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This Day in History: The controversy surrounding Union Major General Daniel Sickles

On this day in 1819, future Union Major General Daniel Sickles is born in Manhattan. I’m afraid that he was not one of history’s more admirable characters! But he certainly received a lot of attention during his day.


Two stories are typically told about Sickles. You will like one of them more than the other, I suspect.

First, Sickles is responsible for the death of Francis Scott Key’s son. (See attached picture.) By way of background, Sickles had married a woman *much* younger than himself. When he was nearly 33 years old, he married Teresa Bagioli, who was then about 16. Almost seven years into their marriage, he received an anonymous letter accusing her of infidelity with Philip Barton Key.  Sickles was an adulterer himself, but never mind all that…. He was outraged! He found and shot the unarmed Key in the middle of Washington’s Lafayette Square.


Sickles was charged with murder. The case has been described as the “O. J. Simpson case of the time—and like Simpson, Sickles assembled a legal ‘dream team’ that overwhelmed an incompetent public prosecutor.” Sickles claimed that he was “under the influence of a diseased mind.”  It worked. For the first time in American history, a defendant was acquitted on a claim of temporary insanity.  Then he publicly took his wife back. The public was puzzled, to say the least.


It was a bit of a soap opera, I suppose, but Sickles won the public confidence back because of a sacrifice that he made at Gettysburg. Well, he sort of won confidence back.


Sickles was ordered to occupy a stretch of Cemetery Ridge on the second day of that battle. Sickles didn’t think too much of that order, and he moved his men forward even further. Some say that his move saved the Union line, if only by accident. Others say that he spread his troops too thin and diluted its defensive abilities. Either way, he was badly injured by a cannonball because of his decision. As he was carried away to be treated, he reportedly puffed on a cigar and grinned at his troops. You can imagine that his boisterous attitude buoyed their spirits.


In the end, Sickles had to have his leg amputated. He donated his leg to the army’s medical museum. Believe it or not, his leg can still be found on display today at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.


The long and short of all this? Well, if we are to know our history, we must know all of it. Even the fact that it included the heroics—or attempted heroics—of a few less than admirable characters! No one and no country is perfect.


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