On October 20, 1819, a complicated melange of merit and malevolence was born in New York City. His name was Daniel Sickles and his life is quite simply a case study of the turbulence that can simultaneously reside within the breast of an often valiant and good man.
Sickles began his career as an attorney in the Big Apple and his involvement in Tammany Hall enabled him to segue into the world of politics. At the tender age of 28, he became corporate counsel for the city of New York which led to his ultimately attaining a seat in the New York State Senate. And in 1856, he was voted into the U.S. House of Representatives. And that is perhaps where many of his troubles began…
He and his young and very beautiful wife quickly acclimated to the extravagant lifestyle of the Washington D.C. elite as they frequently hosted decadent soirées in their rented home on Lafayette Square which sat directly across from the White House.
Sadly, it was no secret that both Sickles engaged in extramarital dalliances. In fact, it is believed that Mr. Sickles began to have multiple affairs (even one with the madame of an infamous brothel) early in the marriage and that, due in part to his constant absence, Mrs. Sickles began to keep company with Philip Barton Keys, the son of Francis Scott Key who penned the Star Spangled Banner.
Initially they are said to have met publicly but as the relationship escalated, the two lovers met often in the parlor of her home.
While the wife of Daniel Sickles appeared to be resigned to her husband’s infidelities, the same certainly could not be said of his reaction to finding out about his wife’s torrid affair with Keys!
On February 25, 1859, Sickles confronted Keys and ended up fatally shooting him in the chest.
Edwin Stanton, who would later serve as Secretary of War, was counsel for the defendant and during the trial made history by successfully invoking,for the very first time, a plea of “temporary insanity” on behalf of Sickles who was acquitted and released.
And, by today’s standards, while a “not guilty” verdict should have been the most shocking element of this crime of passion, it was actually the fact that Sickles forgave his wife and the two remained betrothed, that threw their Washington “friends” into a tail-spin! The couple found themselves ostracized from D.C. high society.
Never one to throw in the towel, Sickles entered the military as a colonel in the 70th New York Infantry. He readily advanced to the rank of major general in November of 1862. He was known to be entirely fearless in battle but this often led to disputes with his superiors.
And although he disregarded the orders of Major General George G. Meade, he was given a Medal of Honor at Gettysburg as 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.”
Sickles lost his leg during the fight but as was so often the case with this complex man, the story doesn’t end there. In fact, one can view his amputated limb when visiting the Army Medical Museum at Walter Reed Army Medical Center since Sickles generously “donated” said leg along with an understated note that simply said, “With the compliments of Major General D.E.S.” Seems Daniel Sickles found a unique way to leave a legacy albeit one swimming in formaldehyde.
During the remainder of his colorful and chaotic life, Sickles held myriad distinguished political posts and even headed south upon President Abraham Lincoln’s request to determine the ill effects of slavery and offer possible solutions for Reconstruction. He also helped establish Gettysburg National Battlefield Park which he frequently visited prior to his death on May 3, 1914.
“Never a dull moment” seems to come to mind when studying the volatile and mercurial life of the one and only Daniel E. Sickles!
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