Winner of the Robert E. Lee Civil War Roundtable of Central New Jersey’s Bachelder-Coddington Literary Award
Winner of the Gettysburg Civil War Roundtable’s Distinguished Book Award
By licensed battlefield guide James Hessler, this is the most deeply-researched, full-length biography to appear on this remarkable American icon. No individual who fought at Gettysburg was more controversial, both personally and professionally, than Major General Daniel E. Sickles. By 1863, Sickles was notorious as a disgraced former Congressman who murdered his wife’s lover on the streets of Washington and used America’s first temporary insanity defense to escape justice. With his political career in ruins, Sickles used his connections with President Lincoln to obtain a prominent command in the Army of the Potomac’s 3rd Corps—despite having no military experience. At Gettysburg, he openly disobeyed orders in one of the most controversial decisions in military history.
Hessler’s critically acclaimed biography is a balanced and entertaining account of Sickles colorful life. Civil War enthusiasts who want to understand General Sickles’ scandalous life, Gettysburg’s battlefield strategies, the in-fighting within the Army of the Potomac, and the development of today’s National Park will find Sickles at Gettysburg a must-read.
“The few other Sickles biographies available will now take a back seat to Hessler’s powerful and evocative study of the man, the general, and the legacy of the Gettysburg battlefield that old Dan left America. I highly recommend this book.”—J. David Petruzzi, coauthor of Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart’s Controversial Ride to Gettysburg
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Probably no participant journeyed to Gettysburg on a more colorful road than did Daniel Edgar Sickles. By 1863, he was already known as an attorney of questionable ethics, the product of corrupt New York politics, a former protégé of President James Buchanan, the defendant in a sensational murder trial, a friend of President and Mrs. Lincoln, and the highest ranking non-West Pointer in the Army of the Potomac. By the summer of 1863, Sickles had already experienced more peaks and valleys than most men witness in a lifetime.
Dan was born in New York City, the only child of George Garrett and Susan (Marsh) Sickles. His birth date is of some debate, a fact often unnoticed by Gettysburg scholars. The consensus among biographers is that he was born on October 20, 1819, although varying references (some provided by Sickles himself) range from 1819 to 1825. For example, his 1914 New York Times obituary states he lived "to almost 91," implying an 1823 birth date. His military record claims he was thirty-nine in June 1861, suggesting an 1821 birth year. On at least one occasion, Sickles told newspaper reporters he was born in 1825; a posthumously published New York monument history concurred. The 1910 U.S. Federal census lists the date as "about 1826." One theory for the discrepancy is that his parents may not have married until 1820, and that he post-dated his 1819 birth in order to downplay the stigma of being born prior to the wedding. Another, less scandalous, scenario is that other dates are the result of vanity or a failing memory. If we accept a birth year of 1819, Sickles was just shy of his forty-fourth birthday when he fought at Gettysburg.
There is little reliable information about Sickles' early days. In later life, he talked infrequently of his prewar years; the focus was typically on Gettysburg and the Civil War. One accepted fact is that his father, George Sickles, was a real estate speculator who ended up quite wealthy. Around 1838, in order to prepare him for college, Dan's parents installed him into the household of Lorenzo L. Da Ponte, a New York University professor and attorney, where Dan lived and studied. Professor Da Ponte's colorful father was eighty-nine year old Lorenzo Da Ponte, who had been the librettist for three of Mozart's operas and was the first Professor of Italian Literature at Columbia College. The elder Da Ponte was the household patriarch until he died in August 1838. Also residing under the same roof was the elder Da Ponte's adopted daughter Maria and her husband, Antonio Bagioli, a successful composer and music teacher. Perhaps it was his exposure to the Da Ponte household that influenced Sickles' lifelong love of theater and particularly opera. Given that Dan and Maria were the same age, there were rumors (as repeated in Frank Haskell's memoir) that Dan and his future mother-in-law had a sexual affair. More important to Dan's future was the fact that the Bagiolis had a child living under the same roof, an infant daughter Teresa who was born around 1836.
When Professor Da Ponte died in 1840, Sickles broke down uncontrollably at the funeral. One witness said that Dan was overcome by a "spasm of grief" and "raved, tore up and down the graveyard shrieking and I might even say yelling, so much so that it was impossible for us who were his friends to mollify him in any measure by words." His grief became so "aggravating" to the other mourners, who feared "his mind would entirely give way," that he was forcibly removed from the cemetery. His remarkable outburst lasted nearly ten minutes. Only a few days later, however, the same friend found him to be excessively "light-hearted." This episode reveals much about Sickles' character. As the friend realized with great understatement, Sickles was "subject to very sudden emotions."
Sickles was no stranger to the law. As early as 1837, he was indicted for obtaining money under false pretenses. But after Lorenzo's death, Sickles dropped out of school to study law under Benjamin F. Butler, a leading Democrat and attorney. Sickles passed the bar in 1843. During these years, he continued to gain a reputation for questionable practices. He was nearly prosecuted for appropriating funds from another man, was accused of pocketing money that had been raised for a political pamphlet, and charged with improperly retaining a mortgage that he had pledged as collateral on a loan. His exposure to Butler's political connections, however, opened the door to a political career.
His status as a lawyer, albeit one of questionable ethics, helped launch Sickles' political career, which began in 1844 when he wrote a campaign paper for James Polk and became involved in New York's Tammany Hall political machine. Sickles later liked to call himself "a tough Democrat; a fighting one; a Tammany Hall Democrat." Not everyone was as impressed. "One might as well try to spoil a rotten egg as to damage Dan's character," scoffed New York diarist George Templeton Strong. Sickles' political career was inextricably linked to stories about ballot tampering, theft, deceptive practices, and even brawls. One night, an angry mob burst into a Tammany meeting and threw him violently down a flight of stairs. (He managed to slow his fall by grabbing a banister and, although stunned and bleeding, was not seriously injured.) Still, his star rose, and in 1847 he was elected to the New York Assembly. He also found time for his only military association prior to the Civil War. As was common with prominent men of the era, Sickles joined the 12th New York State Militia in 1849, retiring from it in 1853 with the rank of major.
Sickles continued to be active within the Democratic Party during the 1850s. He was a member of the Baltimore convention that nominated Franklin Pierce for the Presidency in 1852, and the following year he was appointed a New York City corporation counsel. Still a bachelor, he was gaining a reputation for fast and extravagant living. One contemporary admitted that Sickles "led the life of a very fast young man." Money reportedly "poured through his fingers." He became a "frequenter" of a Mercer Street bordello that was known as "the most select ... and orderly establishment of a disreputable character in the city." A prostitute named Fanny White ran the house, and according to her biographer, she reportedly "formed an attachment for Sickles and he became her protégé. It is stated that she paid his tailor's bills, gave him jewelry to wear and kept him abundantly supplied with money." While a member of the State Assembly, he was censured by his outraged colleagues for bringing her into the Assembly chamber. There were even rumors that he exchanged her services for campaign favors. If true, Dan Sickles may be Gettysburg's only corps commander with "pimp" on his diverse resume.
White soon learned that Sickles was bringing "his fascinating powers to bear on a certain Italian young lady" and, while in public one evening, White allegedly retaliated by beating him "unsparingly and unreservedly" with a heavy riding whip. White's suspicions were accurate. The "young Italian" was Teresa Bagioli, whom the nearly thirty-three year old Sickles married in September 1852. The same girl Sickles had lived with when she was an infant was now a sixteen-year old student at a Catholic boarding school. Much to the objections of both his and her parents, they were married by New York's mayor in a private civil ceremony. Why had a rising political star married a teenager? An anonymous family acquaintance later told the New York Times that "the consequences of this secret wedding soon made concealment impossible." In other words, Teresa may have been pregnant. After eventually reconciling with their parents and the Catholic Church, a second ceremony was performed in March 1853 at the home of the Roman Catholic Archbishop. The exact date of their daughter Laura's birth is unclear, but there is some contemporary suggestion that it occurred later in 1853, which would potentially leave the summer of 1852 (before the marriage) open as a conception date. There were also rumors of other children, which was not surprising given Dan's reputation. One accusation held that Sickles was the natural father of James Gordon Bennett, Jr. In 1913, a New Jersey man named Alfred Molyneux had himself re-baptized as Alfred Sickles, and claimed to be an abandoned offspring of Dan and Teresa. Despite these colorful stories, history has recognized Laura as Dan and Teresa's only child.
Teresa's pictures reveal an attractive dark-haired Italian. Six years into her marriage, as the wife of a congressman in Washington, she was described as "more like a school girl than a polished woman of the world" with a "sweet, amicable manner." Conversely, while preparing Edgcumb Pinchon's biography on Sickles, Pinchon's researcher rejected the schoolgirl image, describing her instead as a "beautiful, voluptuous siren, without brains or shame" with a "lust for men" whom Sickles "loved to madness."
Now a member of Tammany Hall's elite, in May 1853 Dan was offered a post as assistant to James Buchanan, the new American minister in London. Sickles initially declined the offer because the $2,500 annual salary "would hardly pay for my wine and cigars." The initial rejection may have been simple posturing, for he soon reconsidered and won over Buchanan, who was impressed by Sickles' "manners, appearance, & intelligence." Sickles and Buchanan set sail for England in August 1853. Teresa did not initially accompany him (she was either in the late stages of her pregnancy or had a new infant to care for). Sickles did not travel alone, for the prostitute Fanny White apparently accompanied him.
While in London, Sickles enjoyed wearing his New York militia uniform, and Buchanan did refer to him as "Col. Sickles." Dan created an uproar, and embarrassed Buchanan's diplomatic efforts, by refusing to participate in a toast to the Queen's health on July 4, 1854. There were conflicting allegations that Dan brought Fanny to one of the Queen's receptions and introduced the prostitute to Her Majesty. (An 1860 biography of White claimed that Fanny was "near succeeding it is alleged in obtaining an introduction." Antagonistic New York papers, on the other hand, claimed that Sickles did successfully arrange the meeting.) By the time Teresa and new daughter Laura reached London in the spring of 1854, Fanny was back in New York. Teresa quickly became a favorite of Buchanan, a sixty-two year old bachelor, despite the fact that she was barely eighteen. Biographer Pinchon and his researcher were privately convinced that Teresa and Buchanan had an affair and that Sickles "understood it thoroughly, and worked the combination for all it was worth." (Such a liaison would have been doubtful if Buchanan was a homosexual, as some historians believe.) Buchanan also became attached to his new aide, writing, "Sickles possesses qualifications ... for a much higher place." Although he admired Sickles' abilities, Buchanan criticized Dan's work habits, his handwriting (not a trivial complaint since this burdened Buchanan's staff, who had to recopy Dan's notes), and the fact that Sickles "spends a great deal of money." In what would become one of Sickles' lifelong habits whenever he was in a diplomatic assignment, he quickly grew tired of his role. "It would suit me better to stay away another year on account of the present condition of N.Y. politics," Sickles wrote in June 1854, "but I am tired of London and of this mission." Buchanan likewise was growing tired of Sickles' preference for fast living over professional attentiveness, and they mutually agreed on Sickles' resignation.
Dan and Teresa returned to New York at the end of 1854, where it was evident that politics suited him better than diplomacy. He was elected to the New York State Senate in 1855, and was also named chairman of Tammany's executive committee. Decades before he would help develop Gettysburg National Military Park, he organized a special committee that was instrumental in creating New York's Central Park. Sickles did not create or champion New York City's need for a great public park, but he helped consolidate advocates of the park, obtained consensus on a site, and assisted the governor in signing enabling legislation. His motives were not entirely pure, for he participated in a syndicate to purchase building lots near the park. Sickles freely admitted as much: "I foresaw visions of fortune for myself and associates in the not far distant future, when the park should be established." Ultimately nothing came of the syndicate, but to his credit he continued to pursue the park's development. Sickles enlisted the help of New York friend Charles K. Graham, a surveyor and former navy midshipman who had helped construct the dry docks at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Sickles had Graham make huge "before and after" drawings of the proposed park, which Sickles used to help steer the bill through the state legislature. Sickles' influence was strictly political; writer Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux won the park's landscape design contest, and construction was not officially completed until 1873. So it was with perhaps some overstatement that Sickles would later watch thousands enjoy the park and proudly admit, "I have a fatherly feeling for Central Park."
In the spring of 1856, Sickles decided to run for Congress and help promote Buchanan's bid for the presidency. In a speech on Buchanan's behalf, Sickles espoused the Democrats as "the only party that professed and practiced justice to all men ... [and] offered the only ground for the perpetuity and salvation of the Union." Candidate Sickles was physically described as, "not stout but well knit together, complexion fair, eyes blue and expressive, mouth firm, and his general bearing ... thoroughly indicative of ... unflinching determination." He wore a full drooping moustache. His contemporaries noted his "fondness" for women and, despite the fact that he was married and starting a family, was considered "somewhat of a lady-killer." The ever-critical diarist George Templeton Strong thought Sickles belonged "to the filthy sediment of the [law] profession, and lying somewhere in its lower strata. Perhaps better to say that he's one of the bigger bubbles of the scum of the profession, swollen and windy, and puffed out with fetid gas." It is fair to conclude that Sickles did not receive Strong's vote when he was elected to Congress in November by a wide margin, the same election that resulted in Buchanan's elevation to the presidency.
Sickles arrived in Washington for Buchanan's inauguration in March 1857. That spring, before his first Congress even opened, Dan was lobbying to have Charles Graham appointed as civil engineer at the Brooklyn Navy Yard while simultaneously arranging to have the current holder of the position fired. Dan declined the incumbent's challenge to a duel, but one morning the man burst into Sickles' room at the Willard Hotel and began to whip the new Congressman with a cowhide. During the ensuing struggle, Sickles grabbed the whip and the man fled. The attacker published a note in a New York paper, claiming Sickles' "whole career has been a series of unparalleled debaucheries. Graduating from the worst sinks of iniquity in this city, he has led the life of a professional vagabond. In debt to everybody ... he stands before the public ... a disgraced and vanquished man." Graham got his job. Sickles' New York enemies kept him in the papers even while he shifted his attention to Washington. In October 1857, he brought a libel action against James Gordon Bennett when the New York Herald accused him of stealing from the Post Office — a felony.
Dan and Teresa set up their household on the prestigious Lafayette Square, across the street from the Executive Mansion, and President Buchanan was a frequent guest. The annual rent of the fine home was $3,000, or roughly equal to his congressional salary. In addition to Dan, Teresa, and daughter Laura, the large household included several servants. Washington wives played an important role in their husband's careers, and Teresa had significant social obligations. She was expected to attend or host a party nearly every day and night. It was not uncommon for available bachelors to act as escorts for married women when their politician husbands were unavailable. Dan was frequently focused on his rising career. He would later admit that an active political career "forces a good husband to keep bad hours." Good husband or not, Teresa suspected that his extramarital affairs had never really ceased.
It was during this time that Sickles met Philip Barton Key. He was born in 1818, four years after his father Francis Scott Key penned "The Star Spangled Banner." In 1853, Philip was appointed United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. He married in 1845 and had four children before his wife died in the 1850s. Although he was considered tall and athletic, he claimed that his wife's death shattered his health. He was increasingly unable to attend to his professional duties and committed most of his work to assistant Robert Ould. Key's inattentiveness was openly questioned following his inability to prosecute a California Congressman for murder in 1856. The New York Times later criticized Key as being "indolent and unread to a degree almost beyond belief in one filling such a position." But his supposed poor health did not prevent his attendance at Washington parties. One hostess called him "the handsomest man in all Washington ... he was a prominent figure at all the principal fashionable functions; a graceful dancer, he was a favorite with every hostess of the day." It was also said that "no man in Washington was more popular with the ladies." Key and Sickles were introduced through a mutual friend. The former was worried that Buchanan might replace him, and the latter agreed to intercede on his behalf; Key was reappointed to his position.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sickles at Gettysburg"
Copyright © 2013 2010.
Excerpted by permission of Savas Beatie LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Order of Battle: The Third Corps at Gettysburg,
Chapter 1: Murder!,
Chapter 2: The Making of a First Class Soldier,
Chapter 3: I Think it is a Retreat,
Chapter 4: No One Ever Received a More Important Command,
Chapter 5: The Third Corps Marches in the Right Direction,
Chapter 6: In Some Doubt as to Where He Should Go,
Chapter 7: No Relation to the General Line of Battle,
Chapter 8: Isn't Your Line Too Much Extended?,
Chapter 9: The "Key" of the Battleground,
Chapter 10: Gross Neglect or Unaccountable Stupidity,
Chapter 11: The Line Before You Must Be Broken,
Chapter 12: Let Me Die on the Field,
Chapter 13: He has Redeemed his Reputation Fully,
Chapter 14: Subsequent Events Proved My Judgment Correct,
Chapter 15: My Only Motive is to Vindicate History,
Chapter 16: Spoil a Rotten Egg,
Chapter 17: Some Strange Perversion of History,
Chapter 18: The Civil War is Only a Memory,
Epilogue: That Damn Fool Sickles,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If this were fiction, I would say the author's main character is not credible. It would be impossible for one man to have so many escapades and not be publically ruined. However, this is not a work of fiction but the biography of a very unique and controversial individual. Daniel E. Sickles managed to pack more into his long lifetime than most people could in two or three lifetimes. His exploits and views make for hot debates on the Internet and at Round Tables, over eighty years after his death. These debates show no signs of ending, as Sickles is an integral part of the American Civil War having a direct influence over the Battle of Gettysburg and the history of the battle. James A. Hessler brings a wealth of information and a quite authority to the subject. He is a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg, teaches college courses on Sickles and Gettysburg and speaks on the subject. This shows in his informative readable text and the impressive footnotes supporting his statements. While a very serious history, this is not a dull overwritten book. Sickles is a lively character and the author maintains this level of energy throughout the book. This is a Savas Beatie book, as expected it contains a series of excellent illustrations and maps in the right places. It is a quality book with excellent paper that is a joy to hold and can be given with pride. What is in the book? The author concentrates on the murder of Key, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Second Battle of Gettysburg and Sickles' role in the establishment of the National Military Park. While a full biography, including his many affairs, estrangement from his children, financial ups & downs, elections and offices, the concentration produces both a biography and a history making a much stronger book. In 1859, Congressman Sickles murdered Philip Barton Key. Key and Sickles wife were having an affair that they made little effort to hide. Sickles publicly hunted down the unarmed Key and shot him several times. The resulting trial and scandal are part of American lore. The author examines the trial showing where and why what we think is right and wrong. The result is a look at the 19th Century double standard and what we call "stand your ground" laws. Sickles political carrier is shattered and his social standing ruined. In 1863, Major General Daniel Sickles commands the Third Corps Army of the Potomac. How that happens gives the reader a look at the system of "Political Generals" and the need for "War Democrats". A detailed examination of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg cover about 200 pages, the majority being Gettysburg. Both battles have excellent maps, allowing the reader to easily follow the battles. This is some of the best work on Sickles' actions I have read. The author considers all the questions providing intelligent answers, well supported with excellent footnotes. I found this slow going, not because it was boring but because the footnotes became required reading. The Second Battle of Gettysburg and the establishment of the National Military Park consumed the balance of Sickles active life. He attacked General Meade over a number of points, magnified his contribution to victory and defended his advance for 50 years. During that time, he had a number of allies and detractors. While the details change, with time, the theme is consistent. [Truncated review due to B&N limit of 3,500 characters]
I now own three Dan Sickles books. I took an interest in Sickles years ago while participating in a program about the ghosts of Washington D.C. at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, OH. I purchased two paperback books about the general, but while their info was good, they were boring. James Hessler has certainly written a much more lively and interesting book than the others. He also exhibits a good sense of humor in his writing. Civil War enthusiasts should certainly enjoy this book.