Review: Sickles at Gettysburg: The Controversial Civil War General Who Committed Murder, Abandoned Little Round Top, and Declared Himself the Hero of Gettysburg

Sickles at Gettysburg: The Controversial Civil War General Who Committed Murder, Abandoned Little Round Top, and Declared Himself the Hero of Gettysburg
by James A. Hessler

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Savas Beatie (June 29, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1932714642
  • ISBN-13: 978-1932714647

SicklesAtGettysburgJamesAHesslerIf this were fiction, I would say the author’s main character is not credible.  It would be impossible for one man to have so many escapades and not be publicly ruined.  However, this is not a work of fiction but the biography of a very unique and controversial individual.  Daniel E. Sickles managed to pack more into his long lifetime than most people could in two or three lifetimes.  His exploits and views make for hot debates on the Internet and at Round Tables, over eighty years after his death.  These debates show no signs of ending, as Sickles is an integral part of the American Civil War having a direct influence over the Battle of Gettysburg and the history of the battle.

James A. Hessler brings a wealth of information and a quite authority to the subject.  He is a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg, teaches college courses on Sickles and Gettysburg and speaks on the subject.  This shows in his informative readable text and the impressive footnotes supporting his statements.  While a very serious history, this is not a dull overwritten book.  Sickles is a lively character and the author maintains this level of energy throughout the book.  This is a Savas Beatie book, as expected it contains a series of excellent illustrations and maps in the right places.  It is a quality book with excellent paper that is a joy to hold and can be given with pride.

What is in the book?  The author concentrates on the murder of Key, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Second Battle of Gettysburg and Sickles’ role in the establishment of the National Military Park.  While a full biography, including his many affairs, estrangement from his children, financial ups & downs, elections and offices, the concentration produces both a biography and a history making a much stronger book.

In 1859, Congressman Sickles murdered Philip Barton Key.  Key and Sickles wife were having an affair that they made little effort to hide.  Sickles publicly hunted down the unarmed Key and shot him several times.  The resulting trial and scandal are part of American lore.  The author examines the trial showing where and why what we think is right and wrong.  The result is a look at the 19th Century double standard and what we call “stand your ground” laws.  Sickles political carrier is shattered and his social standing ruined.

In 1863, Major General Daniel Sickles commands the Third Corps Army of the Potomac.  How that happens gives the reader a look at the system of “Political Generals” and the need for “War Democrats”.  A detailed examination of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg cover about 200 pages, the majority being Gettysburg.  Both battles have excellent maps, allowing the reader to easily follow the battles.  This is some of the best work on Sickles’ actions I have read.  The author considers all the questions providing intelligent answers, well supported with excellent footnotes.  I found this slow going, not because it was boring but because the footnotes became required reading.

The Second Battle of Gettysburg and the establishment of the National Military Park consumed the balance of Sickles active life.  He attacked General Meade over a number of points, magnified his contribution to victory and defended his advance for 50 years.  During that time, he had a number of allies and detractors.  While the details change, with time, the theme is consistent.  This battle, the establishment of the National Battle Park and the New York State Monument Commission scandal cover about 175 pages.  Again, the author presents all sides of the questions supporting his conclusions with solid footnotes that are required reading.  While his public life generally is going well, his private life is falling apart.  This is not the main story but the author never forgets that Sickles is a person with a family.  “The Civil War is Only a Memory” is a 30-page essay on America’s view of the war as it entered the 20th Century.  The 20-page Epilogue is required reading for anyone interested in Sickles or Gettysburg.

If this book is not a finalist for or winner of Civil War book prizes in 2010, I will be surprised.  While I dislike using definitive or saying this is the final word on a subject.  This book is very close to deserving those words.

Editor’s Note: Jim is a Top 500 reviewer.

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One response to “Review: Sickles at Gettysburg: The Controversial Civil War General Who Committed Murder, Abandoned Little Round Top, and Declared Himself the Hero of Gettysburg

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