Daniel Sickles

General Sickles / Daniel Edgar Sickles

Union General Daniel Sickles was a controversial figure both in his personal and military life. His actions at Gettysburg changed the course of the battle, and many believe could have led to disaster for the Union army.

Prior to the American Civil War, Daniel Edgar Sickles served as a member of the New York State Senate from 1856-57, then later as a Democrat in the United States Congress. His personal life was filled with controversy and he was well-known as a ladies man and a frequent visitor to houses of prostitution.

Daniel Sickles, General Sickles, Daniel Edgar SicklesIn 1859, he shot and killed a man in a park across from the White House because he suspected the man was having relations with his wife Teresa. The man was Philip Barton Key II, son of Francis Scott Key who wrote America’s national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. Key was employed as the district attorney for the District of Columbia, which made matters even more complicated.

Sickles confessed to the murder, turned himself in and hired some of the best attorney’s money could buy. With his power, political influence and the masterful work of his lawyers he was eventually acquitted and after going free, retired to a quiet life out of the public eye.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Sickles raised 4 regiments in New York and was appointed Colonel to lead one of the regiments. He was promoted to Brigadier General of Volunteers in September 1861 but was forced to relinquish this command in March, 1862 after Congress disputed the promotion.

His lobbying to uphold his promotion kept him away from many important engagements. He did do an acceptable job as a commander in the engagements he did take part in including the Battle of Seven Pines and the Seven Days Battle.

Sickles became good friends with Union Commanding Major General Joseph Hooker, who led the Army of the Potomac. In February 1863, Hooker gave Sickles command of III Corps which was a controversial move at the time considering he was the only non West Point graduate given corp command on the Union side.

Daniel Sickles, General Sickles, Daniel Edgar SicklesGeneral Sickles was first tested at the Battle of Chancellorsville when facing off against General Thomas Stonewall Jackson. He was ordered by Hooker to leave a fine defensive position and told to relocate his troops to another area of the battlefield where his troops were exposed. The result was a disaster for the Union command and this would potentially affect his decision making at the Battle of Gettysburg.

After one day of fighting at Gettysburg the Union army commanded the heights south of town. General George Meade, who replaced Hooker as head of the Army of the Potomac just 3 days prior to the battle decided to maintain a defensive stance and let the Confederates attack his strong positions.

The army was in the shape of a fishhook extending from Culp’s Hill on the Union right, to Little Round Top on the Union left. Meade placed General Daniel Sickles and III Corps on the extreme left. Just prior to the battle, Sickles decided that his corp could take a more advantageous position a half-mile to the northwest as the ground was higher and would provide a better artillery platform.

This however created a dangerous salient in the Union line and General Meade was furious when he found out as Sickles had disobeyed a direct order. It was too late for Sickles to move his men back as the Confederate attack began at roughly 4pm.

The Confederate attack led by General James Longstreet and his subordinates were very surprised to find Sickles occupying this advanced positioned that had been scouted earlier, and at that time it was deemed unoccupied.

Daniel Sickles’ III Corps took an awful beating and once the fighting was over, they were no longer an effective fighting force. Sickles was seriously wounded during the fighting when struck in the leg by a cannonball and he calmly smoked a cigar to inspire his men as they removed him from the field.

Through masterful juggling, Meade was able to relocate troops to secure the Union left including the heroic stand by the 20th Maine commanded by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain on Little Round Top. For now a Union disaster was averted and they would eventually win the battle the following day.

Daniel Sickles would lose his leg and many say he would have been court-marshaled had he not been seriously wounded. He was never again given active command in the Union army and he proclaimed to his dying day that he won the Battle of Gettysburg through his actions. He did receive the Medal of Honor 34 years after the war and historians still debate whether Sickles’ decision helped win the battle or not.

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