Union Army Major General Daniel Sickles > U.S. Department of Defense > History
Many Civil War Medal of Honor recipients did not receive their medals until well after the conflict ended. It’s no surprise, then, that Union Army Major General Daniel Sickles didn’t receive his medal until decades later. Although Sickles was instrumental in the creation of Gettysburg Battlefield National Park, he had a controversial life and he may be the only recipient to win the medal by disobeying a direct order.
Sickles was born to wealthy New York landowners, George and Susan Sickles, on October 20, 1819. Few details are known about his childhood, but scandal tended to follow him throughout his life.
Sickles studied at the City University of New York, now known as New York University, before studying law and taking the bar in 1846. His political connections earned him a post as corporate attorney for New York City legal affairs, as well as a state senate seat in 1847.
In 1852 Sickles married his much younger wife, Teresa. A year later they had a daughter, Laura. According to the American Battlefield Trust, Sickles often told people he was born in 1825. Historians believe he said this because his wife was about half his age and his, he wanted to look younger so that their age gap is less outrageous.
In 1856 Sickles was elected to the United States House of Representatives, so he and his family moved to Washington, D.C., where they lived a lavish lifestyle in a mansion near Lafayette Square across from the White House.
It was also well known that neither husband nor wife were exactly faithful to each other. Perhaps one of Sickles’ biggest scandals was his shooting and killing his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key, a prosecutor and the son of famed ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ author Francis. Scott Key. When the case was discovered in February 1859, Sickles shot Key three times in broad daylight. According to the American Battlefield Trust, future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton represented Sickles in what became the first use of temporary insanity as a successful defense.
Sickles was acquitted of the murder and even got his wife back, which came as a shock to Washington’s elite. According to the ABT, the Sickles have become social pariahs. Few people socialized with them, and one columnist noted that Sickles was “left alone like he had smallpox.”
War battles and disobeyed orders
Sickles continued to serve in Congress until March 1861, a few weeks before the start of the Civil War. He then joined the army, entering service as a colonel for the 70th New York Infantry. Later, he was appointed Brigadier General of the Volunteers and appointed Commander of New York’s Excelsior Brigade. In November 1862 he had been promoted to major general. He commanded a division at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862 before being put in charge of the Third Corps before the Chancellorsville campaign in the spring of 1863.
In Chancellorsville, Sickles argued over orders given to him by his superior. He did it again at Gettysburg – this time disobeying direct orders from Major General George C. Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac. Amazingly, instead of receiving a reprimand, Sickles won the Medal of Honor.
The actions for which he won it occurred on July 2, 1863, the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Sickles, still in command of the Third Corps, was ordered to occupy Little Round Top, a small hill on the Union Army’s left flank. Instead, he moved his men to Peach Orchard about a mile away. The ABT said that as a result of his challenge, Sickles lost his leg and Third Corps was overrun and driven from the field.
According to a 1902 New York Tribune article, Sickles had been hit by a cannonball in the right leg and put on a stretcher after his boot filled with blood. Somehow it was reported that he – their commander – was dead, so the demoralized troops began to fall back. To boost their cooled spirits, Sickles ordered him to stay in line in the stretcher. “To further reassure his men that he was still alive, he sat down and smoked a cigar,” the article read.
Sickles did not receive the Medal of Honor until nearly 35 years later, on October 30, 1897. According to the citation, he “displayed most conspicuous gallantry in the field, vigorously contesting the advance of the enemy and continuing to encourage his troops after being seriously wounded himself.”
Despite the disaster that unfolded when Sickles disobeyed a direct order, the Union still managed to hold the line that day and won the crucial battle. Sickles’ actions have been debated ever since and are one of Gettysburg’s most enduring controversies, said James Hessler, Civil War author and licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg National Military Park.
Meanwhile, Sickles’ leg was amputated above the knee while he was still on the pitch. He was transferred to a DC hospital the next day and recovered enough to get back on the horse two months later, according to the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Sickles donated the limb to the Army Medical Museum. It is now known as NMHM as mentioned above, and it still retains the exposed bones to this day. According to the museum, Sickles visited the limb for years after donating it, often bringing guests including Mark Twain.
After the war, Sickles served in numerous government positions, including as sheriff of New York, as chairman of the city’s Public Service Commission, and as a foreign diplomat in Colombia. During a stint as military governor of South Carolina, Sickles was tasked with assessing the effects of slavery on black people and making suggestions for future reconstruction.
Sickles’ disgraced wife, Teresa, died of a persistent cold in 1867. Sickles then spent most of the 1870s living abroad. In 1871, while working as the United States Minister to Spain, he married another woman, Caroline, who was only a few years older than his daughter, Laura. Around the same time, Sickles and Laura broke up. Sadly, she died years before him, in 1892 at the age of 38, according to a 1945 New York Daily News article.
Sickles and his second wife had a son, Stanton, and a daughter named Edna. But eventually Caroline also moved away from Sickles. Daily News sources said she refused to leave Spain when he was set to return to America, so she stayed while he returned alone.
A leader in battlefield preservation
Upon his return, Sickles saw Civil War veterans begging for money and was so moved he decided to become more involved in veterans affairs, author Hessler reported. This included revisiting the Gettysburg Battlefields – visits that led him to be instrumental in the early preservation and development of Gettysburg Battlefield National Park.
In 1886, the New York State Landmarks Commission was established, and Sickles was named its chairman. His role: to oversee the placement of monuments at Gettysburg that highlighted the contributions of New York soldiers to the battle.
Sickles was also reelected to Congress in late 1892, more than 30 years after he originally left office to join the war effort. During his second term, he actively advocated for veterans affairs and all things related to the Gettysburg battlefield. In 1893, he played a key role in stopping the commercial destruction of the battlefield – although the federal government’s ability to purchase the land for preservation came only after his death more than 20 years later. In February 1895, he pushed through Congress legislation that made the area an official park, even establishing its original boundaries, which remained unchanged until 1974, Hessler reported.
In 1912 Sickles was involved in another scandal. He was removed from his position as chairman of the New York State Landmarks Commission after an audit of the commission’s books revealed that about $28,000 was missing, Hessler reported. Then, in the early 90s, Sickles was in failing health, and most involved in the case assumed the lapse was due to his inability to manage the finances of a large organization – not by any means. sly.
Sickles died of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 3, 1914 in New York City, with his estranged wife, Caroline, by his side. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
While controversy often followed his name, Sickles’ legacy can be seen all over Gettysburg. Sickles Avenue is a prominent thoroughfare that runs through the park, while various monuments and markers commemorate him and describe his unit’s efforts.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday”, in which we highlight one of more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have won the highest medal of bravery in the US army.