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Union Leaders: Sickles

Daniel E. Sickles (1825-1914)

Sickles attended the University of New York, studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1846. He was elected to the state legislature in 1847, and as corporation counsel for NYC in 1853 he was part of the commission that acquired the site of Central Park for the city. From 1853-1855 Sickles was in London as secretary of the U.S. legation, then served a term in the New York state senate, and was elected as a Democrat to Congress (1857-1861). In 1859, after shooting and killing his wife’s lover, Sickles was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, the first use of that plea in American jurisprudence.

 Sickles had been an officer of the New York militia since 1852 and with the outbreak of the Civil War, raised troops for the “Excelsior Brigade.” In Jun ’61 he was appointed COL of one of its regiments. He commanded a brigade of the III Corps, Army of the Potomac during the Peninsula campaign, and in Jul ’62 he returned to New York to recruit for the Excelsior Brigade. Sickles was promoted in Sep ’62 to BG of vols and returned to command a division of the III Corps at Fredericksburg (13 Dec ’62).

In Mar ’63, Sickles was promoted MG of vols and assigned command of the III Corps. At Chancellorsville (1-4 May ’63) the III Corps occupied the right center of the Union army, the XI Corps on its right and XII on the left. On 2 May Sickles spotted Jackson’s flanking column and struck the rear of Jackson’s force at Chatharine Furnace. When the XI Corps gave way on the Union right flank, however, Sickles’ command fell back to halt the Confederate advance on the Plank Road. That evening Sickles ordered one of his brigades on a night attack. In the darkness and dense woods the unit gallantly charged a breastwork, only to discover it belonged to the XII Corps. Later, the brigade charged and captured one of its own batteries, “but, on learning the mistake, of course relinquished it.”

 The III Corps arrived at Gettysburg (1-2 Jul ’63) on the second day and was ordered to hold the southern end of Cemetery Ridge at the Round Tops. Instead, Sickles moved his entire corps forward to what he considered better ground and was struck by Longstreet’s attack, the III Corps losing almost half its men. Sickles was wounded in the attack and his leg amputated, ending his war service.

 After a diplomatic mission to South America in 1865 he was military governor of South Carolina. In Jul ’66 he was commissioned COL in the R.A., and in Mar ’67 brevetted BG and MG for “gallant and meritorious service” at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. Sickles was mustered out of volunteer service in Jan ’68 and retired from the R.A. as MG Apr ’69.

From May ’69 to Dec ’73 he was U.S. minister to Spain, causing some embarrassment to the U.S. Government by publicly advocating the annexation of Cuba. He was recalled as minister and moved to Europe for seven years before returning to the U.S. Sickles held various offices in NYC during the 1880s, being elected in 1892 to the U.S. House of Representatives. It was during this time he was instrumental in having the Federal government acquire Gettysburg acreage for a national military park. Having lost in the election of 1894 he retired to private life. In 1897 Sickles was awarded the Medal of Honor for action at Gettysburg.

Note: Biographical information comes from the U.S. Army Center for Military History Gettysburg Staff Ride book.

Posted in Civil War.

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