Few figures in the Civil War were more controversial, flamboyant and charismatic than Union Major General Daniel Sickles. His proponents praised him as a great American hero, a superior soldier who displayed courage, initiative and foresight in the face of enemy guns. His detractors, on the other hand, criticized his generalship and denounced him as a scoundrel. In view of such divergent characterizations, Sickles’ performances at the 1863 battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg call for close scrutiny and analysis. At a crucial point during each of those pivotal battles, Sickles advanced his army corps away from the main body of the Army of the Potomac to form a salient. Sickles’ salients played key roles in the courses of the two battles and significantly influenced their outcomes. They also provide revealing insight into the character and leadership style of a unique and exasperating man.
While most public figures seek to avoid controversy and scandal, ‘Devil Dan Sickles seemed to embrace them. As both a political and military figure, he openly drank, defied authority and womanized, making a name for himself as one of history’s most colorful characters. From his mid-30s until his death at age 94, he was continually embroiled in some sort of financial, legislative, sexual or homicidal crisis.
Born in Manhattan on October 20, 1819, Sickles rose to prominence as a lawyer in the notorious Tammany Hall political machine in New York City. His penchant for liquor, gambling and women certainly did not hinder his political career, and he was twice elected to the U.S. Congress. While serving in this capacity in 1859, Sickles shot and killed Philip Barton Key, son of composer Francis Scott Key, for having an illicit love affair with his wife, Teresa. The shooting took place on a city sidewalk in Washington in front of numerous passers-by and within view of the executive mansion.
With future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton as his lawyer, Sickles achieved a legal first when he was acquitted on the grounds of temporary insanity, and he remained in office. He was even viewed as something of a public hero after the sensational 22-day trial. In the Victorian social climate of the day, he was seen as a man who had fought to protect the sanctity of his marriage.
Following the surrender of Fort Sumter in April 1861, Sickles’ patriotic fervor helped him to overcome his scandalous past. A Democrat who nevertheless supported President Abraham Lincoln’s save-the-Union policies, Sickles was authorized by New York Governor Edwin Morgan to recruit a brigade of five regiments of volunteers to fight for the Union cause. Sickles undertook the task in earnest and raised the troops within a month. Lincoln, grateful for Sickles’ efforts and support, nominated him for a brigadier general’s commission to command his new brigade of New Yorkers, dubbed the Excelsior Brigade. After some initial hesitation by the Senate, the nomination was confirmed. The combative politician was now a political general.
On May 31, 1862, Sickles and his brigade got their first taste of war at the Battle of Fair Oaks on the Virginia Peninsula. The brigade fought well, and Sickles’ leadership evinced the pluck and swagger that defined his personality. He earned a reputation as a hard-fighting officer. When Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker was moved up to corps command, Sickles took over as commander of Hooker’s old division. Shortly before the December 13, 1862, Battle of Fredericksburg, Va., Sickles was promoted to major general. When Hooker rose to command the Army of the Potomac in place of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, he immediately placed Sickles in command of the III Corps. Of the seven corps commanders in Hooker’s reorganized army, only Sickles was not a professional soldier or a West Point graduate.
After the bitter Union defeat at Fredericksburg, Hooker was not about to make the same mistake Burnside had made of attacking Lee’s strongly defended positions on the heights above the town. Instead, he devised a comprehensive strategic plan, based on deception and numerical superiority, to outflank Lee and force him to fight on open ground.
On April 27, 1863, Hooker sent three army corps on a wide flanking movement to cross the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers and get on Lee’s left flank and rear. His cavalry force, under Brig. Gen. George Stoneman, would swing south toward Richmond to disrupt Lee’s lines of communication and supply. Two corps would remain in front of Fredericksburg to confuse Lee as to Hooker’s real intentions. The remaining two corps, including Sickles’, were held in reserve, ready to go wherever they might be needed.
Over the next two days, the three advanced corps crossed the rivers, and by the evening of April 30 they were encamped at their designated rendezvous site around the tiny crossroads hamlet of Chancellorsville, 11 miles west of Fredericksburg. There, brimming with enthusiasm at the initial success of his plan, Hooker established his headquarters in the Chancellor house and issued General Order No. 47 to his army. He announced, The operations of the last three days have determined that our enemy must either ingloriously fly, or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.
The next morning, May 1, brought with it an incomprehensible change in Hooker’s spirit and behavior. As his advanced units waited anxiously for orders to attack, Hooker somehow lost his nerve. After his advanced corps made initial contact with Rebel forces, he issued orders to fall back, dig in and await Lee’s attack. Hooker, who had sneered at the caution and hesitation of previous commanders, now was himself overwhelmed by caution and hesitation. With Lee finally aware of the Federal threat and turning to meet it, Hooker shifted from the offensive to the defensive. At that moment, with his army on the brink of victory, he surrendered the initiative to Lee, who immediately seized it.
Early that same morning, Sickles’ corps marched up the Rappahannock from its position across from Fredericksburg, crossed the river at U.S. Ford and arrived at Chancellorsville shortly after noon. Upon arrival, the 19,000-man corps was placed behind the lines in reserve. The prospect of holding his corps as a reserve force did not appeal to Sickles’ combative nature. He soon discovered what looked like a weak spot in the army’s defensive line between the XI and XII corps, and with Hooker’s approval, he ordered Brig. Gen. David Birney to move his division into the line to fill the gap. The divisions of Maj. Gens. Hiram Berry and Amiel Whipple remained in reserve.
By daybreak on May 2, most of the army was entrenched around Chancellorsville. The V Corps anchored the left of the Union line on the Rappahannock, facing southeast. The II and XII corps, curving south and then west around the crossroads, faced east and south. The XI Corps held the right flank, strung out to the west along the Orange Turnpike, facing south. Between the XII and XI corps, Sickles’ III Corps held a line that bulged to the south at the elevated clearing of Hazel Grove.
At about 8 a.m., Birney’s lookouts in the treetops at Hazel Grove spotted a Confederate column moving west and south on the Catherine Furnace Road, about 1,600 yards away. Birney dispatched messengers to inform Sickles, who hurried to Hazel Grove to evaluate the situation for himself. Sickles later claimed that he realized that the Confederate movement was no feint and concluded that the Rebels were either in full retreat or were marching around the Union right flank. His aggressive instincts were aroused, and watching a continuous column of enemy troops moving across his front was more than Sickles could tolerate. He reported the movement to Hooker and appealed for permission to attack.
News of the enemy movement perplexed Hooker, who unhappily realized that Lee was not going to cooperate with his carefully devised plan. Presented with a chance to regain the initiative, Hooker, not knowing whether Lee was retreating or moving to flank him, again hesitated. He sent an order to Maj. Gen. Oliver Howard, commander of the XI Corps, warning him to prepare for a possible flank attack from the west.
At about noon, Hooker ordered Sickles to advance cautiously toward the road followed by the enemy, and harass the movement as much as possible. Sickles stretched his orders substantially. He sent Birney’s division, preceded by two regiments of sharpshooters, south from Hazel Grove to attack the column and gain possession of the road. Near Catherine Furnace, at the bend where the road turns south, the Federals overwhelmed a Rebel rear-guard regiment (the 23rd Georgia Infantry) and took about 300 prisoners. The road gained, Birney ordered into action an artillery battery that, he later reported, poured a well-directed fire on the retreating column of the enemy. Sickles was convinced that Lee was leaving the field in full retreat. He echoed Birney’s words in his own report, declaring that the battery was advanced and poured a destructive fire on the retreating column of the enemy. The movement was successfully completed.
By this time, Lt. Gen. Thomas J. Stonewall Jackson’s Confederate corps was well on its way around Hooker’s flank. When Lee learned of the attack on Jackson’s rear guard, he ordered two brigades of Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson’s division to strike Birney from the east. With Hooker’s blessing, Sickles reinforced Birney with Whipple’s reserve division, a reserve brigade of almost 3,000 men from the XI Corps under Brig. Gen. Francis Barlow, and a XII Corps division under Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams. Sickles’ total force numbered about 20,000 men. His forward movement left a wide, undefended gap in the established Union line, inadvertently created a long salient that exposed his force to attack from two sides, and completely isolated the XI Corps from the rest of the Union army.
Shortly after 6 p.m., Jackson’s flank attack struck the unprepared XI Corps like a thunderbolt. At about 7:15 p.m., when the rush of fugitives from that routed corps erased all Sickles’ doubts as to Lee’s intention, the III Corps commander broke off his misbegotten foray to the south and returned to Hazel Grove. There, with Birney’s and Whipple’s divisions, he found himself in a most precarious position–directly between the two wings of the Confederate army.
At about 11 p.m., Sickles launched a night attack in an effort to retake a portion of the original Union line along the turnpike. He succeeded in securing his right to the main Union position near the Chancellor house, but he was virtually surrounded and in danger of being overrun when the fighting resumed in the morning. Sickles’ predicament greatly alarmed Hooker, who was prepared to withdraw his whole front and leave Sickles to his fate. Undaunted, Sickles asked Hooker for reinforcements, convinced that he had the key position on the battlefield. He may have been right, but Hooker had other ideas and ordered him to abandon Hazel Grove.
Sickles later contended that had his salient been supported, the stampede of the XI Corps might have been avoided. He believed he had seized the initiative, improvised his own strategy on the spot, and was only cheated of victory by lack of support from an emotionally drained commander. He felt that he had saved the day and checked Jackson’s advance. The evidence, however, does not support such contentions.
In fact, Sickles had accomplished nothing to stop Jackson’s flank attack, and found himself instead isolated and in no position to slow or prevent the debacle on the army’s right flank. When he returned to Hazel Grove, Sickles drove off a scouting party of about 200 men of the 4th Georgia Infantry. This can hardly be described as stopping Jackson’s attack, which petered out long before it ever reached Sickles’ position because of confusion in the underbrush and the need to reorganize. As for his brilliant night attack, witnesses reported that it was a mixed-up mess, one of the most comical episodes in the history of the Army of the Potomac. Very little of value was accomplished. Its main effect was to increase the number of casualties and deprive both armies of sleep.
Years after the battle, XI Corps historian Augustus Choate Hamlin, who had been a lieutenant colonel and medical inspector at Chancellorsville, investigated the events of that fateful day. His report was quite different from previously accepted accounts of the XI Corps’ disaster. In his 1896 book, The Battle of Chancellorsville, Hamlin charged that Sickles’ expedition to Catherine Furnace and beyond was the ultimate cause of the rout and the campaign’s failure. Hamlin blamed Sickles because he had persuaded Hooker to allow him to make the fatal reconnaissance that isolated the XI Corps and left it without reserves. Hamlin also derided Sickles for his ignorance of Jackson’s location and true intention and for the absurdity of his expedition.
Sickles clearly had failed to respond properly to the situation at hand when he advanced to create his salient. If he really suspected that Lee was attempting to flank Hooker’s line, his proper response would have been to support Howard, not isolate him. He should have realized that Lee was not retreating when Birney was struck by the two enemy brigades at Catherine Furnace. That attack made it clear that there was a strong force of Confederates still massed in force on his left, apart from the marching units–and they were obviously not retreating. Yet Sickles continued to advance, completely disregarding what must have been a flanking column bent on mischief to the west.
By his hasty actions, Sickles succeeded in isolating elements of Hooker’s army (his own and Howard’s) at a time when a united defense was essential. Had Sickles remained next to Howard, along with Barlow’s reserve brigade, he might have been able to bolster that corps and prevent or minimize the ensuing rout. In the end, however, Howard’s corps was decimated, the entire army was endangered, and Sickles’ own corps narrowly escaped destruction.
After its defeat at Chancellorsville, the Army of the Potomac retired to its encampments north of the Rappahannock River across from Fredericksburg. As Hooker and his staff prepared for yet another campaign against him, Lee retained the military initiative and, on June 6, 1863, launched his own ambitious invasion of the North. On June 25, Hooker learned that Lee’s army had crossed the Potomac into Maryland and sent his own army in pursuit. Two days later, however, he resigned his command of the army. Several of Hooker’s corps commanders were among the likely candidates to replace him. The New York Herald touted Sickles as the best man for the job. When Howard heard a rumor that Sickles was being considered, he exclaimed, If God gives us Sickles to lead us I shall cry with vexation & sorrow and plead to be delivered.
On June 28, just three days before the largest battle ever fought on American soil, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, former commander of the V Corps, to replace Hooker. On July 1, Lee’s and Meade’s armies collided on the rolling farmlands of Pennsylvania near the small crossroads town of Gettysburg. The first day’s action ended in favor of the Confederates, but as the new day dawned, the Federals were in possession of the high ground. Meade was working furiously to consolidate and solidify his defensive line in anticipation of Lee’s next attack.
Shortly after 6 a.m. on July 2, Meade dispatched a messenger with instructions for Sickles to position his 12,000-man corps along the lower section of Cemetery Ridge, south of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps. Sickles was to occupy a line that recently had been vacated by Brig. Gen. John Geary’s XII Corps division, place his right on Hancock’s left, and anchor his left on the northern foot of the rocky knoll called Little Round Top.
Sickles acquiesced to the order, but he was not happy. He was on the lowest part of the ridge and felt that the ground would be very difficult to defend. Dissatisfied as he was with the low, wooded nature of his position, he failed to station any troops on Little Round Top, where he could better observe the enemy’s movements and take advantage of higher ground. Sickles later said that he did not think he could stretch his men to reach Little Round Top. He also claimed that he could not discover the exact location and extent of Geary’s sector.
As the morning wore on, Sickles grew increasingly uneasy about his designated position and began to eye an area of higher ground a half mile to his front, along the Emmitsburg Road. He eventually rode to headquarters and asked Meade to come and have a look, but Meade refused. Meade was not fond of Sickles and told him to position his troops as earlier instructed. Meade did grant Sickles the authority to choose his own ground and position his troops in any manner that he deemed most suitable, so long as he stayed within the limits of his general instructions. Meade also agreed to send his chief of artillery, Brig. Gen. Henry Hunt, to examine the ground with Sickles and make a recommendation.
Hunt and Sickles proceeded to the soon-to-be-famous Peach Orchard near the Emmitsburg Road, where Sickles explained his situation to Hunt. Hunt acknowledged the unfavorable nature of Sickles’ original position along Cemetery Ridge. He recognized that the low ridges along the road would constitute a favorable position for the enemy to hold, which was a good reason for Sickles to take possession of it. Sickles liked what he heard and asked if he should move his corps forward. Hunt answered, Not on my authority; I will report to General Meade for his instructions.
Hunt determined that the line afforded excellent positions for artillery, that its occupation would cramp the movements of the enemy and bring the Federals nearer to the Confederate lines, and that it would better afford Meade an opportunity for taking the offensive, should he desire to do so. At the same time, Hunt saw that, if occupied by Sickles, the new line would present a salient angle that would expose both of its sides to enfilading fire. It would also increase the ground the III Corps would have to defend, as it would still have to connect with Hancock’s left and anchor on Little Round Top. The line, and particularly the salient, would require a larger force than just the III Corps to hold it.
The artillery chief realized that Meade did not have a sufficient number of troops available to risk such an extension of his defensive line. The proper occupation of the position would require Meade to use both the III and V corps, which would leave him without reserves, as the VI Corps was still en route to the field. Hunt knew that Meade expected an attack at any moment, and there would not be enough time to safely relocate an entire army corps in the face of the impending peril. In view of the overall situation, Meade wanted Sickles to occupy what he considered to be the safer line. Hunt returned to Meade and reported that although Sickles’ proposed line seemed tactically better, he could not recommend it under the existing circumstances.
Hunt’s departure left Sickles in a quandary. His problem had not been resolved to his satisfaction. To make things worse, he learned that the two brigades of Brig. Gen. John Buford’s cavalry that had been screening his left flank had been withdrawn. Further, skirmishers from Colonel Hiram Berdan’s 1st and 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters reported that they had encountered Rebel infantrymen moving through the woods and around to his left. That was enough for Sickles. He envisioned Chancellorsville all over again; but this time he did not believe the Confederates were in retreat. Without further consultation or authorization, Sickles responded to the perceived threat and, at 3 p.m., ordered his corps to advance en masse to the Emmitsburg Road. His men were barely established in the new position when Lee’s attack opened with an artillery barrage.
Meade, riding to the sound of the cannonade, arrived under heavy artillery fire at Sickles’ line and realized at once that Sickles had made a disastrous mistake. Far out in front of the main Union line and aligned along the Emmitsburg Road with its right flank in the air was Brig. Gen. Andrew Humphreys’ division. Birney’s division, with its left flank exposed, occupied the Peach Orchard in a line that angled back past the Wheat Field and Rose’s Woods to the Devil’s Den, a cluster of huge boulders separated from Little Round Top by a creek called Plum Run. The two divisions joined at the Peach Orchard, the apex of Sickles’ dangerously vulnerable salient.
When Meade confronted Sickles, he was furious. Sickles’ right was nowhere near Hancock’s left, nor was it anchored on Little Round Top. It was open on both ends and isolated from the rest of the army. Sickles, seeking to avoid a repeat of Howard’s Chancellorsville debacle, ironically had placed himself in an identical situation. Meade chided Sickles for his action and made it clear that Sickles had upset his plans. Sickles offered to withdraw to Meade’s designated position, but it was too late. Enemy infantrymen made a vigorous assault, and the III Corps sustained the shock.
The dangers of Sickles’ salient quickly became apparent. If the Confederates could get around Devil’s Den, they could encircle and destroy Birney’s division. If they could penetrate Birney’s line at the Peach Orchard, they would also be behind Humphreys’ division, rendering his position untenable. Humphreys’ line was itself open to encirclement from the north, which would in turn render Birney’s position untenable. Finally, Sickles’ absence on Cemetery Ridge placed Hancock’s left flank in jeopardy should the Rebels succeed in occupying Little Round Top or getting around Devil’s Den. Once again, Sickles had managed to endanger his own corps, other Union units and the entire army itself.
After several hours of fierce combat, Sickles’ troops began to crumble. Hammered from two directions by two of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s divisions, the Peach Orchard, Rose’s Woods and the Wheat Field were overrun, and Birney’s division was shattered and driven back. With Rebels pouring through the Peach Orchard, Humphreys’ line, now attacked from the west and south, was doomed. Meade, with Hancock’s assistance, struggled to rush reinforcements from three other corps to bolster Sickles’ divisions, but the III Corps was knocked out of the fight and sent into disordered retreat. There was a gaping hole all along the left of Meade’s line.
In the end, however, the Confederates were not able to achieve their goals. Lee’s plan called for an oblique, echelon attack against Cemetery Ridge, beginning in the south and moving gradually northward along the Emmitsburg Road. But the 11-brigade attack was uncoordinated and disjointed. Lee’s commanders failed to advance on schedule and were unable to exploit their gains. Eventually, as darkness fell, the Confederate attack sputtered and dissipated in confusion. A Union disaster was narrowly averted.
As his salient collapsed around him, Sickles was struck in the right leg by shrapnel and carried from the field. The wound, which resulted in amputation, probably saved him from being court-martialed for his rash and perilous action. Meade was at first willing to concede that perhaps Sickles had somehow misinterpreted his orders, but Sickles said there had been no misunderstanding. He had made a decision and acted on his own responsibility, abandoning the position ordered by Meade for one that he believed to be better. He defended his decision until his dying day and insisted that he had made no error.
Sickles was an aggressive and combative general, but his weakness as a leader was his inability to take advice or consider other points of view. He had powerful friends in the Army and in Washington whom he manipulated to his own advantage, thus avoiding censure or prosecution for disobeying Meade’s orders and wrecking his corps. By an artful blending of fact, fancy and innuendo, he conjured up his own version of the battle. There is strong evidence that Sickles arranged for the printing of a fanciful account in the New York Herald on March 12, 1864, under the pseudonym Historicus, purporting to be the true story of what happened at Gettysburg. The account glorified Sickles’ foresight and initiative and stressed Meade’s incompetence. According to Historicus, Meade had advocated inglorious retreat. In a heroic effort to save the day, Sickles moved out to meet the enemy, precipitated a battle Meade was afraid to fight, and brought victory to Union arms. In essence, the article claimed, Sickles won the Battle of Gettysburg.
Meade understandably denounced the Historicus account, reaffirmed his opinion that the salient position was untenable, and objected to the many statements prejudicial to his reputation. He wanted action to be taken against the author, presumably Sickles, and requested that Lincoln convene a court of inquiry. In reply to Meade’s letter, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck advised Meade to ignore Sickles and said the latter’s authorship of the story could not be proved. To pursue the matter would only benefit Sickles by providing him with another forum in which to glorify himself.
Sickles and his supporters attempted to show that the salient position had acted as a breakwater that deflected the Confederate attack before it could reach the main Union line. This breakwater effect, they contended, enabled the Federals to hold Cemetery Ridge and ultimately win the battle. The argument may have some validity, but it ignores the fact that Sickles had no such end in view when he disobeyed his orders to stay put.
The Confederates had intended to seize the Peach Orchard and surrounding high ground as artillery positions in support of their attack on the ridge. Lee’s offensive plan had not foreseen that these positions would be occupied in force by Federal troops, and Longstreet did not believe at first the reports of heavy enemy concentration there. With some difficulty, the Confederates reacted to meet the unexpected Federal troops. Major General John B. Hood, commanding the division at the far right of the Rebel line of attack, recognized the danger Sickles’ salient posed for Meade’s line. Sickles’ advance, and his failure to occupy or anchor his line on Little Round Top, had opened the back door to Meade’s entire line. Hood pressed Longstreet to allow him to swing around behind the Union line to attack Meade from the rear.
From the crest of Little Round Top, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur Warren, Meade’s chief of engineers, discovered the danger on Meade’s left just in time. Warren skillfully diverted Colonel Strong Vincent’s brigade, which was hurrying to reinforce Sickles’ salient, to defend Little Round Top. His efforts, with not a moment to spare, prevented the hill from being seized by Hood’s Confederates. From this vantage point, the Rebels could have enfiladed Hancock’s position on the ridge and rendered Meade’s entire line untenable. Only Warren’s quick action prevented disaster.
Sickles further contended that the III Corps, in its original position, could not have withstood Longstreet’s attack or prevented a breakthrough. In its advanced position, the III Corps certainly did not withstand the attack but was decimated to the tune of about 4,000 casualties. A huge hole that could have facilitated a Rebel breakthrough was made in the Union line. Had Sickles stayed where he was, in close proximity with the rest of the army, his flanks would have been protected, and it would have been much easier for Meade to support and reinforce him against such a breakthrough. As it was, Meade summoned so many units to help Sickles that other parts of his line were threatened.
On two separate battlefields, Sickles moved to create salients that accomplished little of tactical value and served mainly to satisfy his own personal designs and purposes. His tactical decisions at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg did not take into consideration the best interests of the army as a whole. Sickles refused to subordinate his views and actions to the instructions of his commanders. He did not seem to accept that, as a corps commander, his duty was to act in unison with other army corps to accomplish the objectives of the army commander.
At Chancellorsville, Sickles had not disobeyed his orders, but he had stretched them beyond their expressed intent. At Gettysburg, he had disobeyed orders outright and acted without approval to create another salient, much to the dismay of his new commanding general. Ultimately, Sickles’ generalship can be appraised in terms of his famous battlefield salients. Sickles’ salients represented the brazen, rash actions of a glory-seeking political general whose dangerous tactical follies promoted his own interests at the expense of the Army of the Potomac and the Union cause. It is a wonder that he–and they–survived his blunders.
Gary Rice is a lieutenant in the United States Navy. For further reading, see: W.A. Swanberg’s Sickles the Incredible; or Edgcumb Pinchon’s Dan Sickles.