

Daniel Sickles - Abroad:

In 1853, Sickles was appointed corporation counsel for New York City. He remained in this post only briefly as he soon accepted a position as secretary to the US legation in London. Serving under James Buchanan, Sickles brought White to London where she openly accompanied him diplomatic events and was presented to Queen Victoria. Upon Teresa's arrival in London in the spring of 1854, White departed.

Resigning his position on December 15, Sickles returned to New York where he was elected to the state senate. Taking office in 1856, he aided in the creation and development of New York City's Central Park. Ever the political climber, he used his Tammany Hall connections that fall to win a seat in the US House of Representatives from New York's Third District.

Daniel Sickles - Temporary Insanity:

Moving to Washington, DC, Sickles and Teresa established themselves in a house on Lafayette Square. Bored with life in the capital, Teresa began an affair with Philip Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key. Learning of the affair in early 1859, Sickles confronted Teresa and made her write a full confession. On February 27, Sickles summoned several friends to his house to seek their counsel. During this meeting he was advised by Samuel F. Butterworth that if the community learned of the affair then "there is but one course left you as a man of honor. You need no advice." As the meeting progressed, Key was spotted outside signaling to Teresa with a white handkerchief. Racing from the house, Sickles chased Key into Lafayette Square where he shot him dead. During the chase and shooting, Butterworth did nothing to restrain his friend.

Surrendering to Attorney General Jeremiah Black, Sickles was jailed though his incarceration proved lax as he was permitted frequent visitors and allowed to retain his personal weapon. Charged with murder, he secured the services of future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and James T. Brady for his defense. Beginning in April, the trial saw Stanton and Brady present evidence against Teresa and Key.

Though Teresa's confession was deemed inadmissible, it was leaked to the newspapers and public opinion quickly swung against her. In addition, Sickles' legal team made the first use of a temporary insanity defense in the United States claiming that there had not been "sufficient time for his passion to cool," and that his "mind was obviously affected" when he committed the crime. With the public largely sympathetic to Sickles, he was acquitted on April 24 after the jury deliberated for only an hour. In the wake of the trial, he sparked public outrage when he forgave Teresa and the two reconciled.

Daniel Sickles - Off to War:

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Sickles began working to raise troops for the Union cause. Though eager to do his part, he was also aware that he would likely not be re-elected to Congress and sought a military position to advance his fortunes.

Raising five regiments at the behest of New York Governor Edwin Morgan, he was initially made colonel of one until President Abraham Lincoln, in a show of thanks for his efforts, nominated him for the rank of brigadier general in September. Despite Lincoln's confidence, the Senate delayed in confirming him in the rank until May 24, 1862. Taking command of the New York regiments, dubbed the Excelsior Brigade, Sickles first saw combat at the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31. Part of Brigadier General Joseph Hooker's division (III Corps), the brigade fought well.

Daniel Sickles - Rising to Corps Command:

During the Seven Days' Battles later that summer, Sickles proved a solid commander despite his lack of military training and experience. After the Battle of Malvern Hill, he left the brigade and returned to New York City to recruit additional troops. As a result, he was not present when his men saw action at the Second Battle of Manassas. Returning, he was given command of the brigade's division in III Corps. As the Army of the Potomac, led by Major General George McClellan, advanced after General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in September, III Corps found itself posted to the lower Potomac River guarding the approaches to Washington. As a result, Sickles and his division did not take part in the Battle of Antietam.

Later that fall, with the army now led by Major General Ambrose Burnside, Sickles' command marched to Fredericksburg, VA. In the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, his division was held in reserve. Following the defeat, leadership of the army passed to Sickles' friend Hooker. Possessing established reputations for hard drinking and womanizing, Hooker and Sickles' headquarters became known for their rowdy entertainment. In February 1863, Hooker appointed Sickles to lead III Corps and he was promoted to major general the following month.

Moving to attack Lee in May 1863, Hooker opened the Battle of Chancellorsville. In the course of the fighting, Sickles recommended aggressively attacking Confederate troops passing along his front but was prevented from advancing by Hooker.

These proved to be Lieutenant General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's men who were en route to delivering a devastating attack on the Union flank. Later in the fighting, he argued against abandoning his strong defensive position in Hazel Grove. Following the Union defeat, Sickles remained in command of III Corps as the army moved north in pursuit of Lee. On June 28, Hooker was relieved by Lincoln and replaced by Major General George G. Meade.

Daniel Sickles - Decision at Gettysburg:

Moving north, Sickles' III Corps reached Gettysburg early on July 2, a day after fighting had commenced. Upon arriving, he received orders from Meade to place his corps on the lower section of Cemetery Ridge with his right joining with Major General Winfield Scott Hancock's II Corp and his left anchored on a rocky hill known as Little Round Top. Moving onto the assigned ground, Sickles was concerned as his men occupied a low part of the ridge which was opposite higher ground to the west. He also failed to secure Little Round Top as he did not believe he had sufficient men. As the morning progressed, Sickles met with Meade and asked the Union commander to come see the terrain to III Corps' front. Meade refused and initially told Sickles to hold his position. He later softened this order to allow Sickles to deploy as he saw fit, but within the limits of the original instructions.

Later scouting the ground to the west, including the Peach Orchard, with Meade's artillery chief, Brigadier General Henry Hunt, Sickles became increasingly eager to push forward. Though Hunt agreed it was a better position, he could not give Sickles permission to advance. Reporting to Meade, Hunt recommended against allowing Sickles to move as insufficient men were available to hold a line from Cemetery Ridge to the Peach Orchard and back to Little Round Top. As the afternoon passed, Sickles' frustration grew and at 3:00 PM he ordered an advance of his own accord. While Brigadier General Andrew Humphreys' division deployed along the Emmitsburg Road, Major General David Birney's angled southeast from the Peach Orchard past Rose's Woods to Devil's Den.

Shortly after occupying this position, III Corps came under attack from Confederate troops led by Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Overextended and with both flanks in the air, Sickles' position was quickly jeopardized. Arriving on the scene, Meade was horrified and confronted Sickles. After being chastised by his superior, Sickles offered to pull back, but the Confederate attacks prevented this from happening. In intense fighting, III Corps was overwhelmed and began retreating as Meade rushed reinforcements to the area. With his salient crumbling, Sickles was struck in the right leg by shrapnel. Falling, his leg was immediately amputated. While the Union line managed to hold, Sickles requested transportation to Washington. Arriving on July 4, he brought news of the Union victory which was secured the day before. Preserving his severed right leg, Sickles donated it to the Army Medical Museum.

Daniel Sickles - Later Career

In the wake of the battle, Meade initially conceded that perhaps Sickles had misunderstood his orders. The brash New Yorker quickly denied this and stated that he was fully aware of what he was doing and had advanced on his own without orders. Due to his wound, he was able to escape a court-martial. Recovering, Sickles conducted a political and newspaper campaign to support his actions during the battle and smear Meade. The attacks against his former commander continued after the war. Fit for duty, Sickles desired to return to the field but was not offered a command by Union general-in-chief, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Remaining in army after the war, he conducted a diplomatic mission to Colombia in 1865. Returning, he spent the next two years overseeing various departments in the occupied South during which time Teresa died.

Retired from the US Army in 1869, Sickles accepted a post as US Minister to Spain. Remaining in this position until 1874, he married Carmina Creagh two years after arriving in Madrid. Returning to New York, he held various civil service positions until being elected to Congress in 1893. Serving one term, Sickles' most notable act was to spearhead the legislation which created Gettysburg National Military Park. The only Union corps commander to not be memorialized on the battlefield, Sickles famously stated "The entire battlefield is a memorial to Dan Sickles." Leaving office in 1895, he remained chairman of the New York Monuments Commission until 1912 when he was forced out after $27,000 was embezzled from the organization. Sickles died on May 3, 1914, and following a funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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