Devil Dan Sickles

Major General Daniel Sickles led a very colorful life and is one of the more fascinating and flawed figures of the Civil War.

He was born to a well to do family in New York in 1819. Unlike many officers, he did not study at West Point but instead he studied law at the University of the City of New York. In 1847, he was elected to the New York State Assembly. In 1856 he was elected as a Democrat to Congress.

This, so far, seems an ordinary life path. He married Teresa Bagioli in 1853. Both sides of the family disapproved of the marriage, Sickles was 17 years older than his new bride.

His wife began having an affair with Phillip Barton Key II, son of Francis Scott Key. (Full disclosure: Sickles was a serial adulterer). Key was a young prominent lawyer in Washington DC and the district attorney. Sickles found out about the affair and on February 27, 1859, in broad daylight, he confronted Key in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House.

“Key you scoundrel!” Sickles said, “You have dishonored my bed, you must die!” With that he shot Keys twice and killed him.

The trial that followed was deemed the “Trial of the Century”. Sickles was represented by some of the best lawyers in the land and the defense of “temporary insanity” was used for the first time in Sickles’ trial. He was acquitted of the murder of Key.

Sickles received a commission a New York regiment, rising to the rank of major. By the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, Sickles had risen to the rank of Major General serving under General George Meade. On July 2, he enraged his commanding officer by disobeying orders to hold the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Instead, he moved his troops forward towards a peach orchard. His position was overtaken by the Confederates causing a nearly 50% reduction of his troops. Sickles brash actions may have actually slowed Lee’s advance on Meade’s left flank.

Sickles was sitting on his horse, surveying the action, near the Trostle Barn, when a Confederate 12 pound cannonball hit him on the right leg. He was taken from this horse and a tunicate tightened around his badly mangled leg but Sickles showed his steel as he calmly smoked a cigar and continued to give orders, despite the pain, until he was taken off the battlefield. His right leg was later amputated. This ended Sickles’ field service in the military.

The Trostle Barn, which was Sickles’ headquarters, near where Sickles was wounded. The brick barns still shows scars from the Battle of Gettysburg.

After his wounding, Sickles and his amputated leg, went to Washington. There the general met with Lincoln and his son Tad. Sickles’ leg went to a medical museum where it was put on display. His leg is still on display in what is now called the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Sickles would often visit his leg on the anniversary of his wounding.

An 1865 photograph of Sickles, sans leg, at the Army Medical Museum. Photo by William Bell Woodward.

Sickles also played a part in helping to preserveCivil War history. As a congressman he sponsored legislation to preserve the Gettysburg Battlefield which formed what is today, the Gettysburg National Military Park. The boundaries of the park where based on a map that General Sickles drew up.

Despite being responsible for creating the Gettysburg National Military Park, you will not find a single monument dedicated to General Sickles. When asked about this absence, Sickles replied, “The entire battlefield is a monument to Dan Sickles!”

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