OneMansView, January 09, 2010
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Interesting, but has some shortcomings.
This biography of Dan Sickles, fairly well known in the mid-nineteenth century as a playboy, political operative, and Civil War general, is at least as frustrating as it is interesting and entertaining. The author establishes rather quickly that Sickles had developed an unusual persona by an early age. He was dapper, handsome, fastidious, socially adept, and good at speechifying - all of which served him well as a lawyer, a political operative for the Tammany Democratic machine in NYC, and as an assistant to James Buchanan, the US ambassador to England, where he constantly dashed about several European nations attempting to purchase Cuba for the US. However, Sickles can be viewed far less charitably. It can be said that he was a schmoozer, opportunist, and manipulator, which served him well in his hardly unknown penchant for womanizing, not to mention his very questionable financial dealings, including embezzlement and fraud. He quite literally took advantage of the adulation of the beautiful, talented fifteen-year-old Teresa Bagioli, the daughter of a family with whom he had lived for a while, by marrying her just before he left for England at age thirty-three. In this early phase of his life, the book proceeds at a madcap pace as Sickles' dashes to his various assignments and assignations. This is symptomatic of a real lack of depth and perspective that characterizes much of the book.
Most of the book is devoted to the short, but involved, period from Sickles entry into Congress and Washington society in 1857 to his wounding at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. Sickles was elected to Congress on the coattails of Buchanan as a pro-Western expansion, pro-Southern Democrat, and of course on the Tammany ticket. NYC with its large immigrant population and businesses interested in Southern staples had not swung over to the Republican Party with its strain of nativism, in addition to its anti-Southernism. Sickles, as always, lived beyond his means in Washington, but via his stunning, genteel wife, they moved into the upper echelons of Washington society. Over the next two years, Sickles virtual abandonment of his wife and her subsequent affair with the aristocratic Barton Key, son of the famous Francis Scott Key and a prominent district attorney, are tragically played out at some length, which finally resulted in Sickles stalking Key in Lafayette Sq and shooting him, while Key begged for his life. The author insists that his subsequent acquittal was the first successful temporary insanity plea in a US murder case. In actuality his prominent legal team simply overwhelmed the local prosecutor, not to mention that defending one's honor with lethal force was viewed as acceptable raw justice in that era. Sickles with a certain amount of histrionics played the role of wronged male to the hilt, but by far his greatest concern was his suddenly diminished social and political standing. As the author notes, Sickles own infidelity and his calculated forcing of Teresa to write a letter of confession were not a part of the proceedings.
Southern secession rehabilitated Sickles. He may have been pro-Southern, but his Unionism overrode that. After Fort Sumter, he became a leading pro-War Democrat but more importantly immediately volunteered to recruit and lead a regiment of NY militiamen. The author sheds no light on his readiness to assume such a responsibility, but there is no doubt of his vigor. It is at this point that Sickles first lobbies Lincoln in the White House to help in this endeavor, but that was only the first of what became regular visits throughout the War as a member of Mary Todd Lincoln's small social group. Sickles saw action in the Virginia Peninsula Campaign in the summer of 1862 and in the disastrous Battle of Chancellorsville in May, 1863, but Gettysburg was his defining moment. As Maj. Gen of the III Corps, Sickles controversially deployed his men contrary to Gen Meade's orders, resulting in his position being overrun and him having a leg destroyed by a Confederate cannonball. However, as the author indicates, the debate continues even today as to whether Sickles helped or harmed the Union effort. He did receive the Medal of Honor in 1897 for his heroism on that day, July 2, 1863, no doubt in part due to his immediately beginning an intensive lobbying campaign with Lincoln, Congress, etc concerning his prescient actions and the hesitancy of Meade, which he continued for years.
The author clearly views Teresa as a sympathetic, mistreated figure. She returned to the Sickles estate in NYC before her husband's trial, where she lived her remaining years with their daughter Laura. She and Sickles quickly reconciled, not without much public scorn, but he virtually ignored her once the War began. She apparently lived with tuberculosis for many years before succumbing in 1867 at the age of thirty-one. Her continued devotion to Sickles is nothing less than remarkable.
Sickles had nearly fifty years to live after the War. Much of what he became involved with in those years was based on his notoriety and political connections. He took seriously his role as military governor in both South and North Carolina during Reconstruction, 1865-1867, where he was forced to confront the intransigence, and even violence, of rural Southerners toward the freedmen. He was compelled to resign by Pres Johnson for his too vigorous policies. He was the US Minister to Spain from 1869-1874. Again, the purchase of Cuba was on the agenda. There, he married his second wife and had two children with her. When he returned to the US from living in Paris in 1879, she remained behind, having tired of his philandering. He served in Congress for one term, 1893-95, and was the chairman of the New York State Monuments Commission, where he apparently stole $28,000 of commission funds.
Sickles unconscionably turned his back on his daughter Laura, who struggled after the death of her mother, turning to alcohol. Upon her death in 1891 in a small rented room in Brooklyn, the author points out that he could not be bothered with her funeral. That scenario emphasizes the main shortcoming of the book, that is, an absence of the real Dan Sickles in the pages. Was he only a manic, insensitive, rogue? If so, why? Cataloging his movements, numerous interactions, and assignments is insufficient. At times, there is detail overload, as in trying to explain troop movements. What little background there is on the politics and sociology of the War period is good. For the most part, the last fifty years of his life is presented in such a compressed, sketchy format as to be of little use. As said earlier, the book has a certain appeal, but is also disappointing in many ways.