The Pariah: Dan Sickles Pt.4

dan-sickle-teresa-key

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I am a historian as well as a chaplain and priest. I do a lot of work with the Battle of Gettysburg and much of my work involves biography as I believe that the one constant in history is people. Technology and many other things may change, but people and human nature are constant, for good and for bad, and frankly I find people fascinating.

One of the most fascinating people of the Battle of Gettysburg is Union Major General Daniel E. Sickles, a man who was one of the most fascinating, salacious, scandalous, and incredible figures ever to grace and disgrace American history.

This is the fourth of a multi-part series taken from my Gettysburg and Civil War text. I hope that you enjoy.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

After a brief absence, Sickles returned to Congress and to Teresa, who was now even a worse social pariah than her husband. After the murder and for the duration of the trial, Teresa remained at one of the family homes in the New York countryside under the care of her parents. She followed the trial and occasionally wrote to Dan in jail, and over time he began to write back. Teresa was thrilled with the verdict and she honestly believed that the marriage and her reputation could be rehabilitated, and that she could be restored to a normal wife. The normal family values system of the time would have now involved Sickles divorcing his tarnished wife. That would have been “the predictable and conservative course.” [1] But despite his own continuing excursions into infidelity and his rage over hers, Sickles still loved her, and could not fathom divorcing her. His father George and Teresa’s father Antonio “were stricken with the same delusion as Teresa – that reconciliation would be tolerated by society.” [2]

Had the recently celebrated Congressman done divorced Teresa, his political career, while crippled, might have resumed its previous upward trajectory. But the ever unpredictable Dan Sickles “shocked everyone by forgiving Teresa and resuming their former relationship.” [3]

It was a characteristic of the time, and in some place even today in that maintained the belief that an adulterous wife knew no forgiveness, and Sickles “put himself beyond the pale by the simple act of forgiving his wife and restoring her to his bosom.” [4] Murder could be forgiven, a man’s indiscretions as well, but forgiving an adulterous women, especially a wife and mother was unforgivable. All the better people had already assigned the appropriate scarlet letter to the fallen woman, and they were shocked into paroxysms of moral outrage when Sickles apparently forgave her transgression.” [5] Sickles action was totally “out of kilter with an age that neatly divided women into “saintly mothers,” “pure virgins,” and “fallen women.” [6] Frankly the action was shocking to New York and Washington society, and both Dan and Teresa paid the price, but the price paid by Teresa would be greater, and ultimately contribute to her death, a death that occurred far too early.

Sickles was flailed in the papers, the New York Dispatch noted “His warmest personal and political friends bitterly denounce his course.” While the Sunday Courier wrote, “His political aspirations, his career in life, once so full of encouraging brightness, and his business prospects, have all been blasted by this act.” [7]

The Sunday Mercury put their condemnation published a biting bit of poetry lampooning both Dan and Teresa:

Hail matchless pair! United once again, In newborn bliss forget your bygone pain…

What the world may say, “with hands all red Yon bridegroom steals to a dishonored bed”

And friends, estranged, exclaim on every side: “Behold! Adultery couched with Homicide! [8]

Even long time friends were like James Topham Brady who had defended him at his trial were livid. Interestingly enough it was Sickles old foe Horace Greeley who “flew in the face of convention by commending Sickles for his forgiveness.” [9] But Greeley was an exception, and in the face of the critics sent a letter to the New York Herald in which he fired a broadside:

“Referring to the forgiveness which my sense of duty and my feelings impelled me to extend to an earring and repentant wife… I am prepared to defend what I have done before the only tribunal I recognize as having the slightest claim to jurisdiction over the subject – my own conscience and the bar of Heaven. I am not aware of any statute or code of morals which makes it infamous to forgive a woman… And I cannot allow even all the world combined to dictate to me the repudiation of my wife, when I think it right to forgive her and restore her to my confidence and protection. If I have ever failed to comprehend the utterly desolate position of an offending though penitent woman – the hopeless future, with its dark possibilities of danger, to which she is proscribed as an outcast – I can now see plainly in the in the almost universal howl of denunciation with which she is followed to my threshold…” [10]

Dan Sickles the sinner had struck back at his Pharisaical accusers with the aplomb of Christ himself, who had forgiven the adulteress woman, but it did little to change public perception. Teresa would always be the adulteress, abandoned by friends and scorned by society at large. Dan, who even with the scandal of the Key murder behind him and who would have been forgiven had he denounced and divorced his wife, was now a pariah, even among his peers and colleagues. Mary Boykin Chesnut, wife of a renowned senator, and prolific diarist from South Carolina “sat in the House gallery one day and saw Sickles deliberately, and totally ostracized. He was sitting all alone, like Catiline, every other member careful not to come near him – “left to himself as if he had the smallpox.” [11] When Chesnut asked a friend why he was shunned, the friend noted that the murder of Key “was all right… It was because he condoned his wife’s profligacy and took her back… Unsavory subject.” [12]

But for Teresa it was worse. She was “socially exiled, shunned even by humble neighbors, compelled to keep the house by day or face the sneers and hoots of such street trash as recognized her, cut off from her cherished riding and walking, coped up with a loving but over emotional mother, a penurious, egocentric father, Teresa, torn between grief for the dead, contrition for the living, began to fail…” [13] Despite his defense of her and officially taking her back, he spent little time with her and she never again accompanied him in any of his assignments, in the military, or after the war. But his policy of leaving her behind was not due to cruelty or neglect, as Dan and Teresa were “merely accepting an accomplished social fact, knowing Teresa would forever be an outcast and forever be an outcast and would be exposed to endless snubs and torment were she be so rash as to essay a new entrance into society.” [14] In his own way Dan loved her, but neither could change the attitude of a society where Puritanical morality still reigned, and the granddaughter of Giacomo Casanova’s friend could never be forgiven, and whose relationship with her husband would always be haunted by the ghost of Barton Key. Nothing could change that, and soon Teresa lost the will to live though she was not even twenty-five years old. “Sleepless, she took refuge in opiates….She sank slowly from frailty to invalidism.” [15] She contracted tuberculosis, and though she attempted to maintain her household she suffered from severe depression, and again took up her family’s Catholic faith. Catholic rosaries, missals, holy cards, and other items filled her bedroom. Eventually, she died unexpectedly in January of 1867, with most people thinking that she would yet recover. She was only thirty-one years old. Dan, now serving as military governor in South Carolina was stunned. Her pallbearers include James Topham Brady, and four U.S. Army generals including Sickles former comrade Alfred Pleasanton and his Gettysburg aide Henry Tremain. In death she finally found a measure of public sympathy, the funeral Mass was attended by many mourners, and as Sickles and his now teenage daughter Laura followed Teresa’s casket out of the church, “His feelings now broke forth and he wept, and the large congregation rushed tumultuously from the building after him, testifying to the hold he held on their hearts, and the extent to which they shared his affliction.” [16] In light of the prevailing morality of the day can wonder if most of the mourners had more sympathy for Sickles than his now dead wife. Unlike the adulteress of the Gospels, Teresa Sickles had no one to 

Notes

[1] Ibid. Sears Controversies and Commanders p.200

[2] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.202

[3] Ibid. Wilson and Clair They Also Served p.100

[4] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p.152

[5] Ibid. Sears Controversies and Commanders p.200

[6] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.136

[7] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.72

[8] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.203

[9] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.73

[10] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.74

[11] Ibid. Catton Glory Road p. 152 Catiline was a counsel of Ancient Rome is best known for two attempts to overthrow the Roman Republic in 62 BC. His plot was exposed before the Senate by Cicero and he is famously depicted in Cesare Macari’s painting sitting alone in with his head down as Cicero denounces him before the Senate.

[12] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.20

[13] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.136

[14] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.282

[15] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.137

[16] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.329

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2 Comments

Filed under civil war, crime, History

2 responses to “The Pariah: Dan Sickles Pt.4

  1. What a sad story. People are terrible, still.

  2. Pingback: Dan Sickles Part Four: The Pariah | Padre Steve's World...Musings of a Progressive Realist in Wonderland

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