Transcript for James Hessler on "Sickles at Gettysburg"

Jim Fleming: OK, so we might not have a perfect definition of the word scoundrel.  But we can certainly agree on one thing.  Civil war general and US congressman Daniel Sickles was the epitome of a scoundrel.  Seriously.  I mean, check out this list.  Murder, political corruption, affairs with queens and prostitutes.  And there's more than meets the eye about that leg he lost at Gettysburg.  James Hessler is a civil war guide at Gettysburg, and the author of 'Sickles at Gettysburg'.  He filled in all the details, and then some.  Like this issue of murder.

James Hessler:  Well I should point out in fairness, that he was an acquitted murderer, but a murderer, embezzler, adultery.  Kind of the stereotypical, corrupt, Tammany Hall politician of the 1850s.  He came up through the streets of New York City through Tammany Hall's rough and tumble politics.  I think a lot of the lessons that he learned, early in life, fighting his way through Tammany Hall, really kind of carried him through the long political and legal career that followed.

Fleming:  Almost hard to decide where to start in talking about Dan Sickles, but let's go to the murder first, because as you say, he was acquitted of that murder, but there isn't any question that he actually killed the son of Francis Scott Key.

Hessler:  No, there's really no question today that he killed Mr Key, but what was in question at the time, was were his motives valid or not.  Key was having an affair with Sickles' young wife, and Key was a district attorney in Washington, while Sickles was a newly elected congressman, so these are two guys, in the early stages of the James Buchanan administration who both have really high-flying careers in Washington.  Well, unfortunately, Key takes a shining to Mrs Sickles, and over the course of several months, Mrs Sickles and Key embark on this affair.  Sickles finds out about it because one night he receives an anonymous note in the mail, and the following day Sickles confronts Key on the streets of Washington and shoots him dead in Lafayette Square, which is - if you know Washington DC - a park, literally right across from the White House.  This murder is committed literally within a stone’s throw of the White House, in broad daylight, in front of plenty of witnesses.  Again, there's no question in anybody’s mind whether or not Sickles did it.

Fleming:  What happened after this?  There were a lot of witnesses, it was, as you say, in front of the White House.  He shot him, not once, not twice, but three times.


Hessler:  At least, and probably more if the gun had not misfired a couple of times.  A way to get an easy laugh on your battlefield tours is to kind of refer to Dan Sickles as the O.J. Simpson of Gettysburg, because as you alluded to in your question, in terms of sensational murder trials, you could not ask for a better story.  It has everything, it had celebrities at the time, national celebrities, public figures, sex and adultery, which you can imagine in that era was extremely scandalous.  Testimony and Teresa's confession were censured in some markets, including San Francisco of all places for being obscene.  It was extremely scandalous, with all of these titillating details within the trial.  Congressman Sickles turned himself in, and basically assembled the equivalent of the Dream Team.  He's got a lot of friends, he's got a lot of influence, he's a great friend with President Buchanan.  They come up with this extremely novel defense, which ultimately will acquit him of the crime.

Fleming:  We should mention what that extremely novel defense is, because it doesn't seem novel at all in modern terms, but at the time it had never been used before, right?

Hessler:  That's correct.  What happens is Sickles' Attorneys basically present this case before the judge and the jury that Teresa Sickles and Mr Key - Philip Barton Key - in having this affair, that basically by the moral codes and the standards of the time, that they were the ones who were in the wrong, and that Sickles was actually in the right for protecting his wife, who is considered his property.  But the defense thing goes a step further and basically tells the judge and the jury that the thought, the very thought of Sickles' wife sleeping with another man, basically drove Sickles crazy, and that he had killed Key in one of these temporary fits of passion, or what has become known today as the temporary insanity defense.  It's believed that the Sickles trial was the first time that this was ever used successfully in front of an American jury.

Fleming:  You can look at it, and you can start there, and you can sort of understand, given the time, that that would happen.  It might be worth mentioning though, that already by this time, if I'm right about the history, he had been censured by the New York Assembly for bringing a prostitute into the Assembly with him.  That doesn't exactly fit with the high moral standards of the day, does it?

Hessler:  It doesn't, and that's what a lot of people find hypocritical about both Sickles and the case in general, and Sickles is a chronic womanizer throughout his entire life, both from his early age, literally up until he dies.  So he's a chronic womanizer, and he seems to have a propensity for favoring prostitutes.  The story that you alluded to there in his early years, before he had been married, he had carried on an affair with a prostitute in New York city by the name of Fanny White.  She had run a high-end bordello in New York City, and prior to Sickles being married, he had carried on a fairly long-term relationship with her.  There are Sickles stories floating around today, that for example, when he was in England, he bought this prostitute over to England with him, and introduced her to Queen Victoria, and allegedly created a great scandal because of that, and that also when he was in the New York Assembly as you alluded to, he was censured by his outraged colleagues for bringing her onto the floor of the Assembly.

Fleming:  This is the fascinating thing, isn't it.  Because you have this, these scandals in New York politics, then you have the murder in front of the White House when he's in congress.  Stays in congress after that because he's acquitted of the murder, and then becomes a friend of the Lincoln family.

Hessler:  One of the things that's interesting about this guy, and I think makes him a quintessential American, is he is always able to sort of reinvent himself and shift from one career to the other, so when the civil war starts, I think he's a very patriotic guy, but I also think he sees an opportunity here to possibly raise troops and kind of get back into the public limelight.  It's through the raising of troops, he runs into political opposition, he becomes friends with the new president in Washington, a guy by the name of Abraham Lincoln.  That's sort of how that relationship starts.

Fleming:  What's fascinating again about this, as you say, he reinvents himself, but what's fascinating about it, is that he reinvents himself as a soldier, with absolutely no experience whatsoever.  Well, let's skip ahead, to the key moment in his life, if you'll forgive the pun, I didn't mean it.  Skip ahead to the battle at Gettysburg.  He was a major general, he had his troops there, but he was under the command of General Meade.  Can you just kind of layout what happened at Gettysburg for us?

Hessler: Absolutely.  At Gettysburg he commands the third corp of the Union Infantry, which is about eleven thousand men.  By this time Sickles has risen up through the ranks and is the highest ranking non West Pointer, non professional solider in the Union Army.  So he's a very high ranking guy, and he's got a key position.  To make a somewhat long story short, on the eve of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania native, professional solider by the name of General George Meade has just been given command of the Union Army of the Potomac on the eve of Gettysburg.  But what happens, is Meade and Sickles hate each other’s guts.  They have a long personal professional history together, they're just two very different guys.  Sickles is the wild womanizer and the partier.  Meade is the conservative, stay at home family man, so these are just two very different guys, in and above their differences in professional training.  So anyway, at Gettysburg, as it turns out, on the second of July 1863, which is essentially the second day of the battle, Sickles' corp is ordered by General Meade to basically hold the left flank or the left end of the Union Army.  Sickles doesn't like the position he's ordered to be in, and it's literally a disaster waiting to happen.  What happens is that when the Confederate Army begins its attack in the afternoon of July second, Sickles decides that without orders, and without telling General Meade, he's going to move his eleven thousand guys into a different position, a position that General Meade does not realize Sickles should be in, so when the Confederates attack, much to General Meade's surprise, the entire left flank of the Union Army is out of line, and in a position today that most historians agree is in a weaker position than the one General Meade wanted to put him in.  When the confederates attack, Sickles just takes this onslaught of this attack, and many historians and critics have been arguing ever since, did he almost lose the battle for the Union Army as a result?

Fleming:  Or, did he, as he always said, win the Union battle?

Hessler:  See, that's one of the things that I find fascinating about him, he's an early example of what we call 'spin' today.  After the battle, to sort of blunt criticism against him, some people were starting to say he almost lost the battle, obviously he wanted to put a good face on the battle for his friend Abraham Lincoln and things like that, Sickles starts a very elaborate spin campaign, which is going to go on for the next fifty years of his life, that not only did he not potentially lose the battle, but he actually forced General Meade into fighting at Gettysburg, and that you really deserved to give him a lot of the credit for winning the battle at Gettysburg.

Fleming:  He managed to put a good spin on most things.  One of the things we haven't talked about is that his leg was shattered by a cannon ball at Gettysburg, right?

Hessler:  That's another famous Sickles anecdote.. During the closing phases of fighting on July second, he's trying to rally his troops, as his lines are literally falling apart, and a confederate artillery shell comes over flying in his direction, basically smashes into his right leg, and he is carried off the battlefield where his leg is amputated that night.  His military career really ends at Gettysburg, because now that he's missing a leg, General Meade - remember Meade hates his guts anyway - can now use the missing leg as one of the reasons to keep him from coming back to the army.  Sickles though uses that missing leg really to great advantage.  He spends the rest of his life, this spin campaign we've been talking about, part of the spin campaign is basically telling people "Look at my missing leg, look at this great sacrifice that I made for the Union cause."

Fleming:  It's not just that is it?  It's the nature of this guy, that he had his leg cut off, but he wouldn't let them throw it away.

Hessler:  That's right, he wouldn't let them throw it away, so one of the well known stories with Sickles is that the leg was donated in a nice coffined box to the fledgling Army Medical Museum in Washington DC, which until very recently was at Walter Read.  Mark Twain got to know Sickles late in life.  Twain wrote about sickles that basically he said, "I think General Sickles values the leg that he's lost more than the one that he's still got, and if he had to lose one, I think he would rather lose the one that he still has.".  I think that is kind of a good quote on how Sickles treated that missing leg.

Fleming:  James Hessler is a civil war guide at Gettysburg, and he is the author of 'Sickles at Gettysberg'.  Sickles' life didn't end there, he was appointed to Spain as a diplomat, where he almost started a war, and had an affair with Queen Isabella II.  If you would like to see that famous leg you can go to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silverspring, Maryland, or you can come to our website to see a photo.

Comments for this interview

sickles marito di Teresa Bagioli (lelio burgini -cesena-italy, 09/30/2014 - 3:33pm)

una donna di origine italiana la cui famiglia è ancora presente nella citta' di Cesena.
Per noi queste vicende sono state scoperte solo recentemente ,
ma ritengo che un libro sulla storia di Sickles avrebbe successo anche in Italia.
segnalo il sito dove si cita il caso Sickles Bagioli.
lelio burgini

Sickles (Bill Moore, 03/22/2012 - 3:54pm)

Great interview. Excellent book, too.

General Daniel Sickles (peg sickel hertrich, 03/19/2012 - 2:09pm)

This is the blood in my veins!

Sickles at Gettysburg (Savas Beatie, 03/15/2012 - 1:23pm)

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