Controversy & Redemption: Dan Sickles and July 2nd at Gettysburg

Daniel_Edgar_Sickles

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

For those that have followed my writing for some time you know that I teach military history and ethics at the Joint Forces Staff College. One of the great joys that I have is leading the Gettysburg Staff Ride, which is an optional event for students that want to participate. When I took the position here I took some of my older writings on Gettysburg and put them into a student study guide and text. That was two years ago. Then the text was about 70 pages long. It is now about 925 pages long and eventually I hope to get it published. When and if that happens I expect it to become two, and possibly three books.

This is the sixth of a series of articles that I will be posting potions of a chapter that I have rewritten about the critical battles on the south side of the battlefield on July 2nd 1863, the battle for Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, and the final repulse on Cemetery Ridge.

As you read this don’t just look at the events, but look at the people, and their reaction to the what they encountered on the battlefield, for that understanding of people is where we come to understand history.

So even if you are not a Civil War buff, or even a history buff, take the time to look at the people, their actions, and the things that made them who they were, and influenced what they did. History is about people.

So please enjoy,

Peace

Padre Steve+

LongstreetJ_main

Lieutenant General James Longstreet C.S.A.

President John F. Kennedy paraphrased the words of the Roman Emperor Tacitus after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy told a journalist, “victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan.” The problem in doing a proper analysis of Longstreet’s assault is the fact that many of the men involved on both sides made the battle personal, issuing scathing denunciations of one another, fudging the facts to their advantage, and by making the fight political a political football in the South and in the North.

The Confederate attacks had been badly directed and uncoordinated. In the end though McLaws’ and Hood’s divisions had succeeded in thrashing Sickles’ Third Corps in the exposed salient they were unsuccessful at breaking the Federal line. The disjointed nature of their attacks and the lack of active command and control by Lee and Longstreet had much to do with the outcome. Lee’s presence was needed on the south end of the Confederate line, but he left Longstreet to his own devices.

There was much blame to go around on the Confederate side, Longstreet placed much of the blame for the defeat on Lee, which earned him the everlasting enmity of many Confederates. But Lee’s Warhorse also met with criticism, especially for his performance on July 2nd 1863. Some of the most withering came not years later, but in the days following the battle. The harshest came from Lafayette McLaws, his old friend, who had been a favorite of Longstreet. McLaws blamed his corps commander for the defeat, writing his wife, “I think that the attack was unnecessary and the whole plan of battle a very bad one. Genl Longstreet is to blame for not reconnoitering the ground and for persisting in ordering the assault when his errors were discovered. During the engagement he was very excited [,] giving contrary orders to every one, and exceedingly overbearing. I consider him a humbug – a man of small capacity, very obstinate, not at all chivalrous, exceedingly conceited, and totally selfish….” [1]

One of Longstreet’s biographers wrote “Longstreet’s performance during the morning deserves criticism…. Had he attended to the details that were his responsibility and not allowed his disagreement with Lee to affect his judgment and effort, the afternoon assault would have begun sooner, but not several hours earlier.” [2] That historian believes that had Sickles not moved forward that Longstreet’s attack, even if made earlier would have met success, something echoed by Porter Alexander who wrote, “There seems no doubt that Longstreet’s attack on the 2nd been materially sooner, we would have gained a decided victory.” [3]

Casualties were heavy on both sides but the attack had failed and it had failed because of senior leadership of Lee and his corps commanders. Had Lee “duplicated the active role taken by his counterpart, George Meade, the outcome might have been different.” [4] But this too is speculation born of perfect 20/20 hindsight. One of Lee’s biographer’s wrote “Longstreet was disgruntled, Ewell was inept and Hill was unwell.” [5] To make matters worse, throughout the day, Robert E. Lee did not assert himself and even his most devoted biographer Douglas Southall Freeman would write that on July 2nd 1863 “the Army of Northern Virginia was without a commander.” [6]

general-george-meade

Major General George Meade U.S. Army

On the Federal side most of the controversy has to do with Sickles’ decision to move the Third Corps forward from Cemetery Hill to the Peach Orchard and so it is appropriate to close this chapter discussing Dan Sickles. The matter has been a long subject of controversy, especially because of the way that Sickles politicized his actions in the press and in the Congressional hearings that followed. Many generals on both sides blundered at Gettysburg.

One can speculate that had Sickles remained in the position dictated by Meade that the Confederate assault might have gone down to an even more disastrous defeat. That being said the line that Sickles would have occupied with his 10,600 troops was long and he could not have held it in great strength, even Little Round Top would have been lightly occupied, and Meade might not have been forced to reexamine his line. It is fully possible that “had Longstreet attacked there with the same headlong fury, it is possible that the Confederates would have broken through not merely into Sickles’ rear, but into the entire Union rear and that disaster would have been the result.” [7] However, Sickles, even though he thought he was justified, was wrong in not informing Meade of the move, and leaving his army commander ignorant of the position of his left.

Sickles action, though an error, was something that could have been rationally addressed by him and Meade long before the Confederate attack began. Had the two men “worked in tandem – that is had the line taken by the Third Corps been shared by the Fifth, and had command matters been resolved and fallback plans established – Longstreet’s troops would have been hard pressed to achieve any of their goals.” [8] One historian put the matter of Sickles’s decision and the subsequent controversies into perspective:

“The entire episode has been clouded since 1863 by issues of politics and personality that hinder unbiased analysis. It is time to put aside such extraneous issues. When Sickles’s scandalous prewar behavior, postwar bombast, and special pleading are discounted and the case is considered solely on its merits, the results of the Third Corps advance speak for themselves. Dan Sickles was not perfect on July 2, 1862, but neither was he the military buffoon so often portray.” [9]

In his after action report Meade criticized Sickles and did so again before the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, that latter in regard to comments made by Sickles and his supporters both to the committee and in the press. Meade not only had to deal with the diversions created by Sickles, he also had the real problem of Abraham Lincoln’s disappointment with his failure to catch and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia before it escaped across the Potomac. Dan Sickles did not have to worry about that, and “he could play the role that politicians play best: critic and second guesser.” [10] With the press on his side the former disgraced Congressman was now a one legged war hero, and Sickles attempted to use his redemption and status of a hero “to have Meade removed from command in disgrace.” [11] Many generals on both sides blundered at Gettysburg. Had Sickles taken the high road after the battle rather than attempting to torpedo the name and reputation of George Meade, his action might have provoked less controversy, and “Dan Sickles the historical figure has paid a permanent price for this, overshadowing the laudable work he did as an early force in establishing the Gettysburg National Memorial Park.” [12]

That was most unfortunate, for it has poisoned the discussion of the battle for over 150 years. Unlike Lee, Meade was constantly leading from the front on this long and brutal afternoon. Meade fought a magnificent defensive battle and recovered from the surprise of Sickles movement even as Sickles and his soldiers fought hard greatly impeded the Confederate plan. Sickles was praised in the press and even by long term enemies such as George Templeton Strong, who wrote, “I suppose Sickles… with his one leg, among our best volunteer officers. His recuperative powers are certainly wonderful. Four years ago he was a ruined man in every sense, a pariah whom to know was discreditable.” [13]

“The whole damned field is my memorial”

But the continuing controversy which always seemed to swirl around him prevented him from being honored on the battlefield where he lost his leg. Alone of all the Union Corps commanders at Gettysburg Sickles has no memorial on the battlefield. When asked about the lack of a monument, Sickles, in his typical manner is reported to have said that “The whole damned field is my memorial.” [14]

Despite the controversy surrounding his life, and those that swirled in the fighting and refighting of the Battle of Gettysburg, in true fashion Dan Sickles went on to further glory and scandal. Ulysses Grant never allowed him to command troops in the field, Sickles commanded the Military Department of South Carolina, the Department of the Carolinas, and the Department of the South, where was a strong proponent of Reconstruction. He was retired as a Major General in the Regular Army in 1869 and went on to serve as Minister to Spain where he carried on an affair with the deposed Queen Isabella, a nymphomaniac who long before she ever Sickles had conducted a myriad of high profile affairs. The affair with the former queen was open and offensive to many people, but neither seemed to mind. In a sense they were kindred spirits. A Paris newspaper dubbed the one-legged General “the Yankee King of Spain.” [15] The affair with Isabella eventually burned itself out and Sickles married Senorita Caroline de Creagh, the daughter of a Spanish Minister, who bore him two children. To do this he converted to Roman Catholicism, something that he had never done when Teresa was alive. After his service in Spain was ended Sickles remained in Paris for four years, where he was widely admired and “received the office of Commander of the Legion of Honor.” [16]

Though a Democrat he supported Republican Presidential candidates Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford Hayes, the latter against a long time Democratic rival from New York. As he got older Gettysburg became an increasing part of his life and in 1892 he ran for Congress in order to spearhead efforts to preserve the battlefield. He was elected and it was in large part due to his efforts that what we now know as the Gettysburg National Military Park exists. In 1893, Sickles met James Longstreet at a Gathering in Gettysburg, and the two men became lifelong friends. Since the war both men had been refighting the battle and the controversies that hung over their decisions that July 2nd like a pall. Longstreet, for his actions on the battlefield, and his decision to become a Republican and serve in the post-war Reconstruction efforts was a pariah in much of the South. That “unpopularity was painful to him, and he was glad to find a sympathetic ally in Sickles. Each of the two generals agreed that the other had moved with blameless skill that day,” [17] and both would defend the other in the succeeding years. As the continuing battle of Gettysburg was fought in the press and in histories written by various participants, Longstreet wrote of Sickles, “I believe it is now conceded that the advanced position at the peach orchard, taken by your Corps and under your orders, saved that battlefield for the Union cause.” [18]

Sickles was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1897, the citation stating, “Displayed most conspicuous gallantry on the field vigorously contesting the advance of the enemy and continuing to encourage his troops after being himself severely wounded.”

Sickles long to outlived George Meade who died in 1872 and all of the other Corps commanders of the Army of the Potomac, not to mention most of his friends and enemies. His father George Sickles died in 1887 leaving Dan an estate of nearly five million dollars. His daughter by Teresa, Laura, whose life had been so scarred by the events of 1859 died alone and estranged from her father. In 1896, disgusted by the nomination of William Jennings Bryant as the Democratic Presidential nominee, the one-legged Sickles went to work with his old Gettysburg comrade, the one-armed Oliver Otis Howard to campaign for the Republican William McKinley. They were quite a pair, the religious Howard, and the libertine Sickles, but they helped McKinley defeat Bryant, and McKinley remained grateful to them until his death by an assassin’s bullet.

In 1913 he attended the fiftieth anniversary ceremonies at Gettysburg where he watched the white haired survivors of Pickett’s Charge hobble across the wide battlefield into the arms of their former opponents on Cemetery Ridge. Helen Longstreet, James Longstreet’s second wife and widow quoted the words of a poet named Horatio King, for the event for a southern newspaper.

I see him on that famous field,

The bravest of the brave,

Where Longstreet’s legions strove to drive

The Third Corps to its grave

The fight was bloody, fierce and long,

And Sickles’ name shall stay

Forever in the hall of fame

As he who saved the day [19]

While Helen Longstreet’s claim that Sickles was “forever in the hall of fame” is a tad farfetched, there is no doubt that scoundrel had found redemption. When Sickles died in 1914 at the age of 94, his funeral was held at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, with full military honors, his flag-draped casket carried on an artillery caisson accompanied by a rider-less horse and artillery salutes. His funeral, in a military cemetery among other soldiers was “proof that he was no longer an attorney, politician, or even the murderer of Barton Key,” [20] he was a soldier. His tombstone simply reads:

Daniel E. Sickles

Medal of Honor

Maj. Gen. U.S. Army

May 3 1914

sickles grave

The New York Times made a comment that no one, be they an admirer or enemy could deny. “He was a truly adventurous spirit.” [21]

Notes

[1] Ibid. Oeffinger A Soldier’s General p.197

[2] Ibid. Wert General James Longstreet p.279

[3] Ibid. Alexander Fighting for the Confederacy p.278

[4] Ibid. Wert General James Longstreet p.279

[5] Taylor, John M. Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E Lee and His Critics Brassey’s, Dulles VA 1999 p.149

[6] Freeman, Douglas S. R.E. Lee volume 3 Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York 1935 p.150

[7] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.235

[8] Ibid. Trudeau Gettysburg, the Testing of Courage p.421

[9] Robertson, William Glenn The Peach Orchard Revisited: Daniel E. Sickles and the Third Corps on July 2, 1863 in The Second Day at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership edited by Gary W. Gallagher, The Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio and London, 1993 p.56

[10] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p. 244

[11] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.235

[12] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p. 401

[13] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg pp.244-245

[14] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.390

[15] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.321

[16] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.339

[17] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.367

[18] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.341

[19] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.353

[20] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p. 385

[21] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.390

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2 Comments

Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, leadership, Military

2 responses to “Controversy & Redemption: Dan Sickles and July 2nd at Gettysburg

  1. DonM

    Thanks for sharing Padre! I’ve been eagerly following your posts…how the threads of history enmesh and tangle…

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