Certainly one of the more interesting heroes on the rolls of Medal of Honor recipients was Daniel “Devil Dan” Sickles. He was a lawyer, politician, Civil War general and an ambassador – one of the most admired and reviled men of his time. Sickles was a mix of all that some Americans have admired in their heroes past and present. He was, of course, courageous, but also a gambler in the mode of Maverick, an undercover agent, much enamored of the fairer sex and paramour of a former queen, as per 007.
He was also deadly serious about his honor, as was another hero, Andrew Jackson, who challenged to a duel the most dangerous dueler in the country for dishonoring his wife. He was fully aware that he would be shot, and he was. The bullet missed his heart by a fraction and remained in place the rest of his life. Despite the deadly wound, he stood his ground and killed his adversary. He told his astonished doctor he would have lived long enough to kill his wife’s disparager had he been shot in the head. Lot of honor in the man, as there was in Sickles.
Sickles, despite his reputation as a lady’s man ( he was censored for bringing a known prostitute into Congress), tracked a man who had an affair with his wife through Washington, D.C., and shot him to death in Lafayette Park in the shadow of the White House. The unfortunate adulterer happened to be Philip Key, the son of Francis Scott Key, the author of our National Anthem. In a sensational trial, Sickles was acquitted on the grounds of temporary insanity, a first in legal jurisprudence. It may also have been the first time a member of Congress was tried for murder.
Sickles was hailed as a hero for saving the Washington ladies from the scoundrel Key, described as the handsomest man in Washington. In a surprising display of compassion, or perhaps because of his conscience, Sickles forgave his wife, knowing that the mores of the time denounced her actions as unforgivable and would condemn him for it – which they did.
The compassionate side of Sickles was evident during the war, when he refused to return slaves who escaped to his Union camp. He put some on the payroll and trained others to be soldiers. After the war, he commanded much of the South during reconstruction. In this capacity he outlawed discrimination against Blacks and demanded they be treated fairly. He was sensitive to the rights of the southern farmers and protected their land and wages. He also outlawed whiskey which, considering his reputation, must have been painful.
Sickles was a political general, as were many other generals in the Civil War. And, of course, as is the wont of politicians, many were dedicated to glamorizing themselves and de-glamorizing others. Some resented the celebrity of Sickles and acted accordingly. Sickles was by most accounts an effective general, seeing action in four major campaigns (ending at Gettysburg, often described as the turning point in the War; and Sickles may have been instrumental in that victory). And he may not have been, depending on which political general one is to believe. In any event, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg.
On the second day of that battle, Sickles was hit by a cannonball that smashed his right leg. He never lost consciousness and, in an effort to raise the spirits of his men (who admired him greatly), puffed on a cigar and smiled at them as he was carried off to have his leg amputated. Three days later, President Lincoln and his son visited him in the hospital. Lincoln obviously disagreed with Sickles’ detractors.
Sickles was aware of an effort by the Army Surgeon General to collect “specimens of morbid anatomy” and sent his leg to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, where it remains today.
Many of the generals who fought at Gettysburg have been memorialized with statues, not so general Sickles. When reminded of this he simply declared that the entire battlefield was his memorial. In any event none of the other generals have a memorial to their leg, as does Sickles. It may be the most famous leg in the annals of warfare, surely the only one with a statue in its honor.
He spent his later years championing veterans causes and often visited his leg. We will also be able visit his leg when it is displayed at Arlington’s NMOHM along with other memorabilia of this most remarkable man.