Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Review: Sickles At Gettysburg

Sickles at Gettysburg
By James A. Hessler

There are few people in history that stirred up as much controversy in their lifetimes as did Dan Sickles in his, and the subtitle of James Hessler’s recent biography, “Sickles at Gettysburg,” covers nearly all of it: “The Controversial Civil War General Who Committed Murder, Abandoned Little Round Top, and Declared Himself the Hero of Gettysburg.”

Mr. Hessler has written a fascinating biography of Daniel Edgar Sickles. It seems nearly everything in Sickles life is up for debate, even the exact date of his birth, as historical records differ, and even the General contradicts himself in various documents. Though briefly touching on other subjects, Mr. Hessler has done a good job of limiting his biography of Dan Sickles, concentrating it on the action on that fateful second day of July, 1862 and the ensuing controversy of Sickles’ actions on that day, and the debate that lasted for decades, while the General lived, and continues on, to a lesser extent, even today.

Even before the outbreak of the Civil War, and the Battle of Gettysburg, Dan Sickles had already made a name for himself, having used New York City’s Tammany Hall political machine, he became a United States Congressman. But the rising star of Dan’s political career, quickly came crashing to the earth when he, a rumored womanizer himself, shot and killed, Phillip Barton Key, his wife’s lover, and the son of Francis Scott Key, the author of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Never one to let adversity block his path, Daniel E. Sickles was the first person to successfully use temporary insanity as a defense, and was found “not guilty.”

Possibly seeking to rehabilitate his reputation with the public, once the Civil War broke out, he organized four regiments of infantry in New York, soon to be named “The Excelsior Brigade” and was himself appointed as a colonel of one of the regiments. Despite opposition from congress, Sickles was eventually appointed a Brigadier General and given command of the brigade. Shortly thereafter he was promoted to Major General and given command of the III Corps of the Army of the Potomac.

The single most controversial aspect of Sickles military career, and possibly of his life would end up to be his actions on the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 2, 1863, when either by insubordination or a misunderstanding of General George Meade’s orders, he abandoned his position on Cemetery Ridge and moved his III Corps approximately three-quarters of a mile forward to the peach orchard, in advance of the line of the rest of the Union Army, and nearly out of supporting distance from it. It was there that Sickles, was struck in the leg by a cannon ball, causing a severe injury, due to which the leg had to be amputated.

Sickles and those who supported him would spend the next five decades defending the move to the Peach orchard, and Mr. Hessler, gives a fair and balanced assessment of the argument in support and against Sickles’ actions. The author, is a steady moderated voice, leading his readers through the decades long debate, and doesn’t take one side or the other. He instead lets his readers decide the merit of the arguments for themselves, but does point out, that Sickles reputation is forever tarnished, not by his actions on that hot and humid day in July, but in his attempts to bend the historical record, in which ever way he needed, to present himself and his actions in the most favorable light.

Despite the many flaws in Dan Sickles’ character, Mr. Hessler also relates how Sickles was largely responsible for the preservation of the battlefields of Gettysburg, and the eventual creation of the Gettysburg National Battlefield, a legacy he left for generations to enjoy and study.

Dan Sickles is a complex historical figure, and James Hessler has done an exemplary job in writing his biography. His book is well researched and easily read. It is easy to hate Dan Sickles for the way in which he conducted his life, but had he conducted his life any other way, he would have never been so interesting. “Sickles at Gettysburg” is biography how it should be written.

ISBN 978-1932714647, Savas Beatie, © 2009, Hardcover, 432 pages, Photographs, Illustrations, Maps, End Notes, Bibliography & Index. $32.95


Jim Hessler said...

Mr. Miller,

Many thanks for the kind words and for an excellent review! As you clearly pointed out, my goal was to present both sides of the argument and let the reader decide. Everyone has an opinion on Sickles --which is one of the reasons why I wrote about him-- but he was never dull and we should thank him for his efforts in protecting and creating the Gettysburg National Military Park.

Jim Hessler
Gettysburg, PA

Jim Miller said...

Thanks Jim, for taking the time to comment on my review. I really enjoyed the book very much.