There are some names from American history who, for good or ill, seem to belong on a modern stage, where their actions—or antics—would have reveled in the overflow of media attention provided by 24-hour news, Twitter, and cable television. One of those men is Daniel Sickles, the New York politician, Civil War general and murderer of his wife’s lover.
Had Sickles been living in the twenty-first century’s celebrity-ravenous society, he would likely have ended up as tabloid fodder, a CNN panelist, or a social media star. For a man born in 1819 (or, perhaps, 1825—vanity and marriage to a younger woman may have inspired Sickles to tweak his age), he made the most of his era’s limelight.
Story of General Daniel Sickles
Sickles’ life began with all the advantages that early nineteenth-century America could offer. His father was an attorney and a politician and after attending university, Dan Sickles opted for a career in law. In 1847, he was elected to the New York State Assembly. Then, at the age of thirty-three, he met teenaged Theresa Bagioli and married her, although both families opposed the match. Matrimony, even to a girl so much his junior, did not inhibit his political career; he received a political appointment from President Franklin Pierce, serving with future president James Buchanan as part of the American delegation to London.
The course of love, true or otherwise, does ne’er run smooth, and this was particularly so in the case of Daniel Sickles. In 1859, upon discovering that his wife was involved in an adulterous affair with the son of Star-Spangled Banner composer Francis Scott Key, Sickles settled the score in the accepted man of a cuckolded gentleman by shooting and killing her lover in LaFayette Park across from the White House. His defense attorney was Edwin M. Stanton, who would go on to further fame when he served in the Cabinet of President Abraham Lincoln as the Secretary of War. Stanton’s use of the then-new temporary insanity defense worked; Sickles was acquitted of the crime.
War has afforded many a man the opportunity for public redemption, and Dan Sickles needed it. Given authorization to raise a regiment, Sickles was able to recruit sufficient men for a brigade and he and his soiled reputation went off to war. As Sickles had previously been censured for bringing a prostitute into the New York State Assembly chambers, it should have surprised no one that when he was encamped with his soldiers—he was often away in Washington, furthering his career and his reputation—his headquarters achieved the reputation of having brothelesque characteristics thanks to the level of drinking and philandering that took place.
But even the most amorous of soldiers must occasionally turn his attention to the battlefield.
On the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, Major General George Meade, Army of the Potomac Commander, ordered Daniel Sickles’ troops to Cemetery Ridge, where they were to take up a defensive position. But Sickles thought that the Peach Orchard, with its higher terrain, was more to his liking, so, without approval from his superiors, he moved his troops. The result was that his corps was stretched too thin and was susceptible to attack from multiple sides. By the time Meade learned of Sickles’ action, it was too late to withdraw the troops. As expected, Sickles’ forces were assaulted by General James Longstreet’s Confederate troops.
Daniel Sickles did not come out unscathed. His right leg was hit by a cannonball, requiring amputation a half hour later. Longstreet’s attack was so devastating that the Third Corps was no longer capable of combat. In historian Stephen Sears’ view, Sickles’ deed jeopardized the Union army’s defensive strategy on the second day of the battle. But historians John Keegan and James McPherson view the result differently; according to Keegan, the presence of Sickles’ forces may have reduced the intended effect of the Confederate plan to collapse the Union line; McPherson suggests that the move by Sickles may be credited with ruining the Southern hopes of vanquishing the federal army on its own turf.
Although the amputation ended Sickles’ military career, the saga of the man—and his leg—did not end at Gettysburg. Three decades after the war ended, Sickles received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery. He was vigorously involved in the preservation of the battlefield at Gettysburg and the formation of the Gettysburg National Military Park. There is no statue at Gettysburg in his memory, but when he was asked why this was so, Sickles reportedly replied that “The entire battlefield is a memorial to Dan Sickles.”
Sickles donated his amputated leg to Washington D.C.’s Army Medical Museum and was known to visit his departed limb on the anniversary of its loss on the field of battle. Now renamed the National Museum of Health and Medicine, the amputated leg remains on display along with other morbid memorabilia from the Civil War era.