Civil War Talk Radio: September 4, 2009

by Brett Schulte on September 4, 2009 · 1 comment

Air Date: 090409
Subject: The “Two Battles” of Gettysburg and Union General Dan Sickles
Books: Sickles at Gettysburg: The Controversial Civil War General Who Committed Murder, Abandoned Little Round Top, and Declared Himself the Hero of Gettysburg
Guest: James A. Hessler

Summary: Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide (LBG) James A. Hessler talks about the controversial and colorful Dan Sickles and his attempts to declare himself the hero of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Brett’s Summary: This week’s topic is the controversial Dan Sickles and his attempts to make himself the hero of Gettysburg.  As Gerry points out, the subtitle only hints at the crazy life of Sickles.  Author James A. Hessler has been a Licenced Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg since 2003, and his inspiration for the book came from the unending questions he has gotten over the years about Sickles’ decision to move forward on July 2 and his role in the battlefield park in its early history.  The Civil War is not Jim Hessler’s day job.  In addition to being a Licensed Battlefield Guide, Hessler works in banking.  Gerry’s interest in this colorful figure originated in elementary school during a trip to Gettysburg.  He asked a Park Ranger about Sickles’ controversial move forward and the ranger told him to read a biography of Dan Sickles.  He did, and his interest was cemented from that point forward.

Gerry believes Hessler’s thesis is that no matter what Sickles did on July 2, Sickles hurt himself more after the battle in the court of public opinion with his incessant attempts to proclaim himself the hero of the battle.  Hessler responds by saying there were a lot of mistakes made in the Civil War, but that students of the conflict do not hate the men who made these mistakes as much as they do Sickles.  He says most people who hate Sickles do so mainly because of the way he treated George Meade after the battle.

Sickles’ life was full of outrageous things.  Gerry asks Hessler to name a few, and the one most people have heard of is his murder of Philip Barton Key, the son of the Star Spangled Banner’s writer Francis Scott Key.  The younger Key had been having an affair with Sickles’ wife.  Sickles was acquitted after he pled not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.  Hessler believes his acquittal was more due to the era’s strong disapproval of adultery.  Interestingly, Sickles took his wife back immediately after the trial.  Hessler notes public opinion turned against him at that point.  He was a Tammany Hall politician, with all of the corruption that goes along with that, and tried to pass off a known prostitute as his wife!  Needless to say, Sickles led a colorful and controversial life.

When the war started, Dan Sickles created the “Excelsior Brigade” of New York regiments.  Hessler says that Sickles often found himself in the right place at the right time, and the Civil War was just such a time.  Several apocryphal stories about the raising of this brigade sprang up during and after the war.  Sickles had only some militia background as far as military experience went.

The Army of the Potomac, as Gerry points out, was a great place for a political general like Dan Sickles.  He became a brigade commander under Joe Hooker.  Sickles rose with Hooker on Fighting Joe’s ascendant path to the command of the Army of the Potomac, eventually becoming commander of the AotP’s III Corps before the Chancellorsville Campaign.  Hooker, his chief of staff Dan Butterfield, and Sickles were looked upon with disgust in some circles of the Army of the Potomac.  Hessler made a point in his book that Sickles’ III Corps saw Jackson’s Corps at Chancellorsville making their flank march, though they did not know exactly what it meant.  Sickles thought Lee’s army was retreating.  Obviously that didn’t come to pass.

Some have said that the Confederate occupation of high ground at Hazel Grove on May 3 affected Sickles at Gettysburg and influenced him to move forward.  Hessler, however, never found any words from Sickles mentioning that as an influence.  Rather than Hazel Grove, Sickles always seemed to focus on Jackson’s flank attack first and foremost.  E. Porter Alexander thought Hazel Grove might have influenced Sickels on July 2, but that was the only Hazel Grove/Sickles reference the author found.

After Chancellorsville, George Meade was placed in charge of the Army of the Potomac.  According to Hessler, Sickles and Hooker “don’t place nice together.”  He disputes the contention of some that the Meade-Sickles feud began on July 2, saying it started long before the Battle of Gettysburg and that they were just two very different people. On June 30 and July 1, Sickles and Meade sent a series of confusing messages to each other discussing whether or not Sickles should stay at Emmitsburg or move his corps up in support of Reynolds’ I Corps.  He eventually arrived on the night of July 1 and was ordered to take up a position on the left of Hancock’s II Corps.

The true controversy began here.  Sickles did not stay to the left of Hancock, instead advancing several hundred yards to occupy higher ground along the Emmitsburg Road.  Ultimately, Hessler concedes, Sickles did not have direct orders for this movement.  He believes the largest flaw of Sickles’ position is that it was too long for the number of men in the III Corps.  In practice the equivalent of several corps could not even hold it.

Hessler’s version of Longstreet’s attack is not the precisely executed echelon attack commonly relayed in popular history.  His studies of the attack showed many Confederate Brigade commanders wondering where the neighboring brigades were, showing there was much confusion on the Confederate side.  Regardless, the III Corps was driven from their positions and Sickles had his lower leg nearly torn off by Rebel artillery.  The story of Sickles smoking a cigar as he was being carried away to inspire his troops is not true, according to Hessler’s research.  First person accounts showed Sickles as being in shock and his men resorting to giving him painkillers.  He may have had a cigar in his mouth, but Hessler does not believe Sickles knew what was going on at that point.  Sickles leg had to be amputated, he had it preserved, and led a long life after the Civil War.

Ever after, Sickles claimed his men served as a “shock absorber” to blunt Lee’s men until reinforcements came.  Hessler concludes that Sickles moved into a weaker position along the Emmitsburg Road.  However, he points out that Longstreet’s men suffered severe casualties taking positions which were of no benefit to the Confederates.  Sickles did quite a bit to get Hooker back into command during the war.  “Historicus”, an anonymous writer, sent in an articles to various newspaper s defending Sickles’ performance at Gettysburg.  Although he could not prove it, Hessler believes “Historicus” was obviously Dan Sickles.  He compared these articles to the speeches of Dan Sickles in coming to this conclusion.

Civil War Talk Radio airs most Fridays at 12 PM Pacific on World Talk Radio Studio A. Host Gerry Prokopowicz, the History Chair at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, interviews a guest each week and discusses their interest in the Civil War. Most interviews center around a book or books if the guest is an author. Other guests over the years have included public historians such as park rangers and museum curators, wargamers, bloggers, and even a member of an American Civil War Round Table located in London, England.

In this series of blog entries, I will be posting air dates, subjects, and guests, and if I have time, I’ll provide a brief summary of the program. You can find all of the past episodes I’ve entered into the blog by clicking on the Civil War Talk Radio category. Each program should appear either on or near the date it was first broadcast.

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