Meet Daniel Sickles

Our Senior Research Fellow, Professor Ken Donaldson, tells us more about an interesting tale he came across during his research.

The Battle of Gettysburg, in July 1863, was the bloodiest Battle of the American Civil War, producing about 50,000 casualties over 3 days of fighting around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The battle had begun badly for the Union officer Major General Daniel Sickles when, in typically rebellious style, he directly contradicted his orders by moving his company to what he considered a better fighting position, then refusing to turn up when summoned by his superiors to explain himself. As the fighting raged, things got worse for Sickles when, again counter to advice, he rode on to the top of a small hill to better view the fighting. He was almost immediately hit, below the right knee, by a 12 pound confederate cannonball which shattered his tibia and fibula. In the heat of battle Sickles seemed initially unaware that he had been injured and  remained in the saddle. He later said that he became “conscious of dampness along the lower part of my right leg, and I ran my hand down the leg of my high-top boots and pulling it out I was surprised to see it dripping with blood,”. Eventually getting down from the horse whilst becoming more weak and shocked, Sickles called for leather straps from a saddle to be used to apply a tourniquet to stem the flow of arterial blood and a surgeon was called. The surgeon swiftly concluded that the leg would have to be amputated. Sickles later noted that the horse was uninjured and that he himself was only ‘moderately upset’ at the prospect facing him.  However, word had started circulating round his men that he was mortally wounded and fearing a loss of morale, instead of being taken directly to the field hospital, Sickles insisted that he be carried on a stretcher so as to pass in front of his men.  Chomping on a cigar, he exhorted them to continue the fight in his absence; in the process he became a legend. Within half an hour of receiving the injury and after a shot of brandy and a whiff of chloroform, Sickles left leg was amputated below the knee.

Sickles presented his lower leg bones to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, the American Army’s Medical Museum in Maryland, where it is on display with a 12lb cannonball, like the one that caused the injury. The tibia is shattered and the fibula has a large splinter missing. Sickles visited the leg every year on the anniversary of its amputation, July 2nd   and so famous has the story become that the leg is the most popular exhibit in the museum.

Returning North to recuperate, Sickles was sufficiently mobile on crutches 3 weeks later to meet President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. As the story of his bravery spread he became lionised and emerged as one of the most famous soldiers of the Civil War.

General Sickles in 1863 after the loss of his leg at Gettysburg. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The story of Daniel Edgar Sickles (1819 –1914) does not end there however since there is a fascinating, though unedifying, back-story. Born into a middle-class family Sickles attended university in New York and undertook a career as a lawyer and then a politician and in 1851 at the age of 32 he married Teresa Bagioli a woman aged 16 (at most!). Marriage to a woman half his age, and in a rush, caused a minor scandal, the first of many that were to be associated with Sickles’ life choices. Sickles then engaged in a bizarre and very public ménage-a trois with a well-known New York prostitute called Fanny White and his young wife, which caused another scandal.  Even worse was to come when Teresa, in turn, had an affair with Philip Barton Key II, the district attorney of the District of Columbia. Discovering the affair, Sickles shot and killed Philip Barton Key in full view and across the street from the White House on February 27, 1859, then turned himself into the police.

Newspaper image of the shooting of Philip Barton Key by Dan Sickles. By Unknown author – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b02612. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Following his arrest, because he was a senior lawyer and politician, he was treated disgracefully well; for example he was allowed to retain his gun while in prison and was allowed unlimited high profile visitors. At the trial in 1859 he invoked a new defence which, given his record of marital infidelity, was mind-bogglingly hypocritical.  He claimed that, at the time of the shooting, he was ‘temporarily insane’, insisting that he had lost his mind when he found that his wife was cheating on him! This was the first time that this defence had ever been proposed and Sickles assembled a very high powered and expensive team of lawyers. Subsequently he was acquitted in a shocking and disgraceful miscarriage of justice. His army career was unaffected and within four years he was a Major General and was on his horse at Gettysburg, when he heard the distant canon shot and felt the rush of air that was to make him a folk-hero. We often complain when we find our heroes have feet, or in his case foot, of clay and none more so than the hero of the Battle of Gettysburg, Major General Dan Sickles.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Danny Beyerl says:

    Terrific article

    Liked by 1 person

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