Murderer and general

General, politician , diplomat, one-legged, womanizer, insubordinator and acquitted murderer are all labels that can applied to Daniel Edgar Sickles, though not necessarily in that order. Regardless of whatever one may think about Sickles, no one can deny that he was both controversial and colorful.

Politician and murderer

Daniel Sickles was born in New York City in October 1819, although he later claimed that he was born in 1825. That was when he married a woman who was much younger than himself. His father was a lawyer specializing in patents and a politician besides. Sickles trained as a printer, and then studied at New York University (or the University of the City of New York, as it was called then). There he studied law, and he wirked as a lawyer in Benjamin Butler's law firm. Butler was also a politician and was the U.S. Attorney General from 1833 to 1838. During the period when Sickles was working for the law firm, Butler was district attorney for New York's southern district, corresponding roughly to New York City. In 1846 Sickles graduated as a lawyer, but at that time, he had already been elected to the New York State Legislature in 1843. If his own later claims of the year of his birth were correct, he would only have been 17 when he was elected. The idea of living a ​​soldiers life appealed to him, but he chose not to join the army. Instead he joined  the National Guard as a private in 1849, and three years later he resigned - now with the rank of major.

In 1852, 33 years old, he married the 15-year old Teresa Bagioli, a marriage that later caused him a lot of trouble. Both their families were opposing the marriage. Teresa came from a very wealthy family. Her father was a famous opera singer and singing teacher, and her maternal grandfather was opera librettist Emauele Conigliano, also known as Lorenzo da Ponte or Abbé da Ponte of Vienna, who wrote the libretto of 28 operas including  Mozart's operas, Cosi Fan Tutte, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Some day I may write an article on Da Ponte, who is absolutely worth it. It was his son, who was a professor at the university who recommended Sickles to the university, and through the uncle he got to know Teresa. Teresa herself was well educated and spoke five languages. After they had married against their families' will, the Bagione family gave up on their resistance and the couple was married once more, and this time the wedding ceremony was conducted by New York's Catholic Archbishop. Seven months later Teresa gave birth to the family's daughter, Laura!

Sickles was named "corporation counsel" of New York City in 1853, an office which meant that he was the city's attorney in civil matters, but he gave up the office shortly after to become secretary of the U.S. legation in England (today almost embassy secretary), appointed by President Pierce. In 1855 he returned to New York where where he was elected to the state's Senate. In 1857 he was elected to the U.S. Congress as a Democrat. He held this office for two terms until 1861. He had several affairs with prostitutes while in New York, and one of them, Fanny White accompanied him to the Senate, and he brought her with him to England. Here he presented Fanny for Queen Victoria while his pregnant wife waited at home in New York. Even after moving to Washington, he continued his affairs. Sickles and his wife belonged to the city's society circles, and were known for their dinners, and Teresa held formal audiences every Tuesday morning, where she received other of the capital's society ladies, and despite the difference in political opinions the couple became friends with later Republican president Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary, who often visited their home - and vice versa.

The marriage did not go particularly well. Sickles continued his affairs with both prostitutes and other women, and during President James Buchanan's inauguration, Teresa met Attorney General of Washington, Philip Barton Key, who was a year older than Sickles, and the two of them got involved. Barton Key was the son of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the U.S. national anthem and nephew of Roger B. Taney, president of the U.S. Supreme Court. Key was a widower and was considered the handsomest man in Washington. Teresa's relationship with him presumably began shortly after they first met and Sickles was long suspicious, but every time he brought up the matter, she got him to calm down. At least until the 1859. On February 25th, Sickles received an anonymous letter accusing Teresa of having an affair with Key, and when he confronted her, she confessed the affair and she even signed a written statement about the relationship. She and Keys had a house in a poor part of town, where they cultivated their relationship. Two days later, on February 27th, Sickles saw Key outside his house on Lafayette Square just opposite the White House. Key clearly signaled to Teresa with a handkerchief, and Sickles sent a relative to uphold Key. Sickles picked up several guns from his office and went out to confront Key. He met him on Pennsylvania Avenue just outside the White House and shouting "Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home, you will die." Then he shot him twice, one time in the crotch. Key died shortly afterwards in a nearby house, to where he had been carried  Sickles went to Justice Jeremiah Black's home nearby. Here he confessed the murder with the words "Of course I killed him, he deserved it," and surrendered.

Sickles was imprisoned, but unlike the normal practice of the time he was allowed to receive guests, and he was visited by so many that he was allowed to use the jailers appartement for his receptions. Sickles was also allowed to keep his personal weapons in the cell! Many of his visitors were well-known politicians and he received a personal letter from President Buchanan, and the general population of Washington was completely on his side. A man who seduced another's wife, was definitely not popular in the city.

Sickles was charged with murder and he hired several well-known politicians (many politicians were then legally trained like himself ) as his defense. Among them was Edward Stanton, who would later become Secretary of War. Lead attorney for the defense was James T. Brady. However, it was Stanton who argued that Sickles had been driven to insanity by his wife's infidelity and that he was temporarily insane when he shot Key. At the same time the lawyers presented the detailed description of the adultery that Teresa had given in her written confession, but the court refused the use of the confession as evidence. Instead, Sickles leaked the confession to the press, and suddenly all the newspapers were on his side. One even wrote that he was a hero because he had saved Washington's women from the scoundrel Key.

The case ended after 20 court days (a very long trial at the times) when Sickles was acquitted, and he became the first to be acquitted of murder by reason of momentarily insanity. The case was typical of Washington during this period. On one hand held elegant balls in fine homes were held, on the other hand the same people threw their waste into the streets, where it was eaten by stray dogs and pigs that roamed the city. Assault, theft, rape and prostitution flourished in the city, on the other hand, the several museums and theaters were attended by both the upper and lower class. A Senate committee wrote in 1858 , the year before Sickels killed Key "Riots and bloodshed happen on a daily basis. Innocent and random passers-by being shot or otherwise maltreate , and not uncommon is it that the guilty do not get arrested". It was not just the underclass that "amused" themselves like that. Most members of Congress carried a gun, played for big money, got drunk every day and spent a lot of time in brothels, so Sickles was just "like the rest". Even in Congress things could go wrong. Political discussions often turned to fist fights or worse. One example is Preston Brooks of South Carolina, who beat Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a cane. In some cases the fights resulted in duels where one of the parties died.

The affair with Keys murder didn't force Sickles to leave Congress, but for a time he was less public . On the other hand, he forgave his wife in public, and it created another uproar. The public was far more outraged with the fact that he had forgiven the unfaithful wife who "had behaved like a prostitute" than that he had murdered a man in cold blood and gotten away with it.

The American Civil War

When the civil war broke out Sickles created a regiment of hard working volunteers, and he actually managed to gather no less than four regiments, of which he was elected colonel of one. In September 1861, President Lincoln appointed hum brigadier general in the Union corps of Volunteers, but in March the following year, he had to give up his rank and command, as Congress wouldn't confirm his commission. Meanwhile, his soldiers were sent to war, and while they fought in the Battle of Williamsburg, Sickles spent time lobbying among hi s politician friends and already in May 1862 he could reclaim his rank and command. He became commander of the so-called Excelsior Brigade of the Army of the Potomac in Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker's division. Despite his total lack of military experience both he and the brigade excelled in several battles during the Union's Peninsula Campaign, including the Battle of Seven Pines and the Seven Days Battle. Later he returned to New York to recruit more troops , and therefore he did not take part in the Second Battle of Bull Run. In September 1862 he was interim Head of III Corps which protected Washington and he was not with his regiment at the Battle of Antietam. When President Lincoln shortly after this battle deposed George McClelland as commander of the Army of the Potomac, Sickles was one of Joe Hooker's most loyal supporters for the post. Lincoln chose to give the post of army chief to Ambrose Burnside though, the man whose name is the reasons for Americans calling large whiskers "sideburns".

Hooker and Sickles had a lot in common. They were both "political animals", who had reached their military top positions because of political connections, but were also both good commanders. Like Sickles, Hooker also had his part of affairs with the opposite sex, and they both enjoyed a drink now and then - and more so than most. Contemporary accounts compares both their respective headquarters with a mixture of a noisy bar and a brothel. The popular song of the troops, Marching along had a verse about McLelland: "McClellan's our leader. He 's gallant and strong". When Hooker later took command, the lines were changed to : "Joe Hooker's our leader. He takes his whiskey strong." After the Battle of Fredericksburg, where Sickles brigade was held in reserve, Hooker gave a fierce criticism of his commander, Burnside, who was deposed by the president and replaced by Hooker himself. A few days before Hooker's appointment in January 1863, President Lincoln proposed that Sickles was appointed major general, and although Congress first approved this in March, and the president's formal appointment of Sickles didn't reach Hooker until March 11th this didn't bother Hooker. In February, he made Sickles permanent head of the 3rd Army Corps, an appointment that was highly controversial - not least because Sickles as the only corps commander in the Army, wasn't educated at West Point, and had never received any formal military training.

Sickles served as corps commander during the Battle of Chancellorsville and here he excelled again in several ways. He showed great energy and will to fight during the battle and when his scouts observed some Confederate troops, Sickles thought was on the run, he recommended Hooker to pursue them, Hooker however, refused. Later Hooker ordered him to leave the area where his troops were ready to defend themselves - an area which was just very suitable for defensive battle. He argued for letting the corps stay in the area, but Hooker insisted. Later it turned out that Sickles was mistaken when he thought that the troops that had been observed was on the run. It was actually Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's corps on it's way to bypass Union lines. Despite the error, modern military historians think that the battle could have had a different outcome if Hooker had let Sickels attack Jackson's forces, and that even when this did not happen, the Union might have won the battle, if Sickles hadn't been ordered to leave his defensive position. The outcome of Chancellorsville ultimately led to Hooker being relieved of command (although formally he was asked for his resignation). In his place Lincoln appointed George C. Meade as Commander of the Army of the Potomac, and neither Sickles nor Daniel Butterfield, Hooker's chief of staff, who Meade had "inherited"were comfortable with this. Like Sickles Butterfield wasn't militarily trained, and although he was primarily a businessman from New York, he also had good political relations  Butterfield joined the army as a sergeant in April 1861, and in July he was a colonel in command of a brigade and in September he was promoted to brigadier general. If Butterfield didn't get on well with Meade, he had an excellent relationship with Sickles, and the two would later come to cause trouble for Meade.                                                                                                                                       
The Battle of Gettysburg was to become the decisive battle of The Civil War, even though the war lasted two years longer. The battle would also prove to be crucial for Sickles active military career as he refused to obey an order from Meade, and he was badly injured. On the second day of battle, July 2nd, 1863, Meade ordered Sickles and his III Corps to take up defensive positions south of Cemetary Ridge. The corps would then cover the area between the II Corps and the hill called Little Round Top. Sickles, however, didn't find this to be a good idea because the terrain in front of his troops was higher, and he was afraid of being fired upon from above. Instead, he ordered his corps half a mile forward towards the high ground. This meant, however, that his lines were very long, and thus without much depth and there were "holes" in the lines between the forces which thus could be fired on from several sides. Meade rode out to relate Sickles his disobedience, but unfortunately too late. Confederate troops under General Longstreet attacked and almost wiped out the 3rd Corps. Modern historians do not agree on the importance of Sickles disobedience. Some believe that he caused the Union Army to almost loose the battle on the second day, while others believe that Longstreet's attack on Sickles meant that the real attack on the Union Army was far less effective than it otherwise would have been. Sickles himself was hit by a shell fragment and his right leg had to be amputated. On the way to the camp hospital, he tried to keep up the courage of the troops by laughing most of the way while making smoke signals with his cigar as he lay on the stretcher. After the amputation, he donated his leg to Army Medical Hospital Museum as an example of the "morbid anatomy" that the museum wanted. The leg was sent with a note which simply said "With the compliments of DES." The leg can be seen today at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. For several years Sickles visited his leg on the anniversary of the amputation.

As Sickles had been wounded during the battle, he avoided being court-martialed for disobediance, and it was expected that he would stay out of further trouble. He did so too, but he and Butterfield established a campaign against Meade, where they questioned his decisions during the battle and his personal courage. Sickles continued this campaign even after the war was over. Sickles felt that Meade had done him wrong at Gettysburg and that it was his (Sickles') actions which had made the federals win the battle. Sickles also was the mastermind behind some anonymous newspaper articles where this view was emphasized. Then at a hearing in Congress Sickles was questioned, and he claimed that Meade already on the first day of the battle had planned to retire and that his advance on the second day, in spite of disobedience, had been necessary because the prevented Lee from attacking Meade with his full strength, but that Meade would not realize this during the battle. 34 years after the battle, in 1897, Sickles actually received  Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest military award in the United States, for his efforts during the battle and for his impact on its outcome. By this time, Meade had been dead for 25 years and could not protest. Meade ended his days as a park manager in Philadelphia and died in 1872, while Sickles could pursue his public career in different ways for several years.

Sickles later career

Despite being one-legged Sickles remained in the army until the end of the civil war, but he was not given command in  the battlefield, which made him very angry at the army's new commander, Ulysses S. Grant, as he found Grant unreasonable in his refusal; a rejection he found abhorrent, and he never forgave Grant. In 1867, after the war, Sickles was appointed brevet brigadier general and later major general in the regular army, where his ranks during the war had been with the volunteers. In 1865 he was sent to Columbia on a secret mission for the president where he should confirm an agreement that allowed the United States to send troops across the Isthmus of Panama. On his return from this mission, the so-called reconstruction period was well under way. The rebellious southern states were organized into to so-called "military districts", which would ensure the upkeeping of law and order until the states were ready to govern themselves once more (this reconstruction period, as it was called, didn't end until 1877). Returning from Columbia, Sickles was made Commander of the 2nd Military District, which included North and South Carolina. Along the way , he also had been Commander of the Department of South Carolina, The Department of the Carolinas and the Department of the South, all names for the same function and almost the same area. Already in 1867 he was, however, removed by the new president, Andrew Johnson. The president didn't like Sickles, who he thought was too radical and headstrong and Johnson was looking for an excuse to get rid of him. This came when Sickles in 1867 issued an edict, saying that all laws that regulated the relationship between blacks and whites would be invalid, since all people were equal. This was probably in accordance with the Constitution, but it certainly was not popular with southern white people. Shortly afterwards Sickles introduced a liquor ban, because the grain had to be eaten and not be turned into alcohol! This did not make President Johnson's relationship with Sickles better, and the president ended up with almost a direct hatred of the general, who he called a "conceited cuckold", and on August 12th 1867 Johnson removed him from office.

In 1869, he retired from the Army as a major general  and in spite of their controversies Ulysses S. Grant, now president appointed him U.S. ambassador to Spain. In 1867, his wife Teresa had died, so when Sickles came to Spain, he was a widower. Instead he brought his daughter Laura with him. Soon after her arrival Laura met a young Spaniard and fell in love with him, which Sickles didn't approve of, so he sent her back to New York, where she died shortly after.  He himself, however, did not forsake women. It was rumored that he had an affair with the abdicated Queen Isabella II, who was succeeded by her son, Alfonso on Spain's throne (after a short-lived Spanish republic turned out not to work.) Isabella was no beauty, but Sickles didn't demand much in thye area of looks, when his lover was a former queen who, after all, was 11 years younger than himself, and he was locally known as "the Yankee King of Spain". In 1871 he married, however, one of the queen's maids of honor, Carmina Creagh of Madrid, the daughter of a Spanish nobleman and Counsellor. She was 31 and he was 52, so he was still in favor of younger women. He and Carmina had two children, but when he returned to the United States in 1874, she stayed in Spain with the kids, so it was problably not a very happy marriage. She visited him briefly in the United States in 1879, but quickly returned to Spain again, and she did not see him for the next 29 years. Yet they remained married (both were Catholics) to Sickles death.

Sickles spent much of his time as ambassador sending inaccurate and emotional notes back to the U.S., in which he urged the American government to go to war against Spain, but his proposals were shelved by Secretary of State Hamilton Fish. Upon his return to America, Sickles became president of the New York Monument Commission, which he had to leave some years later (in 1912) when fraud in a large scale was revealed. Sickles was not accused of any knowledge of the fraud, but as president of the commission, he had to take the responsibility. In 1888 he became president of the New York State Board of Civil Service Commissioners and in 1890 he was elected sheriff in New York and in 1893-1895 he again served as a member of the U.S. Congress .

After the Civil War, Sickles was one of the politicians who fought hardest to have the battlefield of Gettysburg preserved and he supported the legislation which established the Gettysburg National Mliitary Park. Out of his own pocket, he bought the fence that had been used on East Cemetery Hill, and which was now used as a fence around the park. The fence orginally came from Lafayette Square, where Sickles had shot Barton Key. All the major generals at Gettysburg have monuments raised in their memory in the park, apart from Sickles. Once when he was asked why he did not have a monument, he replied that "The entire battlefield is a memorial to Dan Sickles" However, funds have once been allocated for a Sickles bust as part of the memorial of his Excelsior Brigade, but Sickles stole the money and the bust came to nothing .

Sickles lived his last years in New York City. At this time, Carmina and her son George finally moved to New York (around 1908), and they often visited him until he died on May 3rd, 1914 at the age of 94. Carmina was present at his deathbed, and had been at his side almost constantly for the last two weeks of his life. In 1912, when Sickles was in an economical crisis, she had pledged her jewelry for $ 8,000 to help him, and he thanked her by soon after issueing an official statement that maligned her motives for helping. He died of a brain haemorrhage which had hit him some time before, and he was unconscious for nearly two weeks. If Carmina was there because of love for him is hard to say, because even her lawyer was present during this time, so maybe it was more a question of money, which had brought her to his deathbed?

The burial ceremony took place in St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan. Sickles was buried at Arlington Cemetery outside Washington DC with full ceremonial as a General. The United States had lost one of the most colorful characters of the 19th Century. Thomas Keneally wrote a Sickles biography entitled "American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles" and much of the content of this article comes from this book.

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