"Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg"
"Sickles at Gettysburg"
Civil War Titles by
Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide
James Hessler

About Sickles at Gettysburg

Sickles at Gettysburg is the first comprehensive and full-length biography of Daniel Sickles published in more than fifty years and the only Sickles book ever written by a Gettysburg National Military Park Licensed Battlefield Guide!

Critical Praise for
Sickles at Gettysburg

WINNER: Robert E. Lee Civil War Round Table's "Bachelder-Coddington Award" (2009)
WINNER: Gettysburg Civil War Round Table Distinguished Book Award (2010)
FINALIST: U.S. Army Distinguished Biography Award (2009)  

"After reading Sickles at Gettysburg, there should not be any questions concerning motives and actions on July 2. This is the seminal work on those matters and the postware debate concerning the battle, and it should remain so for a long time." 
Civil War News (October 2009)

"Solidly researched and well presented... clear and easy to follow ...highly recommended ...for those who appreciate the combination of top-notch biography and military history."
Journal of America's Military Past (Fall 2010)

"Other Sickles biographies will 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, co-author of
Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart's Controversial Ride to Gettysburg (2006) and author of The Complete Gettysburg Guide (2009)
"A rare combination in one historical work - scholarly research and objectivity as well as an entertaining read. Hessler’s organized approach deftly navigates the difficult and often contradictory primary accounts and quotes. The author’s detailed analysis provides the serious student of the war an outstanding reference source for a controversial yet very influential man before, during, and after Gettysburg. With keen insight, Hessler shows a resilient individual with capabilities enough to re-invent himself – from politician to army general. This work is the best one-stop, comprehensive, and objective analysis to date. It is definitely a 'must have'.”  

George W. Newton

Licensed Battlefield Guide –GNMP

Author of Silent Sentinels, A Reference Guide to the Artillery at Gettysburg

"One of the most colorful figures associated with the Battle of Gettysburg, Daniel Edgar Sickles has long been the topic of discussion and controversy.  As a Licensed Battlefield Guide, Hessler provides us fresh and balanced view of the flamboyant General."
Tim Smith
Licensed Battlefield Guide - GNMP
Co-author of Devil's Den: A History and Guide
"This book is a breath of fresh air - it is an objective, thorough and readable examination of the controversial general. Hessler avoids getting bogged down in extreme reactions typically seen in others who write on this subject."
Sue Boardman
Licensed Battlefield Guide -GNMP
Leadership Program Coordinator, Gettysburg Foundation
Author of The Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama: A History and Guide

"Jim Hessler has done a masterful job of telling Sickles’ story.  There have been other biographies about Sickles, but none does nearly as good a job of explaining his important role in the Civil War.  Using a myriad of first person accounts, Hessler has skillfully produced a very readable and accurate story of Sickles’ activities.  The several chapters on the Gettysburg Campaign are especially compelling, and are among the best I have ever read.  Hessler tells the story from a neutral point of view, letting the reader form his or her own judgments.  This book belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in the Civil War."
Brad Gottfried
Author of The Maps of Gettysburg (2007) and The Maps of First Bull Run (2009)

This Biography of Dan Sickles Tells the Entire Story
of his Controversial Career for the First Time:

Daniel E. Sickles was born in New York City on October 20, 1819. (There is some debate over the exact year.) Sickles was a few months shy of his forty-fourth birthday when he fought at Gettysburg.

Sickles opened law offices in New York in 1841. He  quickly gained a reputation for questionable practices. He was indicted for obtaining money under false pretenses, was almost prosecuted for appropriating funds from another man, was accused of pocketing money that had been raised for a political pamphlet,  and charged of improperly retaining a mortgage that he had pledged as collateral on a loan. His political career began in 1844 when he 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.”

Sickles lived fast and extravagantly. He was called a “lady killer” and money reportedly “poured through his fingers”. He became romantically involved with a prostitute named Fanny White, who ran a high-end bordello in the city.  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 collected money from her earnings in exchange for campaign favors. He may have later introduced the prostitute to the Queen of England In September 1852, the nearly thirty-three year old Sickles shocked New York society when he married Teresa Bagioli, the sixteen year old daughter of a family friend. The rising political star had most likely married the Catholic schoolgirl because she was pregnant. Teresa gave birth to a daughter, Laura, whose birth date is actually unclear, but there is some contemporary suggestion that it occurred in mid 1853.

Dan Sickles was elected to the United States Congress in 1856. Dan and Teresa arrived in Washington for his mentor James Buchanan’s presidential inauguration in March 1857 and set up their household on the fashionable and prestigious Lafayette Square, literally across the street from the Executive Mansion. President Buchanan was a frequent guest. Washington wives played an important role in their husband’s careers and Teresa had significant social obligations.

Shortly after arriving in the city, Dan and Teresa befriended a District Attorney by the name of Philip Barton Key. The son of Francis Scott Key, Barton (as his friends called him), was a widower and well-known ladies man himself. Key and Teresa soon became embroiled in a scandalous secret affair!

On February 25, 1859, Sickles received an anonymous letter that informed him about the affair. Sickles soon extracted a full written confession from his tearful wife. Key, however, was unaware that he had been discovered.

Sickles finally exploded on Sunday February 27. Phillip Barton Key approached the Sickles house several times already that day, twirling his white handkerchief slowly as an obvious signal for Teresa to come out and play. Sickles noticed and shouted, “That villain has just passed my house! My God, this is horrible!” Sickles armed himself with a revolver and two derringers.

Sickles confronted Key on the street, shouting, “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my house- you must die!” Dan produced a gun and fired at close range. The first shot only grazed Key, who still cried out “Murder!” The two men began to struggle. Sickles shot Key twice, including a fatal blow to the chest. The shooting occurred in front of numerous witnesses who eventually intervened between the two men. Sickles stood with the gun and simply asked, “Is the scoundrel dead?” Congressman Sickles was led away and Key died shortly thereafter. 

It is not an exaggeration to say that the murder of Philip Barton Key, and accompanying trial of Congressman Daniel E. Sickles, was the equivalent of the modern era’s OJ Simpson trial. It had everything: adultery, politics, celebrity, and murder. Newspapers across the country provided extensive coverage of the so-called “Sickles Tragedy”.

Yet public opinion was resoundingly in Sickles's favor. When the trial began on April 4, 1859, Sickles assembled his own "Dream Team" who argued that the heinous discovery of his wife being with his friend had caused Sickles's mind to become “affected” and that there had not been “sufficient time” for “his passion to cool”. It was this final point that made the trial noteworthy beyond its merely scandalous aspects. The Sickles team had placed what would eventually become known as “temporary insanity” defense before an American jury for the first time.

The jury ultimately found Congressman Sickles “Not Guilty.” Most nationwide newspapers praised the verdict. But within only three months of the acquittal, shocking rumors were confirmed that the infamous couple had actually reconciled. Public opinion accepted that he had murdered the adulterous Key, but the people could not condone the fact that he forgave his wife. His once promising political career was in ruins!

Sickles would never quite live down the Key murder. Ultimately, the Key scandal’s most lasting impact on Gettysburg was the fact that it drove Sickles out of Congress. When the American Civil War erupted in 1861, Sickles would be looking for a new career. The disgraced ex-Congressman Daniel Sickles would transform himself into General Daniel Sickles.

In the spring of 1861, Sickles and a friend raised a brigade of troops in New York that would eventually become known as the “Excelsior Brigade.” President Lincoln took a liking to this aggressive New Yorker and needed Democrats to support his unpopular war effort. Thus, Lincoln and his wife Mary both supported Sickles's fledgling military career and would help ensure that Sickles was promoted to Major General in the Union Army of the Potomac - despite an utter lack of military training. 

At Gettysburg, Sickles was at odds with his new commanding general, Major General George G. Meade. On the morning of July 2, 1863, Meade ordered Sickles to anchor the left end of Cemetery Ridge which included a small hill that would later become known as Little Round Top. Sickles, however, expressed doubts and uncertainty over his position and (contrary to myth) expressed those doubts to army headquarters. By the early afternoon, Sickles decided to move his 11,000 man Third Corps forward from Cemetery Ridge and into a salient position along the Emmitsburg Road, without telling his commanding officer. General Meade meanwhile did not come down to visit Sickles and instead assumed that the New Yorker was in the correct position. Trouble was brewing on the left flank of the Northern army. 

General Meade only learned of Sickles's unauthorized movement as the Confederate attack of Lt. General James Longstreet was beginning in mid-afternoon. During the ensuing three hours of some of the bloodiest combat of the entire war, Longstreet's massive attack hammered at Sickles's beleaguered position while Meade scrambled to reinforce locations that have since become legendary: the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, Devil's Den, and Little Round Top.

Late in the afternoon, perhaps 6:30 pm, Sickles was attempting to rally his crumbling line, when a Confederate artillery shell smashed into his right leg. Gettysburg legend tells us that in a moment of great theatrics, Sickles stuffed a cigar in his mouth and was carried from the field calmly smoking and urging his mend to stand firm.

His right leg was amputated that night and his military career was over—or was it? The amputation of his leg actually turned out to be one of his greatest career moves. He would spend the next 50 years portraying himself as the one-legged hero of Gettysburg. Mark Twain met Sickles in later years and came to the conclusion that Sickles, “valued the leg he lost more than the one he’s got” and “I’m sure if he had to part with one he would prefer to lose the one he still has.”

The Battle of Gettysburg—viewed as a great victory today—was considered a disappointment in the North because Meade was unable to prevent Lee from escaping back into Virginia. While recuperating from his wound in Washington, Sickles was frequently visited by his friend Abraham Lincoln. During these visits Lincoln expressed his disappointment that Lee had escaped. It seems clear that Sickles helped reinforce Lincoln’s displeasure.

It was this disappointment that led into the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War’s Gettysburg hearings in the spring of 1864. The committee called nearly all of Meade’s senior officers to testify. Their first witness was Dan Sickles. Sickles was smarting under mild criticism that he had received in both Meade and Henry Halleck's reports. Criticism of his failure to occupy Little Round Top was also in the public domain. Sickles used Congress as an opportunity to justify his decision to move forward---even going so far as to lie and tell Congress that he did in fact occupy Little Round Top. He also began his fifty year assault by claiming that Meade had wanted to retreat at 3:00 on July 2, and that his advance had prevented Meade from abandoning Gettyburg. The heart of the so-called Meade/Sickles controversy is that Sickles addressed criticism of his Gettysburg performance by claiming that Meade had planned a retreat on July 2. Sickles never said it in so many words—but the implication was clear—he deserved credit for keeping the army at Gettysburg and thus was responsible for much of the victory.

After the war, Sickles was most concerned (like many vets) with getting on with his life. He spent the late 1860s – 1870s on Reconstruction Duty and then served as Minister to Spain. Teresa Sickles died unexpectedly in 1867, leaving him a bachelor again. In Spain, he regained his reputation for entertaining lavishly, well above his annual salary. Dan began a romantic affair with the deposed Queen Isabella II in Paris, and the French press sarcastically dubbed him the “Yankee King of Spain”. But in November 1871, he instead married one of Isabella’s twenty-something attendants, Caroline de Creagh. An acquaintance later insisted that both parties “married in the belief that the other party had plenty of money…But they were temperamentally unsuited to each other, and never agreed on any subject…” 

Even worse, his second marriage did not cure his chronic philandering. In 1873, one anonymous American complained to the Secretary of State, “While in Madrid his conduct with women has been simply disgraceful.” Dan was accused of living in adultery with another woman prior to the marriage and of using “child virgins" for the purpose of prostitution. On the positive side, Caroline bore a daughter (Eda) in 1875 and a son (George Stanton) in 1876. Approaching fifty-seven years old, and with a significant physical disability, Sickles was starting a new family at an age when most men were preparing to retire.

In late 1879 he decided to return to the United States. From Gettysburg’s point of view, Sickles timed his tenure abroad perfectly. His return coincided with the old Civil War veterans' increased interest in commemorating the late war.

Sickles was often asked at veterans' gatherings if Meade had ever condemned his movements? “Not that I know of. He certainly never gave me an indication by word or act that he regarded my position at Gettysburg a mistake. Indeed, I do not see how he could have done so for…he looked over my position and declined to interfere with it, when I asked if he would suggest any change.” Recalling the events of July 2, 1863, many times during the 1880s and 1890s, Sickles would repeatedly declare, “I would do tomorrow under the conditions and circumstances that then existed exactly what I did on July 2.” In reflecting upon almost thirty-six years of controversy in 1899, “I have heard all the criticisms and read all the histories and after hearing and reading all I would say to them I would do what I did and accept the verdict of history on my acts. It was a mighty good fight both made and I am satisfied with my part in it.”

The year 1886 officially changed the nature of Sickles’s involvement with the Gettysburg battlefield. Sickles was appointed the chairman of the New York Monuments Commission for the Battlefield of Gettysburg. For nearly the remainder of his life, Sickles would be consumed by a mission to appropriate and correctly place monuments to all New York regiments, batteries, and ranking commanders on the battlefield. These new monuments would require dedication speeches, typically in front of enthusiastic veterans. Sickles’s new role ensured that he would become a welcome staple at battlefield reunions; refighting the battle to an assorted cast of aging veterans and an increasing number of attendees who had not yet been born when he made his controversial move to the Peach Orchard.

During this period, Dan also befriended James Longstreet, his Gettysburg opponent. In Atlanta on St. Patrick’s Day 1892, they both attended a banquet and the two walked each other home after getting intoxicated on Irish whiskey. “Old fellow,” Dan asked on route, “I hope you are sorry for shooting off my leg at Gettysburg. I suppose I will have to forgive you for it some day.” A drunken Longstreet exclaimed, “Forgive me? You ought to thank me for leaving you one leg to stand on…”

The two men increasingly became friends during this period, both sharing the distinction of having their Gettysburg performance assailed by critics on both sides. Whether they actually believed it or not, each man would frequently tell anyone who would listen that the other had done right on 2 July 1863.

A surprising development occurred in 1892 when Sickles was re-elected to Congress--- over thirty years after he had been disgraced in the Key murder trial. Gettysburg literature frequently and inaccurately tells us that Sickles returned to Congress on a one-man crusade to establish Gettysburg National Military Park. Veteran affairs, but not Gettysburg, were at the top of his agenda. During a speech in Harlem, Sickles said he was going to Congress “for the very purpose” of “keeping up the pensions system or establishing it on a wider basis.” On the eve of election, the Times listed Sickles among those candidates “certain of election”, and on November 8, over thirty years after his first term had ended, Dan Sickles was once again elected to Congress. The New York Times would later marvel that Sickles was returning at “an age when most men are ready to retire.” 

In December 1894, he finally introduced a bill “to establish a national military park at Gettysburg, PA”. There seemed little doubt that the bill would pass, and the debate primarily concerned the details. Sickles’s proposal authorized the Secretary of War to purchase the necessary land from the GBMA to preserve the battlefield and the National Cemetery. Sickles’s bill also authorized the creation of “a suitable bronze tablet” containing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. A late modification designated the park boundaries as "the parcels shown on the map prepared by Maj. Gen Daniel E. Sickles..." The resolution passed through the House and Senate, and on February 11, 1895, the President officially signed the bill establishing Gettysburg National Military Park. It was the most lasting initiative of Sickles’s long career, even if the vast majority of Gettysburg’s modern visitors are completely unaware of his involvement.

Legend tells us that as Sickles visited the field one final time, for the battle's 50th anniversary in July 1913, he and his friend Chaplain Joe Twichell (also a friend of Mark Twain) looked out over the field together for one last time, Twichell is said to have expressed surprise that there was still no Sickles statue on the field. Legend tells us that Sickles replied (to the effect) that the whole damned battlefield was his monument. The moment symbolically defines Sickles’s immense battlefield contributions, as well as both his final acknowledgment that he might never receive a statue at Gettysburg.

Contact Us

Do you have any comments or questions about "Sickles at Gettysburg:  The Controversial Civil War General Who Committed Murder, Abadoned Little Round Top, and Declared Himself The Hero of Gettysburg"?  We'd love to hear from you!  Contact James Hessler at custer7@comcast.net
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