Major General George Sykes was a career United States Army officer, whose 5th Corps of the Army of the Potomac successfully defended Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg.
George Sykes was born, Oct. 9, 1822, at Dover, Delaware. He was the son of William and Elizabeth Goldsborough Sykes. Sykes came from a distinguished family. His great grandfather represented Delaware in the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War. His grandfather was a prominent physician who served as the fifteenth Governor of Delaware from 1801 to 1802.
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
After attending local schools, Sykes received an appointment to the United States Military Academy. He entered the academy on July 1, 1838, and graduated four years later on July 1, 1842, ranked thirty-ninth out of fifty-six cadets in his class. Among his classmates at West Point were future Civil War general officers Abner Doubleday, William S. Rosecrans, John Pope, Lafayette McLaws, Richard H. Anderson, and James Longstreet.
U.S. Army Officer
After graduation, army officials brevetted Sykes to second lieutenant and assigned him to the 3rd U.S. Infantry. He served the next three years in Florida, where he received a promotion to the full rank of 2nd lieutenant on December 31, 1843.
Following two additional years of garrison duty, the army transferred Sykes to Texas, where he joined General Zachary Taylor’s Army of Occupation as tensions with Mexico escalated. During the Mexican-American War, Sykes took part in the Battle of Monterrey (September 21-23, 1846), earning a promotion to 1st lieutenant, effective September 21, 1846.
After Taylor’s army gained control of northern Mexico, army officials transferred Sykes to General Winfield Scott’s Army of Invasion. During Scott’s campaign in central Mexico, Sykes took part in the Siege of Veracruz (March 9‑29, 1847), the Battle of Cerro Gordo (April 17‑18, 1847), the Battle of Contreras (August 19‑20, 1847), the Battle of Churubusco (August 20, 1847), and the capture of Mexico City (September 12‑14, 1847). For his “Gallant and Meritorious Conduct in the Battle of Cerro Gordo,” officials brevetted Sykes to the rank of captain, effective April 18, 1847.
Following the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, Sykes served on frontier duty, campaigning against American Indians, primarily in New Mexico. On September 30, 1853, officials promoted Sykes to the rank of captain.
First Battle of Bull Run
When the American Civil War erupted, army officials promoted Sykes to major on May 14, 1861, and assigned him to the newly created 14th U.S. Infantry. During the Confederate victory at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), Sykes distinguished himself by trying to maintain order during the chaotic federal retreat. Afterward, the War Department commissioned Sykes to brigadier general in the volunteer army, effective September 28, 1861 (General Orders, No. 106 (Headquarters of the Army, December 5, 1861).
During the initial stage of Major General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, Sykes took part in the Siege of Yorktown (April 5-May 4, 1862) as a brigade commander. When officials created the 5th Army Corps on May 18, 1862, they placed Sykes in command of its 2nd Division. Because the division comprised U.S. Army regular troops, it became known as “Sykes’ Regulars.” As the campaign on the peninsula continued, Sykes took part in the Battle of Gaines’s Mill (June 27, 1862) and the Battle of Malvern Hill (July 1, 1862). For his “Gallant and Meritorious Services in the Battle of Gaines’s Mill,” Sykes received a brevet promotion to colonel in the regular army, effective June 27, 1862.
Northern Virginia Campaign
After McClellan’s offensive began to falter in July, the War Department reassigned the 5th Corps to Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia. When Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia advanced towards Washington, Sykes’s division fought well and sustained heavy casualties during the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862).
The second Confederate victory at Bull Run enabled Lee to take the war to Northern soil in the late summer of 1862. On September 4, the Army of Northern Virginia began crossing the Potomac River and entered Maryland. Sensing the vulnerability of the nation’s capital, President Lincoln turned to George McClellan to reinvigorate the federal forces in the East. Under McClellan’s leadership, the War Department reassigned the 5th Corps to the Army of the Potomac. During the pivotal Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862), McClellan initially held Sykes’s Division in reserve, but around noon, he ordered into action to support Union artillery near the Middle Bridge.
Major General of Volunteers
After the Battle of Antietam, President Lincoln replaced McClellan with Major General Ambrose E. Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac on November 5, 1862. Eager to strike Lee before he could reinvigorate his army, Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck prodded Burnside to begin an invasion of Virginia quickly. As Burnside made his preparations, he reorganized the army. On November 29, 1862, the War Department promoted Sykes to major general, the rank appropriate for a division commander. It was not until nearly a year later, however, that the U.S. Senate approved Sykes’ commission and the War Department announced it in General Orders, No. 316, dated September 18, 1863.
Battle of Fredericksburg
On December 13, 1862, Burnside launched an attack against Lee’s army at Fredericksburg, Virginia that ended in disaster after three days of fighting. When Lee’s soldiers forced the Army of the Potomac to retreat across the Rappahannock River on December 15, Sykes’s division played a major role in the orderly withdrawal. In his after-action report for the Battle of Fredericksburg, corps commander Daniel Butterfield stated, “Under the direction of General Sykes, one of his brigades covered the whole. The order was carried out in the most admirable manner. No confusion occurred; no haste or disorder.” He also noted, “General Sykes only too lightly estimates the fine behavior of his men in his personal report. I would respectfully call attention to it.”
After the disaster at Fredericksburg, President Lincoln drafted General Orders No. 20 (U.S. War Department) on January 25, 1863, announcing that Burnside was being relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac, at Burnside’s own request. The order also designated Major General Joseph Hooker as Burnside’s successor. When Hooker assumed command, he named Butterfield as his chief of staff. Major General George G. Meade succeeded Butterfield as commander of the 5th Corps and as Sykes’s superior officer.
By spring, the Army of the Potomac was ready for another offensive. Hooker’s first test as commander of the army came at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863), where he proved no match for Robert E. Lee. During that engagement, the 5th Corps and Sykes’s division were only lightly engaged.
The Confederate victory at Chancellorsville prompted Robert E. Lee to launch a second invasion of the North in June 1863. As Lee moved north, Lincoln and Hooker clashed over the deployment of federal troops. When Hooker rashly offered to resign his command, Lincoln quickly accepted and placed Major General George G. Meade in command of the Army of the Potomac on June 28, 1863. On the same day, just three days before the Battle of Gettysburg, Sykes replaced Meade as commander of the 5th Corps.
Sykes’s Corps arrived at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, the second day of the battle. Meade ordered Sykes’s command toward the left of the army to support the 3rd Corps, under assault by 14,000 Rebels commanded by Lieutenant General James Longstreet. When Meade discovered that a small knob known as Little Round Top was undefended, he ordered Sykes to occupy the hill and to “hold at all hazards.” While a brigade of Sykes’s command led by Colonel Strong Vincent did so, Sykes sent reinforcements to fill holes in the 3rd Corps’ lines in the adjacent Wheatfield. When the fighting subsided at the end of the day, the Federals had absorbed the Rebels’ best shot and prevented Longstreet from flanking the Union army. Sykes’s performance at Gettysburg marked the zenith of his career as a combat leader.
Bristoe and Mine Run Campaigns
Following the Union victory at Gettysburg, Meade cautiously pursued the Army of Northern Virginia during its retreat into Virginia. Sykes’s corps took part in the successful Bristoe Campaign (October 13-November 7, 1863). On October 16, 1863, officials promoted Sykes to lieutenant colonel in the regular army. Sykes also commanded his corps during the inconclusive Mine Run Campaign (November 27-December 2, 1863).
Removed from Command and Sent West
When the northern press and Washington officials criticized Meade following the failure of his Mine Run Campaign, he deflected much of the criticism to the performance of his subordinate officers. On March 10, Meade met with the newly appointed General of the Armies Ulysses S. Grant and discussed reorganizing the Army of the Potomac. Two weeks later, on March 23, 1864, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 115 announcing the removal of Sykes and two other corps leaders from their commands. The next day, Meade issued Special Orders, No. 75 (AoP) ordering Sykes to report to Major General Samuel R. Curtis, commanding Department of Kansas, at Fort Leavenworth.
After leaving the Army of the Potomac, Sykes began a long string of assignments, mostly in the American West. As the war concluded, officials brevetted Sykes to brigadier general and to major general in the regular army on March 13, 1865, “for Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Battle of Gettysburg” and “for Gallant and Meritorious Services in the Field during the Rebellion.” Sykes mustered out of the volunteer army on January 15, 1866, but he continued his career in the regular army. On January 12, 1868, army officials promoted him to the rank of colonel.
On December 27, 1877, the War Department placed Sykes in command of the District of the Rio Grande and of Fort Brown, Texas. He served there until succumbing to cancer on February 8, 1880, at the age of fifty-seven. After burial in Texas, Sykes’s remains were re-interred at West Point, where a monument was dedicated over his grave on July 1, 1887.