Daniel Sickles was a Congressman, United States diplomat, and prominent Union Civil War general, who was infamous for his disreputable lifestyle before, during, and after the War Between the States.
Daniel Edgar Sickles was born on October 20, 1819, in New York City. He was the only child of George Garrett Sickles and Susan Marsh Sickles. Sickles’ father was a patent attorney and successful real estate broker who could afford to send his son to private schools. Young Sickles exhibited his independent spirit, however, and left school at the age of sixteen to become a printer’s apprentice.
During his teens, Sickles met Charles Da Ponte, a professor at the University of the City of New York (now New York University). Da Ponte befriended Sickles, who took up residence at the home of Da Ponte’s father, acclaimed music teacher Lorenzo Da Ponte. With the help of Charles Da Ponte, Sickles received a scholarship to the University of the City of New York, where he studied law. When Charles Da Ponte died unexpectedly in 1838, Sickles left school. He continued his law studies with Benjamin Butler and gained admittance to the New York bar in 1846.
Sickles quickly became a successful attorney, specializing in corporate law. He also joined the Democratic Party and became a prominent figure in Tammany Hall, the party’s New York political machine. In 1847, Sickles represented New York County for a term in the New York State Assembly. At about that time, he joined the New York State Militia and received a commission as a major with the 12th Regiment. As his star rose, Sickles also developed a reputation as a gambler, womanizer, and high-liver.
Sickles’ personal life changed dramatically on September 27, 1852, when he married the visibly pregnant, seventeen-year-old Teresa Da Ponte Bagioli, who he knew as an infant from his days at the Da Ponte household. Their only child, Laura Buchanan Sickles, was born seven months later.
By 1853, Sickles had secured a plum political appointment of the corporation counsel of New York City. During his short tenure in that position, Sickles was a strong advocate for the establishment of Central Park. By 1854, Sickles was in London serving as secretary to James Buchanan, United States Minister to Great Britain. While serving there, he became the focus of British gossip for his tawdry relationships.
When Sickles returned to the United States, voters in New York’s 3rd District elected him to a term in the New York State Senate in 1855. In 1856, 3rd District voters elected him to the first of two successive terms in the United States House of Representatives. Sickles served in the 35th Congress (March 4, 1857-March 4, 1859) and the 36th Congress (March 4, 1859-March 4, 1861).
While living in Washington, Sickles wife became romantically involved with Philip Barton Key II, district attorney of the District of Columbia, and son of Francis Scott Key, composer of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Upon confirming his wife’s dalliances, Sickles confronted Key on a street across from the White House and shot him dead on February 27, 1859. During a sensational trial that gripped the nation’s attention, Sickles’ defense team, which included Edwin M. Stanton, argued that Sickles was innocent of the charge of homicide because of temporary insanity. On April 26, 1859, the jury agreed, returning a verdict of not guilty, thus marking the first successful use of the plea of temporary insanity to escape a murder charge in United States legal history.
Sickles escaped the gallows or prison, but the scandal ruined his political career. When his second term in Congress ended, Sickles returned to New York, where he sought to repair his tattered image by recruiting troops for the volunteer army that was being assembled in response to the secession crisis. By June 1861, Sickles helped raise four regiments of troops (70th, 72nd, 73rd, and 74th New York Infantry) known as the Excelsior Brigade. When the 70th Regiment mustered into service on June 20, 1861, the men elected Sickles as the unit’s colonel.
Initially, army officials assigned Sickles and his unit to the defenses of Washington. On December 5, 1861, the United States War Department issued General Orders, No. 106, promoting Sickles to the rank of brigadier general. Likely because of his checkered past, however, the Senate refused to confirm his appointment. Army officials stripped Sickles of his command as he and his brigade were traveling by boat to the Virginia Peninsula for the beginning of the Peninsula Campaign. Sickles returned to Washington, where he lobbied President Lincoln to pressure Republican senators to award him his appointment, even though he was a New York Democrat. Lincoln’s arm-twisting eventually paid off and, on May 13, 1862, the Senate approved Sickles’ appointment by a vote of nineteen to eighteen. On June 10, 1862, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 63, announcing Sickles’ appointment as brigadier general to date from March 20, 1862.
Sickles rejoined his brigade in time to take part in the latter stages of the Peninsula Campaign. Commanding the 2nd Brigade of the 2nd Division of the 3rd Corps of the Army of the Potomac, he was engaged at the Battle of Seven Pines (May 31-June 1, 1862) and during the Seven Days Battles (June 25-July 1, 1862).
Northern Virginia Campaign
During the Northern Virginia Campaign, Sickles was back in New York recruiting replacements for losses suffered on the Peninsula and did not see action at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862).
On September 5, 1862, the War Department issued Special Orders, No. 223, promoting Joseph Hooker to command the 3rd Army Corps. Sickles assumed command of Hooker’s 2nd Division following Hooker’s advancement. Sickles missed the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862) because the 3rd Corps was guarding Washington.
On November 29, 1862, army officials appointed Sickles to the rank of major general. The War Department officially announced his promotion and Senate confirmation ten months later (General Orders, No. 316, September 18, 1863).
3rd Corps Commander
Following the Battle of Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order, replacing Major General George B. McClellan with Major General Ambrose E. Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac, on November 5, 1862. Nine days later, Burnside issued General Orders, No. 184 (Army of the Potomac), dividing the Army of the Potomac into three “Grand Divisions.”
Burnside’s command was short-lived. Following his defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862), where Sickles’ division stood in reserve, President Lincoln drafted General Orders, No. 20 (U.S. War Department) on January 25, 1863, announcing that Hooker was replacing Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Never an enthusiast of Burnside’s Grand Divisions, Hooker issued General Orders, No. 6 (AoP) on February 5, 1863, restoring the army’s organization to the previous corps and division structure. Sickles benefited from his friend’s restructuring. Hooker named Sickles to command the 3rd Corps, although the Senate had yet to confirm his appointment as a major general. Two months later, on April 15, 1863, the United States War Department issued General Orders, No. 96, announcing that President Lincoln had appointed Sickles to command the 3rd Corps permanently.
Hooker and Sickles were notoriously hard drinkers and womanizers. Their debauchery during the winter of 1863 prompted some of their fellow officers to compare the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac to, “a combination of bar-room and brothel.”
Battle of Chancellorsville
The Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863), tested Hooker’s and Sickles’ relationship when Hooker lost his nerve and shifted from an offensive to a defensive strategy just as his troops prepared to attack Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia. Displeased with the change, Sickles took matters into his own hands, on May 2, by launching an assault against a column of Rebel soldiers moving across his front. Sickles’ movement created a gap in the federal lines that enabled Stonewall Jackson’s forces to overrun the 11th Corps. Sickles’ actions also isolated his own corps, which narrowly escaped disaster.
Battle of Gettysburg
Despite his actions at Chancellorsville, Sickles survived Hooker’s eventual demise. Less than two months after the shocking defeat, on June 27, 1863, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 194 announcing, “By direction of the President, Major General Joseph Hooker is relieved from command of the Army of the Potomac, and Major General George G. Meade is appointed to the command of that Army.” Although Meade disliked Sickles, he was in no position to replace him as a corps commander following his appointment just three days before the looming Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-July 3, 1863).
Sickles had endangered his corps and the entire Army of the Potomac by stretching interpretations of his orders Chancellorsville. At Gettysburg, he directly disobeyed Meade’s orders, creating nearly the same outcome. When Sickles arrived at Gettysburg on July 2, Meade ordered him to position his corps along the lower section of Cemetery Ridge, between Winfield S. Hancock’s 2nd Corps and a small hill known as Little Round Top.
Believing that Meade’s directive stretched his corps too thinly, Sickles disobeyed his orders by failing to secure Little Round Top. Then, believing that the ground to his front was more defensible, Sickles moved his corps forward one half-mile without Meade’s approval.
Sickles’ unauthorized advance left Hancock’s flank unguarded. It also created a salient, or bulge, in the federal line that exposed Sickles’ corps to assault from two sides. When Meade arrived on the scene, he admonished Sickles for flouting his instructions. A contrite Sickles offered to withdraw from his advanced position, but the proposal was too late. Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet had quickly recognized Sickles’ error and attacked. Longstreet’s soldiers overwhelmed the 3rd Corps, inflicting over 4,000 casualties among the roughly 10,000 Union soldiers engaged.
During the fighting, a Confederate cannonball struck Sickles’ right leg, forcing its amputation and the evacuation of the injured general from the field. Meade’s judicious use of his reserves prevented the crisis from becoming a disaster.
Loss of Command
Sympathy for Sickles’ injury, combined with the eventual Union victory at Gettysburg, probably saved the injured general from facing further admonishments for disobeying orders. Unsatisfied with escaping blame, however, Sickles launched a smear campaign against Meade that culminated with his testimony before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War in the spring of 1864. While his political allies in Washington may have been sympathetic, Sickles’ muckraking won him no friends in the army. In October 1863, Meade and Ulysses S. Grant declined Sickles’ request to resume command of the 3rd Corps on the grounds that he was unfit for combat duty.
Sickles remained in the military for the rest of the war as a non-combatant. In 1865, the War Department sent him to Colombia on a diplomatic mission. Upon his return, Sickles commanded the Department of South Carolina, the Department of the Carolinas, the Department of the South, and the 2nd Military District during Reconstruction.
In 1866, Sickles received an appointment as a colonel in the regular army with the 42nd U.S. Infantry (Veteran Reserve Corps). The next year, his wife died, leaving him a bachelor again. Sickles mustered out of volunteer service on January 1, 1868 with the rank of major general.
Overseas Personal Dalliances
In 1869 Sickles retired from the military to accept an appointment as United States Minister to Spain. While living there, he met and married Caroline de Creagh on November 27, 1871, in Madrid. Sickles’ return to married life did not deter him from indulging in several affairs, the most notorious of which was with the deposed Spanish Queen Isabella II who was in exile in Paris.
In 1873, a dispute with Secretary of State Hamilton Fish forced Sickles to discontinue his ministerial role. Living in Paris for the next few years, his wife bore him a daughter and a son.
Return to Congress
Sickles returned to the United States in 1879 and immersed himself in veterans’ affairs. From 1888 to 1889, he served as president of the New York State Board of Civil Service Commissioners, followed by a term as sheriff of New York in 1890. In 1892, voters from New York’s 53rd Congressional district elected Sickles to a term in the House of Representatives, where he served in the 54th Congress from 1893 to 1895.
Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient
Sickles lived for over fifty years after the Battle of Gettysburg. During that time he waged a continual battle to salvage his reputation at the expense of George G. Meade, who died in 1872. He finally gained vindication of a sort in 1897, when political allies in the 55th Congress awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg, over thirty years after the fact.
Preservation of Gettysburg Battlefield
As one of the last surviving general officers of the Civil War, Sickles played a prominent role in preservation efforts at the Gettysburg battlefield site. He also developed a close relationship with former Confederate General James Longstreet, his adversary at Gettysburg.
Sickles died of a cerebral hemorrhage, at the age of ninety-four, in New York City on May 3, 1914. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia.