Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1725
Novelist Thomas Keneally became fascinated by the lurid life of Dan Sickles while researching the Civil War for a previous book. He uses novelistic techniques to provide a lively portrait of Sickles, his young wife, and New York and Washington society in the mid-nineteenth century.
Daniel Edgar Sickles was born in New York City on October 20, 1819, the son of George Garrett Sickles, a lawyer and sixth generation descendant of Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, who became wealthy by speculating in real estate. Keneally tells the reader that Dan was a wild teenager whose parents arranged for him to receive special tutoring and live in the house of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, who had immigrated to America in 1805 and now taught Italian at Columbia College. Da Ponte’s granddaughter, Teresa Bagioli, three years old when Sickles arrived, admired their handsome young boarder. In 1852, when she was fifteen and Sickles nearly thirty-three, she accepted his proposal of marriage.
Tammany, Manhattan’s corrupt political machine, also found the young lawyer attractive, despite rumors that he cheated clients and his known fondness for prostitutes and barrooms. Sickles was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1847; in 1853 he was appointed corporation counsel of New York City, leaving that position before the end of the year to become first secretary of the American legation in London. There Sickles assisted James Buchanan, the American minister, in his failed attempt to purchase Cuba from Spain. Sickles demonstrated his wild streak and scandalized New York society by leaving Teresa and his infant daughter at home in America while taking a well- known prostitute with him to London and presenting her at court to Queen Victoria.
Returning to the United States, Sickles was elected to Congress the same year that Buchanan won the presidency. On the floor of the House of Representatives, Sickles strongly supported the efforts of Buchanan to prevent secession by appeasing the South. Teresa’s vivacious, youthful beauty made her a favorite of Washington society. Sickles busied himself with congressional duties and sexual adventures with married women. Teresa began spending her time with Washington district attorney Philip Barton Key, son of the composer of “The Star- Spangled Banner.” The two were soon engaged in a passionate affair that became a matter of gossip known to all Washington society except Sickles.
Informed of the affair in an anonymous letter, Sickles became furious and angrily extorted a detailed, written confession from Teresa. Seeing Key near his house the next day, Sickles confronted him with three pistols, shot him in the leg, and continued shooting his fallen foe until he killed him, then surrendered to the police. The case fascinated the nation’s press, which covered the ensuing trial in detail; it became the 1859 equivalent of the O. J. Simpson murder trial of 1995. Sickles’s friends assembled a team of eight lawyers to defend him, headed by leading New York criminal lawyer James Topham Brady. Acquitting a husband who killed his wife’s lover was not uncommon in the nineteenth century. However, Brady felt the situation was dangerous for Sickles since his actions had all the marks of premeditated murder. He had stalked and shot down an unarmed man, firing three times at a victim who begged Sickles not to kill him. Brady entered a plea of temporary insanity which, Keneally states, was the first use of that defense in the United States. After twenty-two days, during which Sickles’s attorneys acted as though Key and Teresa were on trial for adultery rather than Sickles for murder, the jury acquitted Sickles.
Keneally uses the trial to demonstrate the mid-nineteenth century double standard toward women. Females were not permitted in the courtroom for fear that the case might corrupt them. Yet when the defense leaked Teresa’s raunchy confession to the press, newspapers across the country reprinted it. In contrast, evidence of Sickles’s habitual sexual misconduct was never presented to the jury or the public. One defense attorney even argued that “the personal body of the wife was the property of the husband” and therefore Key’s sexual relations with Teresa constituted a direct assault on Sickles which he was justified in repelling by force.
After the trial, when word spread that Sickles had forgiven Teresa and resumed relations with her, his supporters were infuriated. Keneally notes that “if the world had been divided in response to his murder of Key, the world was universally outraged by his reconciliation with Teresa.” Despite facing public opprobrium, Sickles returned to Washington for his final session of Congress in early 1861. Although Sickles had been in favor of granting every Southern demand in order to avoid secession, news of Southern seizures of post offices and forts infuriated him; he now clamored for a military response.
Keneally describes the way the Civil War revived Sickles’s reputation, turning him into a national hero. Although he had no previous military experience, Sickles raised a five-regiment brigade of New York troops, earning himself the rank of brigadier general of volunteers. His brigade was part of General Joseph Hooker’s division in the Army of the Potomac. Sickles proved an above-average political general and soon became a drinking companion of West Point graduate Hooker. As Hooker moved up the chain of command, Sickles advanced in his wake, becoming a major general in 1862 and commanding a division during the battle of Fredericksburg. After Hooker took command of the Army of the Potomac, Sickles was given the Third Corps, which he led effectively at Chancellorsville.
At Gettysburg, July 2, 1863, Sickles disliked the position General George Gordon Meade assigned him and, against Meade’s explicit orders, moved his corps forward where they were attacked and driven back to the Cemetery Ridge line that Meade had specified. Sickles claimed that moving his men forward caused the Confederate attack and set the stage for their ultimate defeat. Meade believed the action endangered the entire army and was reputed to have said that if Sickles had not lost his leg at Gettysburg, he would have been court-martialed. During the battle a cannonball had smashed Sickles’s right leg, which had to be amputated above the knee. His wound made him a national hero. Sickles believed he looked particularly impressive on crutches and all his life preferred to use them rather than his prosthetic leg. In 1897 Sickles finally received a belated Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery at Gettysburg.
Sickles became a favorite of the Lincolns. The president liked Sickles’s aggressive military stance and his battlefield behavior. Mary Lincoln treated him as a personal friend, inviting him to the séances she held to communicate with her dead children. However, when Sickles asked to return to active command, Lincoln would not order Grant or Meade to appoint him. Instead, the president, in 1864, sent Sickles on a tour of the occupied South to report on the progress of Reconstruction and, in 1865, on a diplomatic mission to Colombia, South America.
After Lincoln’s death, President Andrew Johnson appointed Sickles military governor of South Carolina in 1865. His active defense of blacks and repression of Confederate resistance groups led to Southern demands for his removal, and in August, 1867, Johnson relieved him of his command.
While Sickles was in the South, Teresa came down with tuberculosis and died in February, 1867. Keneally is fascinated by Teresa and presents a much more favorable picture of her than the three other authors who have dealt with Sickles’s life and murder trial. He portrays her as a naïve young girl (she was barely thirty-one years old at her death), very much in love with her older husband, and driven to an affair with Key as a result of Sickles’s blatant womanizing and lack of attention to her. Keneally criticizes Sickles for ignoring Teresa after their reconciliation, effectively exiling her to a farm in rural Upper Manhattan, far from her friends, during the last eight years of her life.
Keneally loses interest in Sickles after Teresa’s death and covers the last forty-seven years of Sickles’s life (he died in 1914, aged ninety-three) in twenty-six summary pages. Those years were hardly without interest or dramatic incidents. W. A. Swanberg’s standard life, Sickles the Incredible (1956), devotes over a quarter of his biography to the last half of Sickles’s life. Sickles actively aided the failed attempt to impeach and remove Johnson from the presidency. President Ulysses S. Grant rewarded Sickles’s help in the campaign of 1868 by appointing him minister to Spain, a post he held until 1874. While there, he unsuccessfully maneuvered to purchase Cuba for the United States. In 1871 he married Caroline de Creagh in Madrid and fathered two more children. While courting his second wife, Sickles met the deposed Queen Isabella II of Spain in France. He began a notorious sexual liaison with her that had him commuting between Madrid and Paris and earned him the derisive nickname, “Yankee King of Spain.” While still minister to Spain, Sickles returned briefly to New York in 1872 and directed the forcible removal of Jay Gould from the presidency of the Erie Railroad. In 1892 he again won election to the House of Representatives as a Democrat. Defeated for reelection in 1894, he returned to the Republican Party and in 1896 toured the country by rail speaking in favor of William McKinley’s bid for the presidency. From 1886 to 1912 he was chairman of the New York Civil War Monuments Commission, until he was removed amid charges that he had embezzled Commission funds.
Keneally makes effective use of manuscript and printed sources of information on Sickles’s active life. The author’s use of novelistic technique permits him to add to the descriptive material in his sources and convincingly speculate about what the characters in his narrative thought and felt. The publisher’s unfortunate decision to omit illustrations—the other three books on Sickle include many portraits and cartoons of the day—denies readers of this volume many graphic insights into nineteenth century life. However, Keneally’s vivid prose provides an intriguing and smoothly readable account of the picaresque adventures of a mid- nineteenth century rogue and hero.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 98 (February 1, 2002): 906.
Los Angeles Times, June 20, 2002, p. E2.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (April 14, 2002): 11.
Publishers Weekly 249 (January 14, 2002): 47.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 2, 2002, p. F12.
The Washington Post Book World, April 14, 2002, p. 2.
The Washington Times, June 8, 2002, p. B3.
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