Daniel Sickles: Adulterer, Murderer, and Eccentric

Perhaps the most interesting Gettysburg character I learned about when I went there in 2009 was Major General Daniel Sickles, who nearly cost the Feds the victory with a foolhardy and movement of troops on Day 2 of the three day battle.

But his fascinating story begins before Gettysburg. He was a lawyer and later a New York Senator. He married a 15 year old named Teresa Bagioli when he was 33 and cheated on her with hookers regularly. She responded by carrying on an affair with Phillip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key. Sickles hunted down Key, who at the time was district attorney for Washington, D.C., and shot and killed him directly across the street from the White House in February of 1859. Sickles was arrested a few hours later. His lawyers, led by future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, encouraged him to plead temporary insanity, and he said that his wife’s infidelity had caused him to temporarily lose his mind. It was the first time the temporary insanity defense had ever been used in the United States, and it worked. Sickles was acquitted of all charges.

His image was bruised however, when he forgave his wife for her infidelity (people generally supported the fact that he killed Key, but were outraged that he would forgive that little whore for cheating on him) and ever the politician, he knew that a gool old fashioned war could help repair it. Due to his political connections, he rapidly moved up the ranks, and soon was a Major General. He was also a good friend of General Hooker, and the two men often indulged in strong booze and cheap women.
sicklesleg3At Gettysburg, Sickles was ordered to protect the southern ridge by General Meade. He disobeyed orders and moved to a higher ground. His move stretched the Union Army out too thin, left the southern flank exposed, and infuriated Meade, who never forgave him. In addition, it allowed Sickles III Corps to be attacked from multiple sides. They were crushed by General Longstreet, and Sickles had one of his legs almost blown off by a cannon. To rally his men, he demanded that a cigar be placed in his mouth as he was led off the battlefield on a stretcher. After it was amputated, he had his leg preserved and sent to the Army Medical Museum in Washington, DC, where he would visit it every year on the anniversary of it’s destruction.

daniel-sickles-fullHe and Meade remained enemies,  with Sickles claiming of course that he himself had been the true hero at the Battle of Gettysburg and Meade had smeared him and taken away the glory that was rightfully his.

After the war he became US Minister to Spain, where he reportedly carried on an affair with recently deposed Queen Isabella II. He returned to New York in 1874 and became head of the New York Monuments Commission (He was relieved of his post when in his early 90s it was discovered that $28,000 had gone missing from the commissions coffers). He also led the charge to make Gettysburg battlefield a national park when commercial interests were trying to take it over.

In 1913, in his 90s and in ailing health he went to Gettysburg for the 50th year anniversary for what he knew would be the last time. He spent part of that time taking swipes at General Meade. He died the next year at age 94.

While there are monuments dedicated to most of the generals who served at Gettysburg, there is none dedicated to Sickles. Why? Because he was in charge of the moneys for a bust of himself to be placed on the battlefield, and rumor is that he stole the money for himself. Thus there is a memorial today to his III Corps with an empty spot where the bust was to have gone. When asked why there was no monument to him at Gettysburg, Sickles replied, “The entire battlefield is a memorial to Dan Sickles.”

RELATED: How the Civil War saved Dan Sickles.