With Sunday’s assassination of Osama bin Laden in the news, there’s been a lot of talk this week about the War On Terror.
Today, we’ll take a look back at the Civil War, an American conflict that was far bloodier, focusing on one of its more colorful and controversial players.
Daniel Sickles was born in 1819 in New York City, and later became a lawyer. He went on to become a New York state senator and later a congressman in Washington.
Sickles was never far from scandal. When he was 33 he married a girl of 15, who he cheated on from the start of the relationship. Later, while in the New York State Assembly, he was often seen in the company of a well-known prostitute, who he even escorted into the Assembly’s chambers. He later took the woman to England where he introduced her to Queen Victoria, leaving his pregnant wife at home.
Although Sickles continued to carry on with other women, he became enraged upon learning about an affair his young wife Teresa was having with Phillip Barton Key II. Key was Washington’s district attorney as well as the son of Francis Scott Key, the author of The Star Spangled Banner.
In 1859, while a congressman, Sickles shot and killed Key in Lafayette Park, just across the street from the White House. He was arrested for murder and retained the services of attorney Edwin Stanton, later Lincoln’s Secretary of War. Sickles readily admitted to the killing, but in a stunning move, claimed to be temporarily insane at the time of the murder, the first time the plea was ever used in an American court. It turned out to be a brilliant defense, because the cuckolded Sickles was later acquitted.
At the start of the war, Sickles became one of Lincoln’s “political generals”; men who were awarded field commands because of their political connections, and not for their military experience.
Despite having no prior military training, Sickles commanded competently in the early battles of the war.
Then came Gettysburg.
Sickles was commanding troops in defense of Cemetery Ridge on the second day of the battle, when for unknown reasons, he marched his men a mile to the front of the rest of the Union troops, where they were carved up from all sides by the Confederates. The cannonball that claimed Sickles’ leg that day may have saved several lives, as he was carried away from the battle and never commanded troops in the war again.
Rather than being court-martialed for disobeying orders at Gettysburg, Sickles ended up receiving the Medal of Honor. He also began a campaign to rewrite history claiming that his gallant move during the battle was what secured the Union victory.
After the war, Sickles remained in the army and also traveled abroad on diplomatic missions, where in Spain he was rumored to have had an affair with Queen Isabella II.
In later life he worked to preserve the Gettysburg battlefield. There was to have been a statue of Sickles raised at the site of his command, but Sickles himself was said to have embezzled the funds for it.
When “Devil Dan” died on this date in 1914 in New York City, his funeral attracted thousands.
But not all of Sickle was buried at Arlington National Cemetery that week.
Following the loss of his leg at Gettysburg, Sickles personally donated the amputated limb to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, where it can still be seen today. Afterwards, Sickle paid a visit to the museum every July 2nd to catch a glimpse of the leg he lost on that date in 1863.