2002.11.13 Dan Sickles has a leg up on crooked politicians

Written by David Green.


Is everybody else as happy as me that the negative political campaigning is over for a while? Besides, none of the latter day politicians can hold a candle to Dan Sickles. Sickles, subject of the book American Scoundrel by Thomas Keneally, didn’t just have a skeleton in the closet, he had a warehouse full.

 Sickles was born in New York City in 1819. His involvement with the Tammany Hall political machine enabled him to take the bar exam without attending law school. Later, he was asked to go to England as first secretary to the new U.S. Minister, James Buchanan.

 Sickles was married, with an infant daughter too young to make the trip by ship to England. Rather than go alone, Sickles brought along his favorite prostitute, one Fanny White. At White’s urging, Sickles even took her to a Buckingham Palace reception, where she was presented to Queen Victoria.

Sickles worked well with Buchanan and urged the longtime presidential aspirant to try again in 1856. With Sickles’ help, Buchanan won New York state and the election, while Sickles also was elected—to Congress from New York City.

While in Washington, Sickles continued to cheat on his wife and eventually Teresa Sickles began an affair herself with widower Phillip Barton Key, Washington’s federal District Attorney. Key, son of Francis Scott Key of “Star-Spangled Banner” fame, even rented a home where he and Mrs. Sickles could meet.

When Sickles learned of his wife’s activities, he murdered Key in Washington’s Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House. President Buchanan, who was home at the time, would have been an eyewitness had he been looking out one of the front windows. When informed of the shooting by a White House page who did witness it, Buchanan gave him money and sent him home to South Carolina to get him out of the way.

Almost every political friend of Sickles, short of Buchanan himself, visited him in jail. The warden offered his own office for Dan’s use, and the prisoner’s pet greyhound was even allowed to visit.

The Tammany Hall machine provided the best legal team money could buy, and using a precedent-setting plea of temporary insanity, Sickles was acquitted. He then returned to Congress and finished his term.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Sickles raised so many men for the Union Army, he asked to be named a general so he could lead them into battle. He charmed President Lincoln into pushing for his appointment and was a frequent White House visitor, even attending Mary Todd Lincoln’s seances.

Sickles gained his biggest notoriety at the Battle of Gettysburg. Dan ignored the orders  of commanding General Meade and moved his troops forward when he had been told to stay put. Sickles’ troops helped win the battle, but Dan lost a leg when hit by a Confederate cannonball.

Scholars debate Sickles’ role at Gettysburg even today. One side says the Union would have lost the battle and, perhaps, eventually the war, if Sickles had not pushed ahead over Meade’s objections.  Others say his rash action nearly lost the battle and only the sympathy gained by losing his leg saved him from court-martial.

President Lincoln, long exasperated by slow-moving generals, treated Sickles as a hero and visited the injured general as soon as he returned to Washington.

Dan’s amputated leg took on a life of its own. Army doctors had used a new technique when they removed it and sent it to Washington for research purposes. The leg was saved and put on display in the Army medical museum. After the war, the leg became a sort of “must-see” attraction for Washington visitors. One of the most frequent visitors was Sickles himself, who survived another 50 years and enjoyed seeing his old extremity. The leg is still on display today at the Walter Reed Hospital.

Lincoln sent the recovered Sickles on a mission to Columbia, where he also collected dozens of animals for the Central Park Zoo, one of his pet projects.

After the war, he was military governor of South Carolina. President Grant then appointed him minister to Spain, where Sickles had an affair with the deposed Queen Isabella II. He later remarried, but left his wife and two children behind and returned to the U.S.

He was named chairman of the New York State Monuments Commission, served another term in Congress, became friends with new neighbor Mark Twain, and never lost his attraction to the ladies.

In 1913, the 93-year-old Sickles was arrested after $28,000 was found missing in the books of the monument commission. It was his final scandal as Sickles passed away at age 94 on May 3, 1914, survived by his infamy and, of course, his leg.

    – Nov. 13, 2002 
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