Many Civil War Medal of Honor recipients didn’t get their medals until well after the conflict ended. So, it’s no surprise that Union Army Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles didn’t receive his medal until decades later. Although Sickles was instrumental in creating Gettysburg National Battlefield Park, he had a controversial life, and he might be the only recipient to have earned the medal while disobeying a direct order.
Sickles was born to wealthy New York City landowners George and Susan Sickles on Oct. 20, 1819. Few details are known about his childhood, but scandal tended to follow him through life.
Sickles studied at University of the City of New York, now known as New York University, before studying law and passing the bar in 1846. His political connections got him a job as corporation counsel tending to New York City’s 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 that because his wife was about half his age and his he wanted to seem younger to make their age gap less of a scandal.
In 1856, Sickles was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, so he and his family moved to Washington, D.C., where they lived a lavish lifestyle in a mansion off Lafayette Square, across from the White House.
It was also well-known that neither husband nor wife were exactly faithful to each other. One of perhaps Sickles’ biggest scandals was the fact that he shot and killed his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key, a public prosecutor and the son of famed “Star-Spangled Banner” author Francis Scott Key. When the affair was uncovered in February 1859, Sickles shot Key three times in broad daylight. According to the American Battlefield Trust, future War Secretary Edwin Stanton represented Sickles in what became the first use of temporary insanity as a successful defense.
Sickles was acquitted for the killing and even took his wife back, which was a shock to Washington’s elite. According to the ABT, the Sickles became social pariahs. Few people socialized with them, and one diarist noted that Sickles was “left alone as if he had the smallpox.”
Wartime Battles and Orders Disobeyed
Sickles continued to serve in Congress until March 1861, a few weeks before the Civil War began. He then joined the military, entering service as a colonel for the 70th New York Infantry. Later, he was appointed as brigadier general of volunteers and put in command if New York’s Excelsior Brigade. By November 1862, he’d been promoted to major general. He commanded a division during the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg before being put in charge of the Third Corps ahead of the Chancellorsville campaign in the spring of 1863.
At Chancellorsville, Sickles argued over orders given to him by his superior. He did that again at Gettysburg — this time disobeying direct orders from Maj. Gen. George C. Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac. Amazingly, instead of earning a reprimand, Sickles earned the Medal of Honor.
The actions for which he earned it happened on July 2, 1863, the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Sickles, who was 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 the Peach Orchard about a mile away. The ABT said as a result of his defiance, Sickles lost his leg and the Third Corps was overrun and driven from the field.
According to a 1902 article in the New York Tribune, Sickles had been hit with 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 dampened spirits, Sickles commanded that he stay on the line in the stretcher. “To further reassure his men that he was still alive, he sat up and smoked a cigar” the article said.
Sickles didn’t receive the Medal of Honor until nearly 35 years later, on Oct. 30, 1897. According to the citation, he “displayed most conspicuous gallantry on the field, vigorously contesting the advance of the enemy and continuing to encourage his troops after being himself severely wounded.”
Despite the disaster that unfolded by Sickles disobeying a direct order, the Union still managed to hold the line that day and went on to win the pivotal battle. Sickles’ actions have been debated ever since and are one of Gettysburg’s most enduring controversies, said James Hessler, a Civil War author and licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg National Military Park.
Meanwhile, Sickles’ leg was amputated above the knee while he was still in the field. He was transferred to a D.C. hospital the next day and recovered well enough to get back on a horse two months later, according to the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Sickles donated the limb to the Army Medical Museum. It’s now known as the NMHM as mentioned above, and it still keeps the bones on display to this day. According to the museum, Sickles visited the limb for years after he donated it, often bringing invited guests — including Mark Twain.
After the war, Sickles held a slew of positions in government, including as New York’s sheriff, as chairman of the city’s Civil Service Commission and as a foreign diplomat to Colombia. During a stint as the 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 from a lingering cold in 1867. Sickles then spent most of the 1870s living abroad. In 1871, while working as the U.S. minister of Spain, he married another woman, Caroline, who was only a few years older than his daughter, Laura. At about the same time, Sickles and Laura became estranged. 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 became estranged from Sickles. Daily News sources said she refused to leave Spain when he was ready to return to America, so she stayed while he came back alone.
A Leader In Battlefield Preservation
Upon his return, Sickles saw Civil War veterans begging for money and was so moved by it that he decided to get more involved in veterans’ affairs, the author Hessler reported. This included revisiting the battlefields at Gettysburg — visits that led to him becoming instrumental in the early preservation and development of Gettysburg National Battlefield Park.
In 1886, the New York State Monuments Commission was created, and Sickles was made its chairman. His role: to oversee the placement of monuments at Gettysburg that highlighted New York soldiers’ contributions to the battle.
Sickles was also re-elected to Congress in late 1892, more than 30 years after he initially left office to join the war effort. During his second tenure, he actively championed veterans’ affairs and anything pertaining to the Gettysburg battlefield. In 1893, he played a key role in stopping the commercial destruction of the battlefield — even though the federal government’s ability to buy the land for preservation purposes didn’t come until after his death more than 20 years later. In February 1895, he pushed legislation through Congress that made the area an official park, even establishing its initial boundaries, which remained unchanged until 1974, Hessler reported.
In 1912, Sickles was involved in one more scandal. He was removed as chairman of the New York State Monuments Commission after an audit of the commission’s books found that about $28,000 was missing, Hessler reported. Then in his early nineties, Sickles was in failing health, and most people involved in the case assumed the discrepancy happened through his inability to manage the finances of a large organization — not through devious means.
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 is noticeable all over Gettysburg. Sickles Avenue is a prominent lane running through the park, while various monuments and markers commemorate him and depict his unit’s efforts.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.