Friday, July 15, 2011

Book Review--Sickles at Gettysburg

Hessler, James. SICKLES AT GETTYSBURG: The Controversial Civil War General Who Committed Murder, Abandoned Little Round Top, and Declared Himself the Hero of Gettysburg Savas Beatie, El Dorado Hills, CA. Index, bibliography, notes, maps, b/w photos. 490 pages, 406 pages text*, ISBN 9781932714845, $22.95

SICKLES AT GETTYSBURG: The Controversial Civil War General Who Committed Murder, Abandoned Little Round Top, and Declared Himself the Hero of GettysburgFew Civil War subjects lend themselves to as many questions and as much controversy as Daniel Sickles. Praised by some and vilified by more Sickles is as dividing a figure in Civil War history as there is. In his masterful work Sickles at Gettysburg author James Hessler, while leaving the decision as to Sickles legacy to the reader, puts him out there with all his wrinkles.

Dan Sickles life is a remarkable collection of stories that are woven together with skill in a way that makes each piece vital to the whole story. While primarily covering Sickles actions at Gettysburg, Hessler includes the rest of Sickles life and this helps show readers the pattern of arrogance that Sickles showed throughout his entire life.

Sickles' political career began when he associated himself with the Tammany Hall Democrats and continued rising with his election to the New York Assembly in 1847. During this time he was what might be called a playboy and even his 1852 marriage did not slow this down. In 1855 he was elected to the New York Senate and in 1856 was elected to the U.S. Congress. Tiring of her husband's free ways Teresa Sickles took part in an affair of her own with Philip Barton Key. Sickles ultimately murdered Key and the resulting trial produced a not guilty verdict with what now may be called a temporary insanity defense. Hessler traces the trial and evidence effectively showing the male dominated society of the time.

The Civil War is the next big event in Sickles life and here he uses his political skill to continue receiving bigger and larger appointments. Sickles contacts and recruiting abilities eventually landed himself command of the III Corps as a Major General. Sickles certainly was what would be called a political general. Sickles role at Chancellorsville and his famous role at Gettysburg are covered in depth. Sickles unwillingness to follow orders while at  Gettysburg is of course legendary and his move from Meade's fishhook forward to the Wheatfield thus leaving Little Round Top uncovered will be debated as long as the Civil War is studied. It can be argued that his move was genius by tying up Longstreet's men or that it could have proven a disaster and without luck and skill from others have cost the Union the battle. Ultimately we all know what happened but Hessler gives us plenty of ammunition with which to make our own decisions.

After Sickles injury at Gettysburg much of the rest of his life is spent attempting to promote his war legacy most often at the expense of General George Meade. Post war oddities such as his late in life friendship with Confederate General James Longstreet and also the controversy of Sickles being awarded the Medal of Honor more than 30 years after the war are adequately covered as well. Perhaps Sickles great legacy however were his battlefield preservation efforts. Until 1974 Gettysburg National Military Park boundaries were set based upon maps produced by Sickles. And while Sickles himself does not have a monument (well, we all know the whole battlefield is his monument) he does have a road name after him and he was also an early proponent of there being both Union and Confederate markers on the field.

This is an excellent book that will no doubt be a starting point for future research on Sickles. A full bibliography and detailed end notes show the depth of the research Hessler has done. Illustrated with maps from Brad Gottfried and printed on high quality paper this is the standard from noted publisher Savas Beatie. Highly recommended!

Hessler is the winner of the 2009 Bachelder-Coddington Literary Award from the Robert E. Lee Civil War Round Table of Central New Jersey and was also a finalist for the Army Historical Foundation's Biography category for the 2009 Distinguished Writing Award.

For further information please check this Facebook page or the Sickles at Gettysburg web page.

* Page counts are based upon the hardcover version which is what I read. ISBN and price information is based upon the trade paperback.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with this review. It is a very good book about Sickles and his remarkable career.

    Readers may want to visit to see a series of posts, including videos, by Mr. Hessler. I thought they added a lot to the book, especially being able to see the land that Sickles disliked so much.