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Was Sickles Right?

My brother Phil – a USMC Captain – took a trip up to Gettysburg with me last Friday. Phil’s interest in going was to see the field and analyze what happened there from the perspective of his modern Marine Corps infantry training. Of course, I thought it would be cool to see how a modern soldier goes through that process. It would be a learning experience for both of us.

It was a really great day (if not a little on the cold side). I took him through almost the whole tour. While we hit Culp’s Hill, we didn’t get to the East Cavalry or South Cavalry fields, and we tended to ignore the Confederate perspective, focusing instead on the Union defensive positions to get our views of the field.

The biggest surprise of the day was his reaction to Maj. General Daniel Sickles‘ part in the battle.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a fan of Sickles (as you could maybe tell). My thoughts prior to last week were more-or-less middle-of-the-road on his actions during the battle. I can see both sides of the argument, but I tend to lean in the pro-Sickles direction if I’m pressed. Obviously, I’m OK with the over-all outcome of the battle, and I find counterfactuals to be…difficult (to say the least). Even if they are fun, they’re a sloppy way to do historical analysis.

All that said, I did my best to be even-handed. On the drive up, I reminded Phil about Sickles’ murderous history, and his path to the army by way of political considerations rather than military acumen. As the highest-ranking non-West Pointer in the Army of the Potomac, he was the very definition of “black sheep”.

My character assassination prep work was all undone as soon as Phil set foot in the Peach Orchard. Instantly, he said that this is where he’d want to be. It was the same when we got out on Houck’s Ridge. He became more adamant as I explained how Sickles came to his decision to move. Let’s go through it.

The III Corps had arrived at Gettysburg the night of July 1, 1863 by way of the Emmitsburg Road. They would have passed right over the Peach Orchard on their way to the field. Coming down off of that terrain to take the position they did to the left of the II Corps must have felt strange. By the morning of July 2, Sickles was asking headquarters to clarify his orders as to the III Corps positioning. Was Sickles playing a game here?

The orders were to extend the II Corps line to the south, and occupy the position held by Brig. General Geary‘s division the night before. Does anyone know what position Geary’s division held? Sickles sure didn’t – Geary vacated the position and moved to Culp’s Hill at about 6am, and Sickles slept in until around 9am. So where was Geary? Where was Sickles supposed to end his line? Little Round Top.

While LRT is a nice piece of real estate, take a look at the rest of this proposed position. Have you ever ridden the line from LRT up to just before the Pennsylvania Monument with a critical eye? This was Sickles’ assigned position. It’s kind of a drive-through wasteland until you get up to United States Ave. There’s hardly any regiment markers along there, and NO cannons on display. Ever wonder why?

Next time you’re in Gettysburg, drive up to the VI Corps headquarters marker. Pull over to the right side of the road and park. Now look around. Where are you going to place a line in here? The open ground to the left (west) is rocky, marshy, and low-lying – generally unfit for troop deployments. It’s also got a great view of…those woods in front of you. You won’t see the enemy approaching. Placing your line on the small, tree-covered hill to the right (east) will affect your visibility even more, and that hill isn’t big enough to cover the whole sector effectively anyway. And there’s NO WAY to use artillery anywhere around here because of all the woods.

North of United States Ave. it isn’t much better. At least you can place artillery here (and the NPS has pieces out to help your imagination), but as you look west, you can see how the ridge that the Emmitsburg Road is on (including the part that contains a certain Peach Orchard) absolutely OWNS (as Phil would say) this line. With enemy artillery placed there, and a concerted infantry effort to go along with it, any troops in this position could be dislodged. It’s NOT a very good place to be.

I think this is why Sickles was confused the morning of July 2. “This is my position? THIS? Are you for real right now?” It was such a bad placement that it couldn’t possibly be what was intended. He HAD to be confused.

Sickles would much rather be up on that Peach Orchard and along the Emmitsburg Road. It’s much higher, open ground. He’d have no problem employing his artillery effectively. It’s obvious to anyone who really looks at it that this is the better position, right?

By late morning, Sickles is up at headquarters lobbying for someone to come help him deploy his corps. General Meade was too busy to have a look. Besides, if the Confederates attacked, it would probably be from the north – where they were known to be located. General Warren, the Chief Topographical Engineer, couldn’t be spared to examine the position either. Since the main concern expressed by Sickles was related to placing his guns, General Hunt, the Chief of Artillery, was allowed to go to the left flank and advise General Sickles.

Hunt agreed that Sickles’ position was horrible for artillery. There were no good options. Sickles asks Hunt to ride out to the Peach Orchard – his preferred position – to have a look.

Immediately Hunt realized – like my brother 150 years later – that this ground was commanding. Artillery placement would be easy and effective out here. Sensing Sickles’ enthusiasm, Hunt was quick to remind the III Corps commander that, while he agreed with the assessment of the terrain, he could not authorize a troop movement. Of course, he did give a final piece of advice: If he were to make such a move, he’d want to know what’s going on in the woods over on Seminary Ridge first. Sickles agreed and sent Hiram Berdan‘s Sharpshooters on a recon mission.

Of course, Berdan finds Confederates – the right flank of Wilcox‘s brigade. This is enough evidence for Sickles to believe that an attacking force was massing on his front. He decided to make his move, and the rest is history.

The move was not without problems, though. Sickles’ small III Corps didn’t really have enough men to cover his intended line effectively. He was now trying to cover nearly twice the frontage that he had been originally assigned – from the Codori Farm down to Devil’s Den. He tried to compensate for this by using artillery to hold the gap between the Peach Orchard and Rose’s Woods. Sickles feels like he doesn’t have much of a choice though. He can’t force other units to come to his aid, and headquarters doesn’t seem too concerned with what may be happening on the left flank.

By the time General Meade starts paying attention, it’s too late. The Confederate attack has already begun, and Meade feels like his only choice is to commit resources from the V and II Corps to try and shore-up the position.

Of course, we know that this was not enough, and the failure of that line to hold is attributed by some people to Sickles’ incompetence. After all, he didn’t have enough men to cover the line. Obviously, the fact that he doesn’t have the proper resources doesn’t mean that the position is a bad one. Could he have done a better job communicating the issues he was seeing to headquarters, and more forcefully requesting reinforcements? Sure. Could Meade have not ignored the concerns of his political general, and taken a closer look at the positioning of his entire army? Absolutely.

The two military virtues that Phil really saw Sickles living out were making decentralized command decisions, and being offensive-minded.

While many people will fault Sickles for disobeying orders (or at least being loose with their interpretation), my brother argues that it’s a positive thing. Sickles knew things that Meade didn’t, and rather than wait for permission, he took initiative and did what he could to counter the threat.

In taking his action, even in a defensive posture, Sickles was thinking aggressively. He was looking for a better position for his troops. He was actively seeking out threats to his front, and looking to deprive the enemy of the elements of surprise and superior terrain.

Yes – the III Corps took about 40% casualties on July 2, but with his line placed in the horrible position it was “supposed to be in”, do we really know that things would have turned out any better? Sickles’ move definitely caused the Confederates to change their attack plan, and delayed their advance significantly.

Like I said before, it’s very hard to do counterfactuals. You can never really know the answers to all the “what ifs”, but I think that my brother is right. Being on that ground you can tell that the Emmitsburg Road / Peach Orchard / Devil’s Den line is a much better piece of terrain than the marshy mess that the III Corps began the day with. And who knows – if Meade had been involved in making the move, and provided an adequate number of troops in the first place (instead of as last-minute reinforcements thrown in almost haphazardly), could that line have held against the single wave of Confederate attacks that came against it? I think it stood a pretty good chance.

We’ll never really know, and that’s part of the fun.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 5:30pm – Sickles’ Wound

Around this time 150 years ago, as Maj. General Daniel Sickles surveyed his line at the Peach Orchard from his headquarters at the Trostle Farm, his leg felt strange. When he bent over to feel into his boot, he sensed something wet.

Sickles’ leg had been hit by a 12-lb cannon ball, and the lower part of his shin was hanging limp. Despite the story you may have been told, he immediately started to panic. While aides pulled him off his horse and took him around behind the Trostle barn, he begged them not to let him get captured. He was placed in an ambulance and taken to the rear.

Sometime later that night, either at a III Corps field hospital along the Taneytown Road, or at the Daniel Sheaffer Farm, Sickles’ leg was amputated. Knowing that the army medical service was looking for examples of gruesome wounds to use for training material, Sickles used his political influence to have this leg placed in the Army Medical Museum, where he periodically visited it for the rest of his life.

Sickles’ Leg

A few weeks ago, I made a trip that I’ve been meaning to make for years – ever since I was a kid reading my old, beat-up Time-Life Gettysburg book.

Major General Daniel E. Sickles

Major General Daniel E. Sickles

Of course, the book talked about Maj. Gen. Daniel Edgar Sickles (who I’ve mentioned before) and his role as commander of the III Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Gettysburg. As you may have learned from my previous posts about Sickles, he suffered a serious wound on his right leg during the battle (as happens when a 12-lb cannon ball hits one’s shin) and had to have the lower part of that leg amputated.

My childhood Time-Life book describes his wounding and tells the story of how Sickles (knowing of the Army medical service’s new training and education initiative) used his political influence to have the bones from his amputated leg sent to the newly-created Army Medical Museum to be made part of their collection. Creepy as it may seem, he became a regular visitor at the museum, and would use the opportunity to spend some quality time with his lost appendage.

The Army Medical Museum no longer exists as an institution, but it has morphed into the National Museum of Health and Medicine and moved around a few times. The current building is in Silver Spring, MD just north of Washington, D.C. About a month ago, I found out that they were going to have a living history encampment at the museum, and I thought that would be a fun day for me and little John. I ended up inviting my friend John Dolan, and my mother-in-law along, too. My wife, sadly, had to work that day.

It’s a good, if somewhat small, museum. There are a number of examples of gruesome injuries on display – mostly from the Civil War era. They also have some artifacts from Presidential deaths. Slices of U.S. Grant’s tumor are displayed on slides in one of the cases, alongside the bullet-holed spine of James Garfield. There is also a collection of artifacts from Lincoln’s autopsy including small pieces of his skull, and the bullet that killed him. All of this in a free museum! If you’re visiting the Washington, D.C. area, and have any interest at all in medical history, it’s well worth the trip.

Toward the back of the museum is what I came to see: General Sickles’ leg along with an example of the type of artillery round that caused the wound.

Sickles' amputated leg

Sickles’ amputated leg

As far as I know, the leg has been displayed like this – semi-reassembled with the metal rods and the wooden base – for years. At least in the new museum, it doesn’t really have a flashy, special place. If you weren’t looking for it, you’d probably miss it.

Since I had heard the story of the leg since I was a kid, I couldn’t resist the chance to get a picture with it. I’m left wondering whether Sickles himself – eccentric old character that he was – ever did something similar.

Posing with General Sickles' leg

Posing with General Sickles’ leg

Daniel E. Sickles, Concluded

This article is the conclusion of my series on Union Major General Daniel E. Sickles during the Civil War. Before you read this one, you should go read the first and second installments to get the full story.

After Gettysburg, Dan Sickles’ career as a field commander was over. His missing right leg (and his utter lack of qualifications in the first place) assured that. He spent the rest of his Army career as a high-profile recruiter, and as a commander in a few of the departments that the military set up after the war to oversee Reconstruction. He was also involved in some covert diplomacy to ensure that the government of what is now Panama (in the era before we built the canal) would continue to allow our troops to cross their territory on the way to ships waiting in the Pacific.

By 1867, both his daughter, Laura and his wife, Teresa had died from disease. With nothing holding him in the U.S., Sickles took a post as the U.S. Ambassador to Spain during President Grant’s administration. It turns out that he did not have the temperament for diplomacy (I’m sure you’re surprised by that revelation). He did, however continue his womanizing in Europe (reportedly even having an affair with Queen Isabella II) and eventually married Carmina Creagh, the daughter of a Spanish government official.

Returning to the U.S., he served in a few local government roles in New York, most notably as the Chairman of the New York Monuments Commission – the organization that coordinated the funding and dedication of Civil War monuments for the state of New York. This kept him involved in veterans affairs and in Gettysburg, as a large number of monuments were placed there from New Yorkers. His involvement ended when an investigation found that over $25,000 (well over $600,000 in today’s dollars) had gone missing from the commission’s funds. Sickles was forced out on suspicion of embezzlement.

Sickles visiting Gettysburg

Sickles visiting Gettysburg with a few of his old subordinates.

One of the victims of the missing money was a monument to the Excelsior Brigade that was placed at Gettysburg. The loss of funds had left the monument missing one of the elements from its original design: appropriately, that was a bust of General Sickles.

He was re-elected to Congress in 1893 and his most notable contribution from his last term in office was sponsoring the bill that created the Gettysburg National Military Park. He helped to secure the purchase of land around Gettysburg that would become part of the park, and even found a fence to put around the National Cemetery (it was the fence that had been around Lafayette Park, where Sickles had shot Philip Barton Key years before). When asked by a reporter on a tour of the battlefield why there was no individual monument to him, like there was to all the other Corps commanders, Sickles supposedly replied with something to the effect of, “the whole place is a monument to Dan Sickles!” As we’ve seen, modesty was not his strong suit.

Sickles' Fence

The fence from Lafayette Park, now in Gettysburg, that was a witness to Philip Barton Key’s murder.

Adding to his mystique, Sickles was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg. The citation read:

“Displayed most conspicuous gallantry on the field vigorously contesting the advance of the enemy and continuing to encourage his troops after being himself severely wounded.”

Not to speak ill of the man, but this is just a little exaggerated, right? Especially that part about “encouraging his troops” that was probably inspired by the cigar-smoking legend I referenced earlier. You also have to remember that the Medal of Honor was newly-created for the Civil War and there were no lesser medals (Bronze Star, Silver Star, etc.) at the time, so you were either awarded the Medal of Honor or nothing (although as an officer, you could also be given a purely-honorary promotion called a “brevet“). Just to give you an idea of how loose the qualifications were in those days, there were scores of men who were awarded the Medal of Honor for picking up flags that had been dropped by the enemy.

Sickles died in 1914 at the age of 94 in New York. His funeral was held in New York City, and he was buried according to his wishes in Arlington National Cemetery, a controversial and fascinating character to the end.

Also – If you’re interested in learning more about Dan Sickles, may I suggest James Hessler’s outstanding book, Sickles at Gettysburg? While it focuses specifically on his involvement with Gettysburg (both during and after the war) it gives a good overview of his life in the process.

Daniel E. Sickles, Continued

This article is a continuation of my series on Union Major General Daniel E. Sickles during the Civil War. The first post can be read here.

So how did Dan Sickles end up in command of 10,000 troops at Gettysburg? Politics, that’s how.

For as much as we like to lionize Abraham Lincoln these days, we have to remember that he was a politician – and a damn good one. The Civil War was not popular among the opposition Democrats, who went so far as to describe the war as a purely political one against the south being played out by Lincoln. To them, this was “Mr. Lincoln’s Little War”.

Lincoln was a Republican President who needed the support of Democrats in Congress to continue the war. Sickles was a disgraced Democratic politician who needed to restore honor to his image. The result was inevitable. When Sickles became heavily involved in successful recruiting efforts in New York, Lincoln rewarded him with a commission as a Brigadier General.

As a result of more political maneuvering within the Army, Sickles eventually rose to the rank of Major General, and was given command of the 3rd Corps before the Battle of Chancellorsville, befriending fellow Generals Dan Butterfield and Joe Hooker (who was in command of the Army of the Potomac for the Battle of Chancellorsville) along the way. These three were kind of the frat boys of the Union Army.

General Hooker

Joe Hooker – Dan Sickles’ BFF.

At Chancellorsville, Sickles was ordered off of the best piece of ground for artillery on the field: Hazel Grove. Almost as soon as his troops left, the Confederates set up their own artillery and pounded the nearby Union line, forcing Hooker’s withdrawal.

Two months later, at Gettysburg, the memory of that last battle was fresh in Sickles’ mind. He entered the field at Gettysburg on the evening of July 1, 1863 by way of the Emmitsburg Road, next to a peach orchard that, like Hazel Grove, seemed like a great place for artillery.

By morning, Sickles was unhappy. He had been placed on the left side of the Union line, along the low rise of Cemetery Ridge. In front of him was a rocky, marshy, ugly piece of ground and a line of trees that obscured the view of his front and made artillery placement impossible. He found himself yearning to be in that peach orchard from last night. Eventually, he made his way up to Army headquarters where General Meade was much more concerned about the possibility of an attack from the right than he was about Sickles’ nonsense.

After a few unsuccessful lobbying attempts that morning, Sickles finally convinced Meade to send someone down to look over the 3rd Corps’ position with him. General Henry Hunt, who literally wrote the book on artillery prior to the war, accompanied Sickles to the southern end of the field to help him place his guns. It was clear that the position was horrible for artillery. When Sickles showed General Hunt his preferred location at the Peach Orchard, Hunt agreed that it would be more suitable, but reminded Sickles that he wasn’t authorized to order the move. Even if he were, Hunt said, it would be a good idea to scout out the woods nearby to make sure that there was no enemy force in there.

Sickles took the suggestion and sent a party of sharpshooters and a couple regiments of troops into those woods. Within minutes, they were skirmishing with hidden Confederate troops massing for an attack. Sickles felt that he had no choice – he had to move his line to the Peach Orchard – even without permission.

Sickles didn’t really care about getting Meade’s permission anyway. He didn’t like Meade: the stuffy, Old-Army officer who less than a week before had replaced his pal Hooker in command of the Army. Meade didn’t have a whole lot of respect for Sickles, either. Regular Army officers tended not to like non-professionals who were promoted into command positions with little or no training – especially when they were politicians.

From Army headquarters, Meade could see the 3rd Corps line breaking off and moving out to the exposed position at the Peach Orchard and along the Emmitsburg Road – a line nearly twice as long as they had been assigned to hold. He immediately sent to Sickles for an explanation, but heard nothing back. Meade had to go see for himself, but by the time he arrived, Sickles’ men were being attacked and it was too late to pull back. Meade sent for all available reinforcements to aid General Sickles.

The famous Peach Orchard, while good for artillery, did not prove to be very defensible, and it wasn’t long before it was being attacked from two sides. The position crumbled shortly thereafter.

Sickles' Wounding Monument

This marker on the Trostle Farm marks the spot of Sickles’ wounding.

Sickles could see all of this happening from his headquarters at the nearby Trostle Farm. As he was mounted on his horse, watching the collapse of his line, he felt something wet on his pant leg and, bending down to investigate, realized that a Confederate artillery round had flown right along-side his horse and smashed into his leg, leaving his shin bone shattered and this leg dangling lifelessly.

Some stories have him calmly requesting a stretcher and “cooly” smoking a cigar as he is carried to the rear. That’s a romantic legend that didn’t happen, though. Immediately after the wounding, Sickles was in hysterics – pleading with the officers on his staff not to leave him to be captured. He was successfully evacuated to a field hospital behind the 3rd Corps line, somewhere along the Taneytown Road. Once he was stable, he was transported to the Daniel Schaefer Farm on the Baltimore Pike to recuperate further. It was at one of these field hospitals that his right leg was amputated at the knee.

Most limbs amputated during the Civil War were simply discarded. There were piles of arms and legs outside of every field hospital. Medical techniques and training were also not very advanced. Most doctors during the Civil War had never seen the inside of a human body – operating on cadavers (even for training purposes) was illegal in most states. Since the skills and experience of the medical department was not up to snuff, the Army Medical Corps had put the word out by 1863 for people to come up with training materials and documentation on wounds and treatments.

Sickles knew about the training initiative. He used his political influence to have his newly-amputated leg saved and turned over to the Army Medical service, and it was placed (at his request) in the Army Medical Museum where you can still go visit it today (as Sickles himself did regularly for the rest of his life).

Sickles' Leg

Why not visit?

When he was well enough to be moved a greater distance, he got on the road to Washington, DC where there were larger established hospitals and politicians that Sickles could chat up about what REALLY happened in the late battle. Sickles claimed that if it weren’t for him, Meade would have retreated from Gettysburg to his preferred Pipe Creek Line, leaving the field to the Confederates who would have rightly claimed victory. He made enough noise (combined with the fact that the Confederate Army escaped relatively unharmed across the Potomac 10 days after Gettysburg) that it tarnished Meade’s reputation and led to hearings by the Committee on the Conduct of the War investigating Sickles’ accusations and Meade’s supposed lack of action.

We still argue about whether Sickles really deserves that “hero of the battle” title today. While his actions did spoil the element of surprise in the main Confederate attack on July 2, that attack was not very well executed itself, and probably only did as well as it did because the 3rd Corps was in an exposed position. Sickles hardly planned his own actions that day, too. His beef with Meade was not a disagreement about tactics or strategy, it was personal. Sickles purely wanted his old pal Hooker back in charge and used the best tool he knew in his attempt: politics.

While the battle itself was finished, Sickles’ impact on Gettysburg wasn’t over yet. But we’ll cover that in the final post….

Also – If you’re interested in learning more about Dan Sickles, may I suggest James Hessler’s outstanding book, Sickles at Gettysburg? While it focuses specifically on his involvement with Gettysburg (both during and after the war) it gives a good overview of his life in the process.

Daniel E. Sickles

Saturday marks the (probable) 193rd birthday of one of the most interesting characters in the story of the Battle of Gettysburg: Major General Daniel Edgar Sickles.

General Sickles

The man himself.

At Gettysburg, General Sickles commanded the Union 3rd Corps – a force of nearly 10,000 men – assigned to defend the left flank of the Army of the Potomac (AoP) on July 2, 1863. Sickles played a major & decisive role in the battle that day, but it is his story leading up to that point which provides the most drama.

Although most people don’t know of him today, in 1863, “Sickles” was a household name. Unlike most Generals in the AoP, he did not attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. He had no experience as a soldier. His experience was in politics, as a Democrat from New York. By age 22, he was a member of the New York State Assembly, and became involved in the Tammany Hall political machine. During his time in the state legislature, he was charged or indicted multiple times for misappropriating funds for projects he worked on. He was also accused of theft, brawling, and tampering with elections. There was even a time that he was censured by his colleagues for bringing a known prostitute into the chamber of the legislature as his guest (possibly as part of a vote-buying scheme of some kind).

At the age of 33, he married Teresa Bagioli, the 16-year old daughter of one of his friends (he had met his future wife when she was 2 years old). As you might guess, her family did not approve of the marriage, so the two were married in a small civil ceremony. She gave birth to a daughter named Laura not long after (although Laura’s actual birthdate is less than clear). Married life did not do much to affect Sickles’ womanizing ways however, and he continued to “cavort with low women” for most of his life.

Teresa Bagioli Sickles

Sickles’ wife, Teresa

In 1856, his Tammany connections got him elected to Congress, and Sickles moved his family to a very nice house in Washington, DC on Lafayette Park (just across the square from the White House). There are some questions as to how he was able to afford such a place, as the rent was more than he was making as a Congressman.

While Sickles was busy with his political career (and all those women), Teresa – as the wife of a Congressman – was expected to either attend or host a party nearly every night of the week. That’s just how things were in 19th century Washington. Since Congressman Sickles was so busy, it was considered to be perfectly acceptable – even encouraged – for Teresa to be escorted to these parties by another man. On a few occasions, she was escorted by a man named Philip Barton Key. Not only was Key an extremely handsome widower and a U.S. Attorney for DC, he was also the son of Francis Scott Key – a name familiar to Baltimoreans as the author of the Star Spangled Banner. Almost certainly aware of her husband’s own affairs, Teresa was enamored by Key and the two started a (not so) secret romance.

Key rented a house that he exclusively used as a hookup spot not far from Sickles’ place, and would walk to Lafayette Park waving a handkerchief in the air as the signal for Teresa to come and meet him for a rendezvous. Sickles was either too busy, or too stupid to notice that this was going on.

One day, Sickles received an anonymous letter (we still don’t know who sent it) laying out the details of what his wife was up to:

Dear sir with deep regret I enclose to your address the few lines but an indispensable duty compels me so to do seeing that you are greatly imposed upon. There is a fellow I may say for he is not a gentleman by any means by the [name] of Philip Barton Key & I believe the district attorney who rents a house of a negro man by the name of Jno. A Gray situated on 15th Street btw’n K & L streets for no purpose than to meet your wife Mrs. Sickles. He hangs a string out of the window as a signal to her that he is in and leaves the door unfastened and she walks in and sir I do assure you he has as much the use of your wife as you have. With these few hints I leave the rest for you to imagine.

Most Respfly

Your friend R. P. G.

Sickles didn’t believe it at first. It took a few more of his friends mentioning his wife’s odd behavior before he angrily confronted her. She confessed, and at Sickles’ request, wrote out a letter describing exactly what she had been up to. It was scandalous. Sickles sent Teresa back to New York, and became extremely upset. Key didn’t know that any of this was happening, and he continued with his occasional signaling from the park as before.

On February 27, 1859, Sickles happened to be looking out the window as Key waved his handkerchief. He absolutely lost it. Grabbing two pistols, he stormed out front to take his revenge. As he got closer to Key, Key started to panic and pleaded for his life as Sickles shot him at least twice and then calmly walked to the house of the Attorney General to turn himself in. Key died a few minutes later.

Sickles shoots Key


The trial was a media circus. It was the 19th-century equivalent of the O.J. Simpson trial – a celebrity sex scandal, turned murder. Unlike the Simpson trial though, Sickles had public opinion on his side. People in those days felt that if your wife was cheating on you, you should be able to take care of that situation yourself. His defense team was extremely innovative, devising an argument that had never been used before in American history: temporary insanity. The story was that Sickles went insane when he saw Key, killed him, and then clearly stopped being insane when he calmly turned himself in.

The jury bought it. Sickles was acquitted of murder charges.

Where Sickles went wrong was shortly after the trial. He came out and publicly forgave his wife for the affair. Public opinion instantly flipped on him. People thought, “if you could forgive her now, why couldn’t you forgive her before killing Key?” Sickles now had a PR problem.

So how does a shady politician who has quite literally admitted (in Federal court, no less!) that he was insane, end up in command of 10,000 troops at the pivotal battle of the Civil War? The answer (as you might imagine) lies in politics.

But that’s a story for another post….

Happy Birthday, Dan!

Also – If you’re interested in learning more about Dan Sickles, may I suggest James Hessler’s outstanding book, Sickles at Gettysburg? While it focuses specifically on his involvement with Gettysburg (both during and after the war) it gives a good overview of his life in the process.

Chapelgate Tour of Gettysburg

Last weekend, my church held a men’s retreat in Gettysburg, PA. Once that location was chosen, my pastor brought me in to the planning process with the idea that I’d lead a tour of the battlefield as a free time option for the men who were attending. While I was really excited about that part, the experience turned out to be so much more.

Our speaker for the retreat, Drew Derreth, gave some fantastic insights on the struggles we face as men. In many ways, he led us in sort of an “anti-men’s retreat”. We focused not on how to be big manly, go-get-’em men, but on how to acknowledge that none of us is really capable of being as strong as we’d like to be, and that we should embrace the path of weakness, humility, and grace.

Since the entire group would not be going on my tour, it was suggested that I give a quick “5 Minutes of Civil War History” talk at the beginning of each of Drew’s sessions, so that everyone would get a sense for the history that surrounded us in Gettysburg. I threw together some Keynote slides on three topics:

  1. What Brought the Armies to Gettysburg
  2. Major General Daniel E. Sickles
  3. Gettysburg Aftermath

The talks were well-received by the guys, and brought questions immediately after the sessions, so they worked as a nice ice-breaker for me with some of the guys I didn’t know at the church.

It was also super cool that one of the guys, Ken – a Civil War re-enactor – brought some of his artifacts along so there was some actual, tangible history in the room. That extra touch really brought it home in my opinion.

The tour took place on Saturday afternoon, and was scheduled as a 3-hour excursion during our free time. After a quick lunch at the always-awesome Tommy’s Pizza, we rolled out to the first day’s battlefield, and everyone got a hand-out with the list of stops and some maps for reference.

At the outset, I was a little nervous. This was the largest group I’d ever been with at Gettysburg, and the spotlight was entirely on me. I was the expert. But the tour went really well. It was an absolutely beautiful day, so the numerous photographers in the group had terrific conditions to capture the scenery and the monuments. Steve even got a great shot of the group at end of the tour:

Explaining the artillery barrage leading up to Pickett's Charge.

Explaining the artillery barrage leading up to Pickett’s Charge. Photo by Steve Dallwig

As much as I love being in Gettysburg and sharing the history surrounding that little town with other people, last weekend was about so much more than that. Even though I’ve been going to Chapelgate church services for several years with my wife, and have become really close with many of the staff members there, I haven’t really felt like I was part of the “community” until last weekend. We have a great group of men who really embraced me as one of their own, and I’m very thankful for that.


155 years ago today:

Sickles shoots Key


You may remember that I wrote about this a few years ago.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 6:00pm – The Peach Orchard

It was only a matter of time before the battle would reach Sickles’ salient at the Peach Orchard. The main weakness of a salient is that it can be attacked from two sides. That’s just what’s about the happen.

150 years ago right now, the division of Maj. General Lafayette McLaws – especially the brigades of Brig. General Joseph Kershaw and Brig. General William Barksdale – will come across the Emmitsburg Road, and strike the men of Brig. General Charles Graham. Within an hour of the first contact, the Union troops occupying the exposed position will be forced to withdraw in a somewhat less-than-organized fashion. The rest of Brig. General Andrew Humphreys’ division, holding the line going north along the Emmitsburg Road, will have to abandon their position a little after 7:00pm, too.

For the moment anyway, the Confederates will have a clear route to the Union rear. They’ll soon be within range to flank the II Corps. Someone on the Union side needs to take control here.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 4:15pm – Attacks on Devil’s Den

The part of SicklesIII Corps line that is farthest to the south is held by the brigade of Brig. General J.H.H. Ward. His left flank is resting on the end of Houck’s Ridge, at a unique rock formation known to locals as “The Devil’s Den“.

There are several stories about how this name came to be. One such story is about a large snake (so large that it was named “The Devil”) that had at one time made the area its home. Snakes aside, the place is full of dark crevices and caves between the rocks, and its size makes it somewhat forboding. You can see it being the kind of place that the Devil himself might feel at-home in.

The name of this place would take on a new meaning with the brutal fighting that would begin there right about now, 150 years ago.

Hood’s division would attack this area, by brigades, “en echelon”. There is some debate as to whether this move was brilliant, or an accident of mis-communication. Essentially, each of Hood’s four brigades would attack one at a time, from right to left along his front. His right-most brigades, commanded by Brig. General Evander Law and Brig. General Jerome Robertson, respectively, would take part in the attack on Little Round Top in a few minutes. His other two brigades, under Brig. General Henry Benning and Brig. General George Anderson, would assault Devil’s Den, and the Wheatfield, respectively.

Because of the way Devil’s Den extends a little farther south than other locations on the field, Ward’s and Benning’s men would start this fight, and it was extremely bloody combat. Within the first few minutes, Hood himself was wounded in the arm, and command of the division fell to Brig. General Law – a fact that led to communication problems and tactical uncertainty on the Confederate side.

The Union men held the good, high ground, but there weren’t enough of them to do it effectively. Capt. Smith, commanding the 4th New York Independent Battery had 4 of his 6 guns on the ridge to provide artillery support, and the other 2 (along with the men of the 4th Maine Infantry) were tucked behind, facing south to blast away at any Confederates attempting a flanking movement around the end of the ridge. Surprisingly, the position held for nearly an hour before being overwhelmed and flanked.

When the Confederates took Devil’s Den, it turned into a platform for sniping at officers on Little Round Top, and they were able to do quite a bit of damage that way, but they couldn’t convert it into further gains. The western slope of Little Round Top proved to be too difficult to assault directly.