The Sickles Saga

Daniel Edgar Sickles (1819-1914) Undoubtedly one of the most fascinating and controversial political figures of 19th century America. Congressman, general, ambassador, and murderer.

After the War

Like most veterans at the conclusion of the Civil War, Sickles’ primary concern was
just getting on with his life.  Much of the late 1860s was spent on Reconstruction Duty.

Meanwhile, his wife, Teresa, died unexpectedly in 1867.

Ever the political schmoozer, Sickles managed to secure an appointment from
President Grant as Minister to Spain in 1869 after the Senate tabled the appointment
of Henry Shelton Sanford. In Spain, Sickles soon gained notoriety for his
lavish style of entertaining.  Soon, it
was also rumored – and reported in the French Press – that Dan had begun a
romantic affair in Paris with the deposed Spanish Queen, Isabella II.

Following a disagreement with the Secretary of State in late 1873, Sickles resigned his
post in Spain and moved to Paris for a few years. In late 1879, he decided to return to the United States.

As with so many events in his life, Sickles timing for a return to America was very fortuitous. Many veterans of the War Between the States were now ready to commemorate the conflict and Sickles threw himself fully into the cause of veteran’s affairs.  His popularity continued to rise as he defended his Gettysburg decision.  In 1886 he was appointed chairman of the New York Monuments Commission for the Battle of Gettysburg.  This meant securing and placing monuments for all New York divisions and commanders who were present at the battle.  Of course, each placement and commemoration afforded another opportunity for Sickles to speak to enthusiastic crowds.

In 1909 Sickles became the last surviving corps commander of either army at the
battle of Gettysburg.  He relished the attention and enjoyed his celebrity status.

When Daniel Sickles arrived at the fiftieth Gettysburg anniversary in 1913, he was confined to a wheelchair and unable to make extended speeches, however; he was still afforded celebrity status and newspapers updated readers regularly on his movements and activities.

Eight months after the commemoration of Gettysburg,  Daniel Sickles suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and lapsed into semi-consciousness.  He died on May 3rd 1914.

The journey of Daniel Sickles is one of a villain, a hero, a soldier, a public servant, a philandering family man, a celebrity, and a flawed human being.

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Sickles at Gettysburg

Maj. General Sickles at Gettysburg
Courtesy Library of Congress

General James Longstreet led the Confederate attack and he and his subordinate commanders were very surprised to find Sickles’ men occupying the forward position since scouting reports indicated the area was vacant.

Dan Sickles’ III Corps was beaten severely and, following the battle, was no longer an effective fighting force.  A cannonball struck General Sickles leg and severely wounded him.

He calmly lit a cigar as he was carried from the battlefield.

General Meade was able to juggle troops to protect the left flank and, thanks to heroic efforts by the 20th Maine, was able to avert a Union disaster and eventually win the battle on the following day.

Dan Sickles lost his leg and, likely, would have been court-martialed had he not been severely wounded.

No active command was ever given again to Daniel Sickles but he proclaimed until his death that he had won the Battle of Gettysburg by his heroic actions.

Thirty-four years after the war, Sickles was presented with the Medal of Honor but historians still debate the effect his actions at Gettysburg had upon the outcome of the battle.

General Daniel Sickles Commander of III Corps

General Sickles
Image courtesy of Library of Congress

The Battle of Chancellorsville, April 30 – May 6, 1863,   was General Sickles’ first test as Corps Commander. There he faced off against Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

General Hooker ordered Sickles to move his men from a defensive position into an area that left them exposed.  The battle was disastrous for the Union command and, likely, affected decisions that would be made later at Gettysburg by Sickles.

Early July 1863 found the Union Army and Confederate forces locked in a battle outside Gettysburg Pennsylvania that would dictate the momentum of the war.  After one day of battle, The Union forces controlled the high ground just south of town.  General George Meade, who had replaced Hooker as head of the Army of the Potomac three days before the battle, made a decision to maintain a defensive posture on the high ground and force the Confederates to attack his strong positions.  General Daniel Sickles and the III Corps were placed on the extreme left of the Union positions.

Prior to the battle, General Sickles determined that the III Corps should occupy a position a half mile to the northwest where the ground was higher and artillery could be more effective.  The movement of the III Corps created a dangerous point of vulnerability in the Union lines and Meade was furious when he learned that Sickles had disobeyed a direct order.  It was too late for Sickles to move the men back and the battle began.

 

To learn more about the Battle of Chancellorsville  check out this link:  http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/chancellorsville.html?tab=facts

New Opportunities

Courtesy Library of Congress
Sickles in Union Army Uniform

After his trial and acquittal for murdering Philip Barton Key, the tenure of Daniel Sickles as a U.S. Congressman from New York came to an unceremonious end. His Washington exploits and tumultuous legal entanglement had cast a shadow of disrespect over his name.  Realizing that the prospect of being re-elected to Congress, or holding any public office, was practically nil; Sickles chose to retire to a quiet life away from public scrutiny.

Daniel Sickles wasn’t one who enjoyed solitude and privacy, a fortuitous event – at least from his perspective – soon provided another chance for him to garner the accolades and attention he craved.  The onset of hostilities in the War Between the States provided the ever-opportunistic Sickles the chance to rehabilitate his reputation.

The outbreak of the Civil War lured Sickles into public view again as he began a crusade in New York to recruit soldiers for the Union Army.  He raised four regiments of men and was appointed, by New York Governor Morgan, to the rank of Colonel and given leadership of one of the regiments.  In September 1861 he was promoted to Brigadier General of Volunteers but the appointment was disputed by Congress and Sickles was forced to relinquish his command in March 1862.

Sickles missed many important military engagements as he spent time lobbying for support to uphold his rank as General.  However, he did participate in a few skirmishes during this period and appeared to perform satisfactorily as a commander at the Battle of Seven Pines and the Seven Days Battle.  Ever the politician and opportunist, Sickles sought support and advantage by becoming good friends with Union Commanding Major General Joseph Hooker who was in charge of the Army of the Potomac.  In February 1863 Sickles was given command of the III Corps by General Hooker.  The promotion wasn’t without controversy since Sickles was the only non-West Point graduate to be given corps command in the Union Army.

Conclusion to the Congressman’s Calamity

Lafayette Square
The Sickles’ House
(Fourth house from the left)

Congressman Sickles returned to New York after his second term ended.  Fortunately, the War Between the States began soon after and he again found connections and opportunities.

He was an intelligent man, whose accomplishments and tenacity could have secured him a solid reputation of respectability and a legitimate command of power.  Sickles was an attorney with real abilities in the practice of law, a newspaper reporter, a member of the infamous Tammany gang, a member of congress and a Major General in the Union Army.

His accomplishments were overshadowed by salacious rumors concerning his infidelities, his veracity in business dealings and political matters, and whether he was really insane at the time he murdered District Attorney Philip Key.

Daniel Sickles lived a long life and garnered many accolades for various achievements.  Despite the accomplishments, his life was largely defined by moral weakness and character flaws.  His defense of temporary insanity for actions was very rare in 1859.

Many thought it a legal ploy to condone murder. 

Crazy like a Fox

The Sickles Murder Trial Jury
from Harper’s Magazine, April 1859
Image courtesy of Assumption College

As the trial proceeded, the question wasn’t whether a jury would find he committed the offense, but whether the panel could agree that his actions were prudent in the heat of the moment.

The answer soon came—the jury agreed that Sickles was incapable of discerning right from wrong at the time of the felony and was “not guilty” of the murder of Philip Barton Key.

Public opinion was split on the jury’s decision and many political allies not only abandoned but ostracized him as he returned to congress.  He was an outsider which devastated his self-esteem.  He knew there was no chance of re-election and he sat on the side bench in the legislative chamber and refused to participate in debate or to vote.

Perhaps the event that most damaged Daniel Sickles in the court of public opinion was his public forgiveness of Teresa for her transgressions. Many asked- if he could later forgive Teresa, why he could not have done so earlier and spared the life of Key?

Like so many things in Sickle’s life, the reconciliation with Teresa was more a public “media event” than an actual occurrence.  Teresa was never again treated as a partner or confidant and had an unhappy and unloved existence until her death in 1867.

Sources:

Felix Fontaine.  Trial of the Honorable Daniel E. Sickles (New York: De Witt, 1859), 106.  W. A. Swanberg.  Sickles the Incredible (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1956), 105,106, 284.

The Trial of the Century

Edwin Stanton
Image courtesy Library of Congress

Illustration of trial courtroom from Harper’s Weekly April, 1859.
Courtesy Library of Congress

The Trial of the Century began in April 1859.

Sickles had assembled the top legal minds of the day: John Graham and James Brady from New York and Edwin M. Stanton who was later President Lincoln’s Secretary of War.

There was no doubt that he had cold-bloodedly shot and killed Key.  The defense chose to focus upon motivation, provocation, and consequences of adultery.

Many political insiders were supportive of Daniel and he received well-wishes from many influential allies.  Still, Daniel Sickles’ life and future depended upon the wiles of his defense team.  That troop of lawyers set about arguing  not only were his actions understandable and in concert with accepted action when a man finds his wife engaged in adultery, but also clearly precipitated by the situation.

The essential assertion was that the circumstances had been so shocking and hurtful to the congressman that he thought his action to kill Key were not only justified but necessary given his state of mind.  Succinctly, the defense was that Daniel Sickles was unaware that his actions were wrong and he was, therefore, temporarily insane at the time of the offense.

 

Sources:

“News of the Day,” The New York Times, April 5, 1859, 4.  Felix Fontaine.  Trial of the Honorable Daniel E. Sickles (New York: De Witt, 1859), 6.  John Graham.  Opening speech of John Graham, Esq. to the Jury, on the Part of the Defense, on the Trial of Daniel E. Sickles, in the Criminal Court of the District of Columbia: April 9th and 11th, 1859 (New York: W. A. Townsend, 1859), 11.  Thomas Keneally.  American Scoundrel (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 153.

 

Unholy Sunday

Illustration from Harper’s Weekly Magazine, 1859.
Courtesy of Dickinson College

Sunday, February 27, 1859, was an ominous day.

Around noontime Samuel Butterworth, a friend and close associate from Daniel’s Sickles Tammany Hall days arrived to console his comrade.  While the men discussed the Sickles’ marital situation, Philip Key was spied through the window giving the signal he hoped would be seen and acted upon by Teresa.  Unfortunately, this time the signal was seen by Daniel who sent his friend Butterworth to stall Key while he obtained multiple firearms and bounded into Lafayette Square to confront the man who had made him a cuckold.

As Sickles approached, Key’s demeanor changed from congeniality to trepidation.  Sickles yelled, “You have dishonored my house and you must die!”  According to accounts, three shots were fired into the unarmed man who was pleading for his life and two additional attempts resulted in misfires.  The fatal wound was to Key’s chest.  Bystanders soon carried Key to a nearby Men’s Club just off the Square where he expired.  Surprisingly, Daniel Sickles proceeded directly to the residence of the U. S. Attorney General and turned himself in.

News quickly spread that the District Attorney had been shot down in Lafayette Square by a congressman.  As allegations and particles of truth circulated, the incident became the talk of the town and a subject of rampant speculation on motives and what would happen to the federal official who had shot a defenseless man and left four young children as orphans.

Sources:

Thomas Keneally.  American Scoundrel (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 124,126.  “Monthly Record of Current Events,” Harper’s Monthly, April 1859, 688.                        Felix Fontaine.  Trial of the Honorable Daniel E. Sickles (New York: De Witt, 1859), 6.

 

Confessions of a Fallen Wife

Portion of confession letter as printed in Harper’s Magazine, April 1859. Copy courtesy of Assumption College.

By Saturday evening February 26, Sickles could contain his anger no longer.  With extreme indignation, he confronted his wife and demanded an account of her relationship with Key.  She denied any impropriety but, after strong coercion, confirmed the adulterous episodes.  The enraged husband demanded from his wife a confession with a litany of her transgressions.  In the document, Teresa confirmed a carnal relationship had begun with Key in January 1859.  They had their libidinous assignations at the rented house on 15th street.  She wrote, in what was considered in the Victorian era to be uncouth, inappropriate language-

“there was a bed in the second story.  I did what is usual for a wicked woman to do—and intimacy of an improper kind.”

Lawyer Sickles had the foresight to obtain this account from his wife as if he planned retribution against his rival.  Whatever the reasoning for extracting the declaration, it may be viewed as premeditation for future actions.  The document was later denied introduction at trial to substantiate a contention that Sickles was provoked into the action which ultimately caused Philip Key’s death.

Sources:

W. A. Swanberg.  Sickles the Incredible (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1956), 113.  T. J. Fleming.  “Verdicts of history,” American Heritage 18, (April 1967), 69.

A Poison-Pen Letter from a Pal

Photocopy of letter courtesy of Assumption College

February 24, 1859, was the last of the splendid dinners given by the prominent Sickles.  They treated their friends to a lavish affair at their home which lasted until the wee hours of the morning.

After the hostess retired, Daniel sat down at his desk to peruse the daily mail.  Among the innocuous correspondence, he found an anonymous letter addressed to him.

The letter read:

[Dear sir with a deep regret I enclose to you address the few lines but an indispensible duty compels me so to do seeing that you are greatly imposed upon.  There is a fellow I may say for he is not a gentleman by any means by the of Phillip Barton Key and I believe the district attorney who rents a house of a negro man by the name of Jno. A Gray situated on 15th street btwn K & L streets for no other purpose than to meet your wife Mrs Sickles.  He hangs a string out of the window as a signal to her that he is in and leaves the door unfastened and she walks in and sir I do assure you with these few hints.  I leave the rest for you to imagine.    Most Respfly Your friend R. P. G.]

The next day Sickles had a friend make inquiries to the neighbors of the house on 15th street as well as the Lafayette square mansion servants.  The confidant later reported to the congressman that from all indications the anonymous letter writer had given accurate information.  The mysterious R. P. G. was either sympathetic to the plight of an unsuspecting husband, or possibly, harbored ill will towards Key.  Whatever the case, the author of that ill-fated letter was never publicly known.

Sources:

W. A. Swanberg.  Sickles the Incredible (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1956), 45-6.   Felix Fontaine.  Trial of the Honorable Daniel E. Sickles (New York: De Witt, 1859), 72, (letter copied as originally written).  Thomas Keneally.  American Scoundrel (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 111-2.

 

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