July 28, 2004

Behind the Curtain: Daniel Edgar Sickles

Thanks to Jim, by the way, for suggesting the titles for these short biographical sketches.

Today's sketch is of Daniel Edgar Sickles. I came across his name while looking at the Hayes/Tilden election. Sickles was, in 1876, the fellow who realized that if the disputed states could declare for the Republicans, Hayes would win the electoral college. Sickles immediately sent telegrams to the governors of those four states, signing the name of the chairman of the Republican Party, who was too drunk to do it himself. When I read about this, I began to wonder, just who was this Sickles fellow anyway? Turns out, he was a pretty colorful character himself and worth a closer look.

Sickles's career can be broken into ante-bellum, Civil War, and post-bellum.

Interesting facts Ante-Bellum:

Sickles was elected to Congress thanks to his association with the corrupt Tammany Hall machine. He was part of the Boss Tweed crowd. While serving as congressman, he became the first man in America to be aquited of a murder charge based on the defense of temporary insanity. He shot his wife's lover, Philip Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key in LaFayette Park, across the street from Sickles's home when Sickles caught him signalling to the wife to arrange an assignation.

Interesting facts during the Civil War:

Sickles was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his role at the Battle of Gettysburg where he lost his leg. He commanded III Corps. That fact alone, however, does not suggest how much of a rake and a scoundrel is was. His command was reputed to be a rolling bordello.

Many officers complained that Hooker, Sickles, and Daniel Butterfield had converted the army headquarters into a combination of bar and brothel. Sickles' own headquarters were considered to be even worse. After fighting at Chancellorsville, Sickles retained charge of the 3rd Corps even after Hooker's removal. Then on the second day of Gettysburg he did not like the sector assigned to his men along Cemetery Ridge. It was too long and low to his liking and he unilaterally decided to advance to the Peach Orchard. If he had survived the battle unscathed he probably would have been court-martialed. But some claim that his advanced position absorbed the shock of Longstreet's assault before it could reach the ridge. This theory claims that if the assault had hit the ridge in full strength it would have broken the Union line. This is, however, highly debatable since his movement put the left flank of the 2nd Corps in the air as well as both of his own. Always courageous on the field of battle, he was struck in the leg by a shell as his command was beginning its withdrawal. The leg was amputated within half an hour. (Source).

Sickles left the Army in 1867 as a Major General and a hero, as such things were judged. He donated the amputated leg to a museum and was said to have taken ladies to see it while on dates. A little eccentric, perhaps.


In 1867, President Ulysses Grant appointed Sickles ambassador to Spain where he continued as a rake and had a love affair with the deposed Spanish queen, Isabella II, and was called "The Yankee King of Spain." (Source).

As I said above, Sickle's played an important role in the disputed Hayes/Tilden election.

At nearly midnight, on his way home on election night, Sickles stopped by the Republican headquarters to check the returns. He soon realized that if Hayes lost no more Northern states and won the states of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, then the Republican nominee would win the Electoral College tally by one vote. Sickles rushed off telegrams to Republican leaders in those states, under the signature of Republican national chairman Zachariah Chandler, who was sleeping off a bottle of whiskey, urging them to hold their states for the Republicans. At 3 a.m., Republican governor Daniel Chamberlain responded: “All right. South Carolina is for Hayes. Need more troops.”

Sickles went on in the 1890's to head the New York State Monuments Commission, which put him in charge of erecting Civil War monuments in the state.

In 1912, officials discovered $28,000 was missing from commission coffers and arrested the 93-year-old Sickles. Yet the wily former politician served not a single day in prison, his charm apparently rescuing him once again, as supporters raised money to fill the hole that had opened in the old man's pocket. And no doubt the old rogue would have added a few more chapters to his life story had there only been more time. He died two years later. (Source).

Sickles is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Posted by Random Penseur at July 28, 2004 05:13 PM

Wow, what a character! A rake, ruffian, and murderer. Can you imagine such a man staying attached to the high aspects of party and politics in this day and age?

I was familiar with the name from studying Gettysburg but all the rest is new for me. You can count me among the majority who think his moving off of Cemetary Ridge was a moronic action that directly resulted in the destruction of his corp as well as the massive casualties suffered by the 2nd. Only several flukes of Yankee luck kept Longstreet from capitalizing on Sickle's foolishness.

Posted by: Jim at July 29, 2004 09:16 AM

Glad you enjoyed it! You pretty much have to read these since you gave me the name for the category. By the way, some biographers have suggested that the only reason he wasn't censured for his actions was because he lost his leg.

Posted by: RP at July 29, 2004 09:32 AM

Man, I'd never heard of him. The guy got around though, didn't he?
Great series! Thanks!

Posted by: Mick at July 29, 2004 12:23 PM

What an eyeopener. And people say history is boring.
I am glad I never met the man (quickly checks past history lives) but it does make for some interesting reading!

Posted by: Rachel Ann at July 30, 2004 10:08 AM

Never knew the gentleman. I must of came from good stock because my maiden name was Sickles. I've been told that he was my great great grandfather. Pretty interesting man!

Posted by: vicki at March 12, 2005 01:51 PM

That was awesome & it totally helped me w/ my project! Thanks!

Posted by: Betsey at April 24, 2005 08:31 PM

Did not Sickles design Central Park and was it not Stanton who acteed as his defense lawyer. Please reply.

Posted by: Denny at July 21, 2005 07:12 AM
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