Sickles at Gettysburg

Daniel E. Sickles is arguably the most controversial and complex Union general in the Civil War.  He made his national debut by pleading temporary insanity (first time in history) for the murder of his wife’s lover.  He followed this up with as a very controversial general of volunteers in the Civil War.  Most people know him as the man who almost cost the Union a loss at the Battle of Gettysburg.  Sickles spent the rest of his life defending his actions at Gettysburg and discrediting the performance of General George Meade during the Battle.  James Hessler examines the life of this very complex and interesting man in Sickles at Gettysburg.

The book is organized along the standard biography framework with the exception that it covers most of his early life in a few paragraphs and picks up with the murder and trial.  Hessler then describes Sickles’ political career prior to the war and how he schemed his way into command of a brigade of volunteer infantry at the onset of the Civil War.  Sickles schmoozed his way to corps command before Chancellorsville and served in that position until he lost his leg at Gettysburg.  Following Gettysburg, he never served in combat again.  However, he served as a congressman again and as Ambassador to Spain.

The most interesting parts of the book are how Hessler compares Sickles’ actions at Gettysburg and Sickles’ attempts to lie and misrepresent the facts afterward to cover for his poor judgement of moving his troops forward of the main Union defense line.  Hessler provides an objective analysis of what happened during the battle and the ramifications of the decisions made during the battle.

Hessler clearly states the arguments that Sickles used to move his troops forward – everything from unclear instructions to better terrain in the Peach Orchard than on Cemetery Ridge – and the arguments used against the move – it broke the straight defense line along Cemetery Ridge, created a salient that could be attacked from two sides, and left Little Round Top undefended.  As Hessler attests, Sickles took the low road in defending his decision – he attacked Meade for his vague orders and then diverted attention from his decision to Meade’s supposed order to retreat from Gettysburg.

The surprising part of the whole discussion of Sickles’ actions is how heated and how long the argument lasted.  Supporters of Sickles continued to defend his actions to the day they died (more than fifty years after the battle) – that says something of the loyalty Sickles received from those who served close to him.

What is lost in the arguments following Gettysburg is the good that Sickles did for the Gettysburg battlefield and its veterans.  Hessler correctly points to the work that Sickles put in to preserve the battlefield and to honor his Third Corps units via the erection of memorials on the battlefield (although Hessler points out that the memorials were another way for Sickles to manipulate the perception of the battle).

Hessler’s writing style is easy to read and his organization is well structured.  He includes many examples to support his arguments.  I will say that the plethora of examples of Sickles and his supporters’ attempts to defend his actions (especially after the war) are a little overwhelming, but I guess Hessler is trying to show how doggedly they defended him.

This is an excellent book for not only anyone interested in the Battle of Gettysburg, but also how far participants of an event will go to influence the perception of an event.

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