General Daniel Sickles loses his leg at Gettysburg but earns the Medal of Honor

General Daniel Sickles. Image Source: Library of Congress.

General Daniel Sickles (1819–1914) rose to the rank of Major General in the United States Army during the Civil War (1861—1865), despite his lack of military training. He is most well-known for disobeying orders on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, which led to the near-destruction of his 3rd Corps and put the entire Union line at risk. Sickles lost his leg in the fighting but was later awarded the Medal of Honor — more than 30 years later.

When the Civil War started, Daniel Sickles was a man looking to restore his reputation. In 1859, Sickles discovered his wife, Teresa, was having an affair with Philip Barton Key — the son of Francis Scott Key and the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. Sickles shot and killed Key and was arrested for murder. His attorney, including future Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, argued Sickles was temporarily insane at the time of the shooting. The argument worked and Sickles was the first person to be acquitted of murder on grounds of temporary insanity. In the wake of the trial, Sickles withdrew from public life.

Daniel Sickles, Shooting Philip Barton Key, Illustration
This illustration from Harper’s Weekly depicts Daniel Sickles shooting Philip Barton Key. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Daniel Sickles Raises Volunteers for the War

Following the Battle of Fort Sumter, Sickles was determined to repair his public image by raising volunteers for the Union Army. He raised enough volunteers to form an entire brigade and was appointed as Colonel of the 70th New York Infantry. By May 1862, he was promoted to Brigadier General in the U.S. Volunteer Army.

General Sickles During the Peninsula Campaign

Sickles commanded a brigade in the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsula Campaign at the Battle of Seven Pines and during the Seven Days Battles. Although the U.S. Senate had yet to confirm his nomination to the rank of Major General, Sickles was named a division commander in the Army of the Potomac in 1862. His nomination was not confirmed until September 1863.

Sickles and Hooker at Chancellorsville

When his close friend, Joseph Hooker, took command of the Army of the Potomac in January 1863, Hooker made him a corps commander. However, the Senate had yet to confirm his appointment as a Major General. The Battle of Chancellorsville in April–May 1862, tested their friendship.

During the battle, Hooker shifted from an offensive strategy to a defensive strategy as his troops prepared to attack Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia. Sickles disagreed with the change and took matters into his own hands by launching an assault against a column of Confederate troops moving across his front. The move created a gap in the Union lines that enabled General Stonewall Jackson and his forces to overrun the Union 11th Corps. Sickles’s actions also isolated his own corps, which narrowly escaped disaster.

Sickles and Meade at Gettysburg

Less than two months after the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville, George Meade took command of the Army of the Potomac — just days before the Battle of Gettysburg. Although Meade disliked Sickles, he had no time to replace him as Confederate troops moved to threaten Washington, D.C.

Sickles Disobeys Orders and Loses His Leg

The Battle of Gettysburg started on July 1 and lasted for three days. On July 2, Meade ordered Sickles to move his 3rd Corps and take defensive positions on the south end of Cemetery Ridge. Sickles disliked the ground and moved a mile forward to the Peach Orchard. The move created a bulge in the Union line and exposed Sickles and his men to an attack on two sides.

Seeing the opportunity to attack, Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet ordered his men to move forward and engage the 3rd Corps. The Confederates overwhelmed the 3rd Corps, inflicting heavy casualties. During the fight, a cannonball struck Sickles in his right leg. He was removed from the battlefield and the leg was amputated later that day.

Following the amputation, Sickles insisted on being taken to Washington, D.C. He arrived on July 4 and delivered the news of the Union victory. He also has the bones of his amputated leg preserved. He donated them to the Army Medical Museum.

Sickles Criticizes Meade after Gettysburg

Sympathy for Sickles’s injury, combined with the Union victory, probably saved Sickles from punishment for disobeying orders. However, Sickles launched a smear campaign against Meade, accusing him of planning to retreat from Gettysburg after the first day of battle. Sickles also argued his move was the correct one because it caused the Confederates to change their plan of attack.

Sickles Awarded the Medal of Honor for Gettysburg

When Sickles tried to return to duty, Meade and Ulysses S. Grant declined his request to resume command of the 3rd Corps on the grounds that he was unfit for combat duty. However, Sickles was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg — in 1897.

Sickles remained in the military for the rest of the war as a non-combatant holding several administrative appointments.

Daniel Sickles, Visiting Gettysburg, 1886
Major General Joseph Bradford Carr of the 2nd New York Infantry Regiment, Major General Daniel Edgar Sickles of the 70th New York Infantry Regiment with amputated right leg, and Major General Charles Kinnaird Graham of 74th New York Infantry Regiment at Trostle Farm, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1886. Image Source: Library of Congress.