American Civil War: Major General George Sykes

Major General George Sykes. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Born in Dover, DE on October 9, 1822, George Sykes was the grandson of Governor James Sykes. Marrying into a prominent family in Maryland, he received an appointment to West Point from that state in 1838. Arriving at the academy, Sykes roomed with future Confederate Daniel H. Hill. Detail and discipline-oriented, he quickly took to military life though he proved a pedestrian student. Graduating in 1842, Sykes ranked 39th of 56 in the Class of 1842 which also included ​James Longstreet, William Rosecrans, and Abner Doubleday. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, Sykes departed West Point and immediately traveled to Florida for service in the Second Seminole War. With the end of the fighting, he moved through garrison postings in Florida, Missouri, and Louisiana.

Mexican-American War

In 1845, Sykes received orders to join Brigadier General Zachary Taylor's army in Texas. Following the outbreak of the Mexican-American War the following year, he saw service with the 3rd US Infantry at the Battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. Moving south later that year, Sykes took part in the Battle of Monterrey that September and was promoted to 1st lieutenant. Transferred to Major General Winfield Scott's command the following year, Sykes participated in the Siege of Veracruz. As Scott's army advanced inland towards Mexico City, Sykes received a brevet promotion to captain for his performance at the Battle of Cerro Gordo in April 1847. A steady and reliable officer, Sykes saw further action at Contreras, Churubusco, and Chapultepec. With the conclusion of the war in 1848, he returned to garrison duty at Jefferson Barracks, MO.

The Civil War Approaches

Sent to New Mexico in 1849, Sykes served on the frontier for a year before being reassigned to recruiting duty. Returning west in 1852, he took part in operations against the Apaches and moved through posts in New Mexico and Colorado. Promoted to captain on September 30, 1857, Sykes participated in the Gila Expedition. As the Civil War neared in 1861, he continued on frontier duty with a posting at Fort Clark in Texas. When the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter in April, he was regarded in the US Army as a solid, uncompromising soldier but one who had earned the nickname "Tardy George" for his cautious and methodical manner. On May 14, Sykes was promoted to major and assigned to the 14th US Infantry. As the summer progressed, he took command of a composite battalion consisting entirely of regular infantry. In this role, Sykes took part in the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21. Strong in defense, his veterans proved key in slowing the Confederate advance after the Union volunteers were defeated.

Sykes' Regulars

Assuming command of the regular infantry in Washington after the battle, Sykes received a promotion to brigadier general on September 28, 1861. In March 1862, he took command of brigade comprised largely of Regular Army troops. Moving south with Major General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac, Sykes' men took part in the Siege of Yorktown in April. With the formation of the Union V Corps in late May, Sykes was given command of its 2nd Division. As in the past, this formation largely consisted of US Regulars and soon became known as "Sykes' Regulars." Moving slowly toward Richmond, McClellan halted after the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31. In late June, Confederate General Robert E. Lee launched a counteroffensive to push Union forces back from the city. On June 26, V Corps came under heavy attack at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek. Though his men were largely unengaged, Sykes' division played a key role the following day at the Battle of Gaines' Mill. In the course of the fighting, V Corps was compelled to fall back with Sykes' men covering the retreat.

With the failure of McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, V Corps was transferred north to serve with Major General John Pope's Army of Virginia. Taking part in the Second Battle of Manassas in late August, Sykes' men were driven back in heavy fighting near Henry House Hill. In the wake of the defeat, V Corps returned to the Army of the Potomac and began pursuing Lee's army north into Maryland. Though present for the Battle of Antietam on September 17, Sykes and his division remained in reserve throughout the battle. On November 29, Sykes received a promotion to major general. The following month, his command moved south to Fredericksburg, VA where it took part in the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg. Advancing to support attacks against the Confederate position on Marye's Heights, Sykes' division was quickly pinned down by enemy fire.

The following May, with Major General Joseph Hooker in command of the army, Sykes' division led the Union advance into the Confederate rear during the opening phases of the Battle of Chancellorsville. Pressing up the Orange Turnpike, his men engaged Confederate forces led by Major General Lafayette McLaws around 11:20 AM on May 1. Though he succeeded in pushing the Confederates back, Sykes was forced to withdraw a bit after being counterattacked Major General Robert Rodes. Orders from Hooker ended Sykes' offensive movements and the division remained lightly engaged for the remainder of the battle. Having won a stunning victory at Chancellorsville, Lee began moving north with the goal of invading Pennsylvania.


Marching north, Sykes was elevated to lead V Corps on June 28 replacing Major General George Meade who had taken command of the Army of the Potomac. Reaching Hanover, PA on July 1, Sykes received word from Meade that the Battle of Gettysburg had begun. Marching through the night of July 1/2, V Corps briefly paused at Bonnaughtown before pressing on Gettysburg at daybreak. Arriving, Meade initially planned to have Sykes take part in an offensive against the Confederate left but later directed V Corps south to support Major General Daniel Sickles' III Corps. As Lieutenant General James Longstreet mounted an assault on III Corps, Meade ordered Sykes to occupy Little Round Top and hold the hill at all costs. Routing Colonel Strong Vincent's brigade, which included Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's 20th Maine, to the hill, Sykes spent the afternoon improvising a defense on the Union left after the collapse of III Corps. Holding off the enemy, he was reinforced by Major General John Sedgwick's VI Corps but saw little fighting on July 3.

Later Career

In the wake of the Union victory, Sykes led V Corps south in pursuit of Lee's retreating army. That fall, he oversaw the corps during Meade's Bristoe and Mine Run Campaigns. During the course of the fighting, Meade felt that Sykes lacked aggression and responsiveness. In the spring of 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant came east to oversee the army's operations. Working with Grant, Meade assessed his corps commanders and elected to replace Sykes with Major General Gouverneur K. Warren on March 23. Ordered to the Department of Kansas, he assumed command of the District of South Kansas on September 1. Aiding in defeating Major General Sterling Price's raid, Sykes was superseded by Brigadier General James Blunt in October. Brevetted to brigadier and major generals in the US Army in March 1865, Sykes was awaiting orders when the war ended. Reverting to the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1866, he returned to the frontier in New Mexico.

Promoted to colonel of the 20th US Infantry on January 12, 1868, Sykes moved through assignments in Baton Rouge, LA, and Minnesota until 1877. In 1877, he assumed command of the District of the Rio Grande. On February 8, 1880, Sykes died at Fort Brown, TX. Following a funeral, his body was interred at the West Point Cemetery. A simple and thorough soldier, Sykes was remembered as a gentleman of the highest character by his peers.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General George Sykes." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General George Sykes. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General George Sykes." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).