Daniel Sickles, Civil War General, Congressman, Legal Trend-Setter, Born
Daniel E. Sickles (1819-1914)
[All illustrations courtesy of Wikipedia]
Today in Military History: October 20, 1819
[I know this is a few days late, but I have this little thing called "work" that puts greater calls on my time than most other activities.]
Today's posting deals more with a personality than a particular battle. However, considering he was such an interesting character, I felt a certain obligation to present his story.
Daniel Sickles was born in New York City; his father was a patent attorney and a politician. Dan learned the printer's trade and studied at New York University. He read law in the office of Benjamin Franklin Butler, who had served as U.S. Attorney General under Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren (1833-1838). He served in the New York State Assembly in 1843.
In 1852, he married Teresa Bagioli, daughter of a prominent New York City singing teacher. Despite being a notorious womanizer, Sickles apparently fell head-over-heels in love with the young lady – who spoke five languages – and proposed to her shortly afterwards.
Their match, unfortunately, was rocky from the start. Sickles was 32 and Teresa was 15. Her parents disapproved of the match, but they wed in a civil ceremony in September of 1852. Her parents finally relented, and the Archbishop of New York presided at a formal wedding ceremony shortly thereafter. Seven months later their only child, Laura Buchanan Sickles, was born.
Teresa Bagioli Sickles
In 1853, Sickles was appointed secretary to the U.S. legation to Great Britain. While there – without his wife, who remained in America – he continued his womanizing ways, at one point presenting a "lady of the low morals" to Queen Victoria. He returned to the U.S. in 1855. Sickles was elected to the New York State Senate, serving from 1856 to 1857. In 1857, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat, where he served two terms (1857-1861).
Murder Most Foul
Francis Barton Key II (1818-1859)
During the course of his time in Washington, Sickles continued his promiscuous ways. Teresa decided to make arrangements of her own. She began an affair with Francis Barton Key II, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, the son of Francis Scott Key, author of the "Star-Spangled Banner" and nephew of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney. After receiving an anonymous message about his wife's liaison, Sickles confronted her, and she confessed the whole affair, putting it all in writing. Later that day, February 26, 1859, Sickles saw Key sitting in Lafayette Park across the street from his house, signaling his wife. Flying into a rage, Sickles grabbed a pistol and went after Key.
Sickles confronted the young man, shouting, "Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home; you must die!" He then chased Key down the street, shooting him several times. Key was carried into a nearby house, and died shortly afterward. [Various eyewitnesses and authors say that Key is still haunting Lafayette Park near the spot where Sickles gunned him down.]
Sickles was put on trial, and after about three weeks of testimony, was acquitted by a jury. His legal team – which included future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton – argued that Sickles had been driven insane by his wife's infidelity, and thus was out of his mind when he shot Key. The closing argument by associate defense attorney John Graham – which lasted over the course of two days – was so packed with quotations from Othello, Judaic history and Roman law that it later appeared as a book (according to a 1945 article in "Time" magazine).
The trial had been a sensation, grabbing news headlines not only in the nation's capital but across the country. After his acquittal, Sickles was at first lionized. The papers proclaimed that he was a hero for saving all the ladies of Washington from this rogue named Key. However, Sickles then publicly forgave his wife her transgression, and "withdrew" briefly from public life, although he did not resign from Congress. The public was apparently more outraged by Sickles' forgiveness and reconciliation with his wife, whom he had publicly branded a harlot and adulteress, than by the murder and his unorthodox acquittal.
The Civil War: Early Years
Shortly after he left Congress, the Civil War broke out. Sickles launched a strategy to repair his public image. He helped raise four New York volunteer regiments, and managed to be appointed commander of the "Excelsior Brigade." In September of 1861, Sickles was appointed a brigadier general of volunteers. However, in March of the following year he was forced to resign his commission when Congress failed to approve his appointment. He diligently lobbied his many political connections in Washington, and in May was reappointed to his commission.
He resumed command of his unit and participated in McClellan's Peninsular Campaign. Sickles also saw action in the Battle of Seven Pines and the Seven Days Battles. He missed the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), as he was back in New York recruiting more troops, and the Battle of Antietam, when his command was stationed in the defenses of Washington to recuperate and recruit. He was promoted to major general in November of 1862, but his division was held in reserve at the Battle of Fredericksburg, so he missed another conflict.
In February of 1863, his friend General Joseph Hooker, newly anointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, appointed Sickles as commander of the III Corps. This act generated much controversy, as Sickles became the only Union corps commander that had not attended West Point. He participated in the Battle of Chancellorsville, nearly spoiling the flank march of Stonewall Jackson's Confederates.
Tomorrow: The Battle of Gettysburg