Saturday, July 2, 2011

Dan Sickles

Dan Sickles, courtesy Library of Congress

I am currently reading Sickles at Gettysburg and will have it finished in a couple of days and a review of it hopefully published soon, but since today is July 2, I thought I'd take a moment to post some thoughts and questions about the fascinating man.

Before reading this book I of course knew a couple basic facts about this character: 1. He had shot his wife's lover, but avoided conviction due to "temporary insanity" and 2. He had moved his line forward at Gettysburg on his own volition, with no orders to do so, causing all sorts of controversy over day 2 of this battle.

I now understand more about him and these two incidents, and I must say this book has enlightened me quite a bit on Sickles and his entire life, not just those two controversies.

Even as I have read much of the book, I still do not know just how to describe him or what adjectives are most accurate. Yes, his wife cheated on him and he killed her lover, but he was not a faithful husband either. In his murder trial, he did all he could to save his own skin, even when it meant publicly injuring his wife's reputation. After being acquitted, he then kept Theresa as his wife, despite public expectations to the contrary.

He was an unfaithful husband, apparently a less-than-top-notch father, a lawyer, a politician, an amateur general and a man who always seemed to manage to escape trouble whenever he got himself into it. He was a survivor and a fighter, battling through all his troubles and living until 1914, when he was about 95 years old (his exact birth year being uncertain.)

As a Union general, he used his status as a "War Democrat" to curry favor with President Lincoln, which certainly helped him rise to the level of Major General, the highest ranking non-West Point officer in the Army of the Potomac. He also got along well with Joe Hooker, so when Hooker was removed from command of the Army of the Potomac, new challenges awaited Sickles.

Sickles' relations with George Meade were not so good, which was probably among the primary causes of the controversy at (and after) Gettysburg. That was not the entire reason, however, nor was the possible lack of clarity in Meade's orders.

Dan Sickles was his own man and lacked no self-confidence. He did what he believed was right, and that is what happened at Gettysburg; he saw what he believed needed to be done, and he did it, despite a lack of orders telling him to move his line. .This is also what happened when he killed Barton Key and in the post Civil-War years when he consistently defended his actions and disparaged George Meade and Meade's generalship. He believed in himself and took actions to back up that belief.

Part of this self-belief was evidenced by his willingness to change his story as needed in order to protect his reputation and he could twist the facts of a story to his advantage as well, particularly in the post-Gettysburg years when the controversy over his decisions flared and interest in the events of the battle were subject of discussion (both in Congress and in public forums such as speeches and newspaper articles)

Of course, he also was rather poor at handling money, whether his own, or that of groups he served on, especially the New York Monuments Commission.

Despite this, he was not all bad. As a general, he did show an aggressiveness that many other Union leaders lacked. He lost a leg trying to defend his country. He also inspired his men, earning their respect and admiration.  (Of course, so did George McClellan, whose reputation as a general is not much, if any, better than Sickles.) Sickles also played an important role in the efforts to preserve the Gettysburg battlefield and turn it into a national park. That was something I had no idea about before reading this book.

Sickles overcame obstacles throughout his life, which is admirable, but, then again, the obstacles usually were there because of his own behavior and actions so how much credit does he get for fighting through them?

With all this biographical background in mind, it is difficult for me to develop a definite opinion of him. My amateur military mind thinks his actions at Gettysburg were wrong, and his non-military life  produced many actions of his that I find indefensible. My instinct is to judge him harshly as an immoral, self-important person who displayed little respect for authority, but something about his life story also fascinates me. How did he create such loyalty in his subordinates and followers? What made him keep fighting through his problems instead of giving in to them? What was it about him that kept attracting people to him and making them trust him? His personality and what we now call "people skills" must have been quite good and enjoyable.

Whatever opinion, if any, I ever decide upon for Dan Sickles is, I know that words like "boring" and "dull" certainly need not apply. He lived a long life as quite a fascinating man through the good and bad. I cannot imagine there being many characters more fascinating or intriguing than Dan Sickles in the American Civil War, or, even American (if not world) history.

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