Monday, October 25, 2010

Daniel E. Sickles: through the perilous fights

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Congressmen with murderous tempers were not new to Philip Barton Key, but his prior experience had not exactly prepared him for the events of February 27, 1859. Key was used to handling such matters from behind a prosecutor's table. A few years before, his duties as the U.S. district attorney for Washington, D.C. compelled him to try Democratic Representative Philemon T. Herbert for a bizarre murder. Herbert's argument with a waiter at Willard's Hotel grew physical, and it culminated in the congressman taking out a pistol and shooting the waiter dead. Two trials later, Herbert was acquitted under arguments that included intimidation by other waiters during the scuffle.

The incident may have taught Key not to cross a congressman at breakfast, but it did nothing to suggest that sleeping with a representative's wife was a bad idea. Not long after the unsuccessful trial, Key had befriended incoming representative Daniel Edgar Sickles and his wife, Teresa. Sickles was more than twice Teresa's age, having married her in 1852 when she was 15 years old. He was also not the most dedicated family man, and his work in Congress in the tumultuous period leading up to the Civil War did nothing to improve matters. During his frequent absences, Teresa wound up spending more and more time with Key. Their relationship did not go unnoticed in the higher ranks of Washington society, but Sickles remained oblivious. That precarious balance continued for several months, until an anonymous tipster inadvertently caused one of the most talked about events in the nation's capital.

Sickles had left a wake of minor scandals through his career, but nothing to derail it. Born in New York City in October of 1819, he attended New York University for a time and apprenticed as a printer. He later changed his focus to law, was admitted to the bar in 1843, and started practicing in the city. Though he was charged with grand larceny three years later in the theft of an $800 deed, he was acquitted on technical grounds. Sickles' frequent dalliances with a prostitute named Fanny White also failed to throw him off the political track. Aided by the Tammany Hall machine, he became a member of the state assembly in 1847 and the corporation attorney for New York City in 1853. Sickles supported the idea of a central park in Manhattan, an idea which eventually came to fruition during his lifetime.

In 1853, Sickles was tapped to be secretary of the legation at London by Democratic President Franklin Pierce. The key goal of this body was to promote the freedom of the seas and convince the British government not to interfere in the American aspiration to acquire Cuba from Spain. Sickles spent two years in this position, but caused a few embarrassments along the way. In 1854, he refused to toast the health of Queen Victoria on the Fourth of July. He likely had a role in the Ostend Manifesto, a document boldly proclaiming that the United States would take Cuba by force if Spain did not part with the island peacefully. The ultimatum was not well-received in both Europe and the U.S., and Pierce was forced to distance himself from the manifesto. When Sickles returned from England, he soon wound up in the state senate. His time here was cut short when he was elected as a Democrat to the House of Representatives in 1856.

Sickles allied himself with the Southern, "Hardshell" wing of the Democratic Party. As crises related to slavery and the balance of power in Congress mounted, the Hardshells sought to preserve the union of states even if it meant the practice of slavery were to stay in place. To that end, Sickles supported the proposal by Democratic President James Buchanan to admit Kansas as a slave state. The measure passed the Senate, but ran into defeat in the House.

It was not long after he was returned for a second term in the House that Sickles was confronted with a bitter piece of news about his marital relations. On February 24, 1859, he received a letter signed only by someone identifying themselves as "R.P.G." This tipster, whom the New York Times later melodramatically dubbed an "enemy of mankind," suggested that Sickles' friend Key rented a house on 15th Street for no other reason than to meet clandestinely Teresa. "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," R.P.G. hinted. "With these few hints I leave the rest of you to imagine."

Sickles decided to embark on an investigation. Visiting the address, he questioned a few neighbors and found to his dismay that they readily recalled that a man and woman matching the description of Key and Teresa had regularly convened at the house. Sickles confided in a few friends, one of whom surveyed the house from a rented apartment across the street and turned up nothing. Sickles even had a brief glimmer of hope, when a witness recalled seeing Teresa on a date he knew her to be in another location; this quickly faded when it turned out that the witness had simply gotten the date wrong. Finally, Sickles confronted Teresa and forced her to write a lengthy and detailed confession when she admitted to the affair. "I did what is usual for a wicked woman to do," she concluded.

Key remained aloof of this development. So it was that three days after Sickles received the letter from R.P.G., several witnesses say Key loitering around the congressman's residence. At one point, he even made a clumsy attempt to signal Teresa, waving a handkerchief while petting the Sickles family dog after it ran out to see him. When Sickles finally saw Key outside, he was enraged. Though one of his friends, Samuel Butterworth, urged him to go the gentleman's route by challenging Key to a duel, Sickles would have none of it. He strode out to confront the district attorney, shouting that he was a scoundrel who had dishonored his house and threatening his life. He then took out a derringer and fired.

The first shot only grazed Key's hand. Key managed to grab hold of Sickles' coat collar, which was enough to prevent Sickles from firing again. Instead, he dropped his weapon and pulled free, only to take out a second gun and shoot again. This time, Key was struck in the leg near the groin. At some point during the struggle, Key took a pair of opera glasses he happened to have on him and threw them at Sickles, an attack which obviously didn't do much harm. With a serious wound, Key now begged Sickles not to kill him. Sickles ignored him, firing again. The gun misfired. He shot again, this time hitting Key in the chest. Even at this point, Sickles wasn't satisfied and tried to shoot Key in the head, only to have the fickle weapon misfire a second time. The incident took place in Lafayette Square, directly across the street from the White House.

Finally, the witnesses in the square interceded and Sickles surrendered his weapon. A surgeon had heard the shots and run to the scene, and Key was taken to a nearby house soon after. It was too late to do anything for the man, however, and he died before any medical treatment could be given. A White House page reported the matter to President Buchanan, a friend of Sickles. Whether he was ignorant of the judicial process or simply lying, Buchanan told the page that he could be detained indefinitely as a witness to the murder. He urged the page to flee the city, and he did. Teresa wasn't far behind. Her lover dead and her husband in jail, she returned to New York a disgraced woman.

Sickles was indicted for murder in March. His trial began the next month, after a lengthy jury selection in which numerous people admitted bias one way or another. The prosecution's case included evidence from the autopsy, which showed that Key had not been struck in the heart but rather died after his chest filled with blood from the wound. The one bullet retrieved from the body did not match the gun Sickles surrendered to authorities, so the prosecutor suggested that the congressman may even have had a third weapon. Their main argument was that Sickles had acted with malice aforethought, going so far as to deck himself out with multiple firearms before confronting Key.

In reply, Sickles' defense team tried out a rather risky argument: temporary insanity. The shock of learning about Teresa's affair, they argued, had driven him briefly out of his mind and caused him to gun down his friend and rival. It was the first time the argument was used in a court of law. The defense was easily able to dodge the testimony of numerous witnesses that Sickles didn't seem like a raving lunatic at the time of the shooting by simply pointing out that the witnesses had never been to an asylum, where plenty of committed people seemed perfectly normal on the surface.

Perhaps the most anticipated part of the trial never came about. After some debate, the judge opted not to admit Teresa's confession into the record. It leaked to the press soon after at any rate. As a result of this ruling, the judge also declined to admit similarly enticing evidence suggesting that Sickles himself had committed adultery with another woman in a Baltimore hotel. During the closing arguments, the defense reiterated their temporary insanity argument and suggested that one of the weapons dropped during the confrontation may have belonged to Key. The prosecution responded that Sickles had seemed normal before the shooting, attending his duties in Congress with no sign of mental disturbance and even making sure his remarks on a minor issue were recorded correctly.

After only 70 minutes, the jury returned a not guilty verdict. It may have been in error, since Sickles allegedly walked by the site with two friends not long after his acquittal and commented that he had meant to kill Key all along. Nevertheless, sympathy with Sickles was high since his action was seen in many quarters as a reasonable defense of his honor. One of the jurors told the press, "I would not have been satisfied with a derringer or a revolver, but would have brought a howitzer to bear on the seducer." So rather than the killing itself, Sickles got more flak when he and Teresa kept in contact with one another, fueling rumors that they were reuniting. They did keep in touch, but remained somewhat estranged.

Sickles was not very active in Congress following the trial, though after Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860 he blamed the increased threat of secession on abolitionists. Sickles even went so far as to say that if the North and South separated, New York City would break itself away from the country as well. "I tell you, that imperial city will throw off the odious government to which she now yields a reluctant allegiance; she will repel the hateful cabal at Albany, which has so long abused its power over her; and with her own flag, sustained by the courage and devotion of her own gallant sons, she will, as a free city, open wide her gates to the civilization and commerce of the world," he proclaimed. Once the Southern states actually did secede, however, Sickles pretty much flipped this opinion on its head and became a staunch supporter of Lincoln. "In all the partisan issues between the South and the Republican Party, the people of the city of New York are with the South, but when the South makes an untenable issue with our country, when the flag of the Union is insulted, when the fortified places provided for the common defense are assaulted and seized, when the South abandons its Northern friends for English and French alliances, then the loyal and patriotic population of that imperial city are unanimous with the Union," he said.

In this way, Sickles became a friend of Lincoln and was frequently able to meet with the President. He urged Lincoln to keep troops garrisoned at Fort Sumter, perhaps indirectly contributing to the attack there that would launch the Civil War. Sickles was not a candidate for renomination by the Democrats in 1860, likely due to his murder trial, but found himself with plenty to do when the war broke out. He committed himself to raising volunteers in New York, and within a month he helped to raise 40 companies totaling 3,000 men. Dubbed the Excelsior Brigade, the units were briefly threatened when Republican Governor Edwin Morgan asked him to disband all but eight of the companies since Sickles' top-notch recruiting was making it harder for the state to meet its own recruitment quota. Sickles thought it amounted to little more than political maneuvering, and won relief when he appealed directly to Lincoln.

Sickles now turned his focus entirely to the war. The Senate declined his nomination to brigadier general in March of 1862, but the appointment was confirmed by one vote in May. He saw action during the Peninsular Campaign, the aborted attack on Richmond from eastern Virginia, as well as Chancellorsville. He performed reserve duties during the battles at Fredericksburg and Antietam. He was promoted to a major general in 1863. Ultimately, Sickles would become best-known for his role in the Battle of Gettysburg, which caused even more controversy than his shooting of Key.

During the preparations for this battle in July of 1863, Sickles and his Third Corps were ordered to hold a portion of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Sickles noted that his ordered position left the high ground in front of him unoccupied, and thought leaving it to the Confederate Army would result in slaughter. He had already seen how the enemy's use of high ground in Chancellorsville had contributed to the Union defeat. He asked to advance, but never got an answer from General George Meade. Sickles took this as a license to move, and advanced the corps to the peach orchard atop the hill.

The move remains a disputed one. By advancing his troops, Sickles created a gap in the Union line and spread his troops more thinly than they would otherwise have been in their assigned position. Yet Sickles may well have been right in believing that the result of the battle would have been different if the Confederates had taken the orchard without any resistance. At any rate, Sickles' worst mistake may have been that he never passed on word of his new position, leaving nearby units to believe that he was still in his assigned location.

The Third Corps was subject to a major attack as the Confederates tried to break this weak point in the line. The soldiers held the line, but not without heavy losses. One of the casualties was Sickles, who was struck in the right leg by a cannonball while riding a horse on the second day of the battle. The impact was severe enough to shatter the leg into uselessness, but Sickles tried to keep up morale by looking nonchalant and clamping a cigar between his teeth as he was taken off to a field hospital. Surgeons amputated the leg partway up the thigh.

Lincoln visited him during his recovery, and soon after the draft riots in New York City the city council there ordered a gold medal struck for him. In October of 1897, Sickles would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg, namely "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 everyone was so satisfied with his performance. Meade complained that the three-quarters of a mile advance "nearly proved fatal in battle." Sickles fired back during testimony before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War, saying Meade was slow to act and missed the opportunity to destroy the Confederate army after the Union victory at Gettysburg.

Sickles was anxious to return to service, but Lincoln was understandably reluctant to do so given his injury. Instead, he gave him emissary duty in January of 1865. This meant Sickles spent several months in Greater Colombia (then comprising Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama) to convince the government to reopen the territory for Union troop crossings and to consider the possibility of taking in freed slaves after the war. At the same time, Sickles used his position to secure exotic animals for the Central Park Zoo.

Following the war, Sickles became the military governor of South Carolina and later North Carolina. One of his more notable actions came on the first day of 1866, when he overturned South Carolina's Black Code to give equal judicial rights to freed slaves. He also exempted freed slaves from special taxes and allowed them freedom of movement. President Andrew Johnson, who rose to power following Lincoln's assassination, was not as big a fan of Sickles' work as his predecessor and the two frequently clashed. Sickles thought Reconstruction should be managed by Congress rather than the White House. Johnson finally removed him from office when Sickles overextended his authority, using a military commission to try a local crook after the federal authorities declined to take the case.

Sickles returned to diplomatic work. After turning down an offer by Johnson to become Minister to the Netherlands and an offer by Republican President Ulysses S. Grant to become Minister to Mexico, he accepted an appointment as Minister to Spain. This once again put him in a position to discuss Cuban issues. Teresa died of consumption in January of 1867, and four years later Sickles remarried, this time to a woman named Caroline de Creagh whom he met at a diplomatic party in Paris. Sickles didn't see much of his new family either; he last saw a daughter de Creagh bore him when she was five years old, and then not again until 17 years later. Sickles' commission in Spain ended when he prematurely closed the American embassy in response to the execution in Havana of 53 Americans on board the ship Virginius, suspected of smuggling arms and revolutionaries into Cuba. The issue was resolved instead by direct communication between the Spanish government and the Secretary of State, leaving Sickles out altogether. He retired from the military in April of 1869 with the rank of major general.

Sickles returned the New York City and became involved in a numerous local offices, serving on the New York State Civil Service Commission and New York Monuments Commission and becoming sheriff of New York City in 1890. Two years later, he was returned to the House for a single term. Among his friends he counted James Longstreet, the Confederate general at Gettysburg, who said the position Sickles took in that conflict "saved that battlefield to the Union cause."

Accusations of fiscal mismanagement dogged Sickles from the larceny accusation on, and a few final instances of this occurred near the end of his life. Despite his father leaving him a $5 million estate upon his death in 1887, Sickles continued to run up debts. At one point, his wife had to sell her jewels to pay them off. Then in 1912, the state controller discovered a $28,476 disparity in the records of the New York Monuments Commission. The entire commission, including now 93-year-old Sickles, was suspect. He was arrested in January of 1913 by a reluctant and apologetic sheriff, but immediately bailed and allowed to remain at home. In April, the state decided not to press the case against him. Several people had made offers of financial support , but none materialized and the state was convinced he did not have the assets to make up the disparity.

In May of 1914, Sickles died of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was the last surviving corps commander from Gettysburg, and the third last surviving corps commander of the entire Union army. A piece of Sickles is still visible in the nation's capital today. The surgeon who amputated his leg knew the Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C. was looking for samples and sent the severed limb there. Today, Sickles' broken femur is still on display at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "Dreadful Tragedy" in the New York Times on Feb. 28 1859, "Sickles Indicted For Murder" in the Chicago Tribune on Mar. 17 1859, "Sickles In Custody For A Minute Only" in the New York Times on Jan. 28 1913, "General Sickles To Go Free" in the Gazette Times on Apr. 25 1913, "Gen. Sickles Dead" in the Star and Sentinel on May 6 1914, The Outlook Vol. 107, American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles by Thomas Keneally, Generals in Blue and Gray: Lincoln's Generals by Wilmer Jones, Wicked Washington: Mysteries, Murder, and Mayhem in America's Capital by Troy Taylor, The Second Day at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership edited by Gary Gallagher, Brigades of Gettysburg: The Union and Confederate Brigades at the Battle of Gettysburg by Bradley M. Gottfried

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