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The Other Extreme

July 2024
2min read

From Lee and Lincoln to General Daniel E. Sickles is about as long a stride as one can take and still remain in the field of the Civil War. If Lee was nobility of spirit personified, Sickles was little better than an outright heel. A man of immense drive and energy, he was singularly lacking in principle. To him the whole immense conflict was little more than an opening by which a canny fellow on the make could pick up some good things for himself, and he went out picking with immense gusto and pertinacity.

In himself, Sickles was quite unimportant, although he was (at least in retrospect) an interesting sort of buzzard. His significance lies in the fact that he was a type. He exemplified perfectly the grasping, conscienceless operators who swarmed in on Washington during the war and did all that men could do to keep the deep moral issues underlying the conflict from becoming evident. If certain southerners have felt that the whole northern war effort represented nothing more than a scramble for riches and power, Sickles is one of the reasons.

Sickles gets the full treatment in Sickles the Incredible , by W. A. Swanberg. This book shows him as a Tammany lawyer who was forever acquiring money, trouble, and notoriety in large quantities. His true character is perfectly illustrated by a sensational murder case in which he figured shortly before the war.

His wife had an affair with Philip Barton Key. Sickles found out about it and (himself one of the most flagrantly unfaithful husbands who ever lived) went into a great emotional tizzy. He made his wife give him a signed confession, went out and shot Key to death, won acquittal on the ground of temporary insanity—and by the use of that written confession—and then calmly took his wife back into his home and resumed his domestic life quite as if nothing had happened.

Sickles the Incredible , by W. A. Swanberg. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 423 pp. $6.

When war came he opted for the Union, raised a brigade of infantry, and became a general. As a fighter he was valiant, though somewhat clumsy. He flouted Meade’s orders at Gettysburg, put his troops into an unsound position and nearly lost the battle thereby —losing one of his own legs in the process. Then, afterward, by dint of pertinacity and immense political influence, he did his utmost to prove that his unwise move had been the height of tactical wisdom and that he had saved the Union cause. He managed to stir up such a fuss that the whole latter part of Meade’s life was clouded by the controversy.

After the war he had further adventures. As military governor of the Carolinas during the Reconstruction era, he was tied in with one of the half-legendary wisecracks of American history. It was at a meeting over which Sickles presided that the governor of South Carolina turned to the governor of North Carolina and remarked: “There is a long time between drinks.”

Sickles found himself accidentally on the side of the angels at one time, playing a leading part in getting Jay Gould and Jim Fisk out of the Erie Railroad; then he became minister to Spain, clouding Spanish-American relations so thoroughly that it took a long time to get them untangled. In his old age he picked up the role of one-legged veteran and continued to push his tattered claims to the title of hero of Gettysburg. He did not die until 1914, a gusty, controversial old figure to the end.

Mr. Swanberg has given him an excellent biography, avoiding moral pronouncements and steering neatly away from the isn’t-this-rascal-amusing flipness that is apt to creep into books of this kind. He lets the general’s life and works speak for themselves.

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