Major General Daniel Sickles and the Great Reunion (Part I)

One of the most “colorful” characters to attend the Great Reunion was Union Major General Daniel Sickles of New York. The New York Monuments Commission’s report that was discussed in the previous blog entry is filled with references to General Sickles’ performance during the Battle of Gettysburg. Indeed, Sickles was the senior-ranking General who attended the Great Reunion, just as he had attended the 25th reunion back in 1888. One can find old photos of Sickles arriving at Gettysburg back in 1913, or signing autographs while there; he definitely made his presence known.

But what of the years leading up to 1913? The “highlight” of Sickles’ career before the Civil War – at least as far as notoriety goes – was when he shot to death the lover of his wife in 1859…in Lafayette Park, right across the street from the White House. The victim was, as noted in our earlier blog entry, District of Columbia District Attorney Philip Barton Key II, the son of Francis Scott Key of “Star Spangled Banner” fame. Oh yes: at the time, Sickles was a Congressman! (Of course, a little more than half a century earlier Vice President of the United States Aaron Burr killed the former Secretary of the Treasury and Revolutionary War/Founding Father figure Alexander Hamilton in a duel, so politicians shooting other politicians wasn’t unheard of in those days.)

Sickles was ultimately acquitted for his act of murder, thanks in large part to the tactics of one of his defense attorneys: Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s future Secretary of War during the Civil War. One of the key (no pun intended, given the victim’s last name…) tactics was the very first use in the United States of a plea of temporary insanity as a reason for having committed a crime.

And speaking of the Civil War: after the war began Sickles helped raise troops from New York and became a “political general” back in the days when politicians volunteered for military service and were rewarded with high ranks and some semblance of a command position. During the Battle of Gettysburg, Major General Sickles was at the center of one of the great controversies of the battle, from the Union side (and akin to the Confederate controversies surrounding J.E.B. Stuart’s presence – or lack thereof – and those of Pickett’s Charge involving Generals Lee and Longstreet…all episodes we will briefly visit in future blog entries and in the context of the Great Reunion).

But back to Major General Daniel Sickles. In the New York Monument Commission’s report on the Great Reunion, Horatio King wrote:

“The discussion of Sickles’ seeming disobedience of orders has been general and severe. It is not proposed to revive the discussion here, but simply to insert an extract from a letter.”

General King was referring to a letter from Confederate General James Longstreet to Sickles back in 1902, expressing his regrets that he was unable to attend the unveiling of a monument at Gettysburg because of his (Longstreet’s) ill health, and in which Longstreet claimed that Sickles’ controversial movements of his Corps that day “saved that battle to the Union cause.”

It’s beyond the scope of this blog entry to deeply explore the specific controversy surrounding Daniel Sickles at Gettysburg – stay tuned for a subsequent entry (Part II of the Daniel Sickles story at Gettysburg) for those details – but for now, suffice it to say that for a man who only four years earlier had been involved in a scandalous politician-upon-politician shooting, that event was but another chapter in the long, “interesting” life and career of Daniel Sickles.

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