Sickles becomes hero by disobeying orders

Profile: A controversial political general from New York makes his mark on the second day at Gettysburg

Remembrance At Gettysburg

September 19, 1999|By Janelle Chanona | Janelle Chanona,Special to the Sun

As the men in blue and gray meet at Gettysburg, Pa., to commemorate battles of the Civil War this fall, it is appropriate to give some thought to Union Maj. Gen. Daniel Edgar Sickles, a hero of the Battle of Gettysburg and the driving force behind the creation of the national battlefield park there.

Sickles was a man of many talents and controversies. Born Oct. 20, 1819, in New York, he attended New York University, studying law, and was admitted to the bar in 1846. In 1847 he was elected to the New York assembly.

President Franklin Pierce named him secretary of the U.S. Legation in London, where he served from 1853 to 1855. He was then elected to the New York Senate and served there from 1856 to 1857. From 1857 to 1861 he was a New York representative in Congress.

Sickles first gained national attention in 1859 when he shot and killed his wife's lover, Phillip Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key of "The Star-Spangled Banner" fame.

Sickles' wife, Teresa, several years younger than her husband, had begun having an affair with Barton Key. It seemed that everyone in Washington was aware of the affair, and the two were pegged Disgrace and Disgust. An anonymous note set off a series of events leading Sickles to discover the situation. Despite his own history of infidelity, Sickles was furious. He confronted his wife, and she later wrote a confession and committed suicide.

Temporary insanity claim

Barton Key, unaware of what was transpiring in the Sickles home, arrived at his usual time in Lafayette Square to signal his lover. Outraged, Sickles picked up two pistols and shot the unarmed Key in the middle of the street.

"Of course I killed him," Sickles said at the time. "He deserved it."

The trial lasted 22 days with eight lawyers defending Sickles. His was the first defense to claim temporary insanity from rage and grief. On April 26, 1859, an all-male jury acquitted Sickles of the charges. The Baltimore Patriot wrote, "We may account for the seeming tenderness and extreme delicacy of the prosecution on remembering that the accused was a fast friend of the highest officer in the nation."

Despite his friends in high places and the 1,500 people who came to the courthouse to celebrate the verdict, the consensus was that the political career that Sickles had worked so hard for was finished.

Although his life had been filled with numerous scandals involving monetary indiscretions, drunken brawls and other controversial behavior, Sickles never felt more isolated.

The Civil War gave him something to focus his attention. For many Southerners, the election of Abraham Lincon ended any hope for a peaceful settlement of the controversy over slavery. When South Carolinians threatened Fort Sumter, it was Sickles who urged the president to resupply the Union garrison in Charleston harbor, leading to the Southern bombardment of the fort in April 1861.

Sickles then joined with Capt. William Wiley to recruit soldiers for the Union army. By the middle of May 1861, they had a brigade of 3,000 men with Sickles in command, but the Excelsior Brigade soon ran into difficulty as food, sanitation and shelter became problems. The men were eager to fight but dissension rippled through the ranks as creditors lined up to collect debts. When stories came that the Confederates were about to attack Washington, Secretary of War Simon Cameron told Sickles and his men: "Come."

Despite the fact that Sickles' military experience and training were sorely lacking, the Excelsior Brigade found itself on the Potomac River in Maryland, as part of the division commanded by Brig. Gen. Joseph Hooker.

The practice of watching and waiting while the Confederates were right across the river fostered bickering and insubordination, and just when the action was about to start, Sickles was taken from command. He was forced to return to Washington to fight for the brigade and his former rank.

By a Senate vote of 19-18, Sickles was allowed to return in time for the Peninsular Campaign of 1862. Sickles impressed Hooker by fearlessly placing himself in the thickest of the fighting. The Union army was losing many soldiers to deplorable conditions, inadequate medical care and to the fact that it was being out-generaled by an enemy inferior in number.

Sickles returned to New York for more recruits, but word had spread that enemy bullets drew blood. Recruiting was hard work, even though Sickles attempted to treat the war as a tragic necessity aimed to crush the uprising which, he said, "to this hour never had a pretext."

Though lacking in military training, Sickles demonstrated qualities of leadership. He was promoted to brigadier general in 1861 and major general in 1862. He fought at Williamsburg, Fair Oaks and Malvern Hill in Hooker's division, then commanded the division at Antietam and Fredericksburg.

Sickles took command of the 3rd Corps in February 1863, and on July 2, 1863, that corps was posted on Cemetery Ridge to defend the two hills known as the Round Tops.

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