New York in History and Anecdote
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“A Grand Old Hero He”

Congress, as Mark Twain tells us, is our native criminal class. Most of us believe Congressmen can get away with murder. Few get away with it in the first degree. In 1859, the Hon. Daniel Edgar Sickles, Democrat of New York, did.

Dan Sickles was a Congressman, diplomat, and soldier. He executed secret missions at the direction of three Presidents. A Queen of Spain would be his mistress, and not even his worst enemies questioned his iron courage, confirmed by the Medal of Honor. But the New York World called him a thief, perjurer, murderer, and pimp without fear of a lawsuit. (The paper withdrew the last charge.) Diarist George Templeton Strong wrote, “One might as well try to spoil a rotten egg as to damage Dan’s character.”

He was born in 1819 (later, he claimed 1823, 1824, and even 1825) in New York. Dan Sickles read law and hung out his shingle at 79 Nassau Street in 1843. He was indicted for obtaining money under false pretenses before he was old enough to vote. The Court of General Sessions later ordered him to show cause why he should not be prosecuted for misappropriation of funds. Later still he would be accused of raising campaign funds only to pocket them.

According to W. A. Swanberg in Sickles the Incredible, Dan was “a tough Democrat; a fighting one; a Tammany Hall Democrat.” He tampered with ballot boxes, brawled (he was once thrown down a flight of stairs at Tammany Hall during a caucus and fought his way out at gunpoint), and even robbed the U.S. mails (he broke into a post office and stole an opponent’s campaign mailing).

He also, as Swanberg puts it, “drank to the dregs the cup of dissipation.” Sickles lived for several years with Fanny White, a voluptuous brunette who ran a classy love store on Mercer Street. After his election to the Assembly in 1847, he even brought her into the Assembly Chamber. Several legislators recognized Fanny, which must have raised some cynical questions even then, and the Assembly censured him.

In 1852, Sickles married Teresa Bagioli, a sweet-natured, inexperienced girl of sixteen. (Teresa had been raised at 91 Spring Street, in the house of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist for Le Nozzi di Figaro, Cosi Fan Tutti, and Don Giovanni.) During the following year, after brief but lucrative service as New York City’s Corporation Counsel, Dan was appointed secretary of legation in London by President Franklin Pierce. He became fast friends with the American minister, James Buchanan, a kindly political hack. Buchanan became fond of Teresa as well. Some newspapers later speculated that Dan had pimped his wife to Old Buck, whose tastes were probably otherwise inclined.

After returning to New York in 1855, Sickles was elected a state senator, where he helped pass the legislation creating Central Park and persuaded Governor Horatio Seymour to sign it. In the following year, Sickles, who was among Buchanan’s earliest supporters for President, ran for Congress from the Third District, which encompassed Manhattan south of City Hall Park and west of Broadway up to Houston Street.

Both Old Buck and Young Dan were elected. Sickles rented a house on Lafayette Square in Washington, moved in Teresa and their daughter Laura, and began getting jobs for his buddies, including a new acquaintance, Philip Barton Key, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. He was the son of Francis Scott Key, of “Star Spangled Banner” fame. Both Swanberg and Nat Brandt, in his The Congressman Who Got Away With Murder, describe Key as a tall, handsome, swaggering lecher who once boasted he needed a woman’s acquaintance for only thirty-six hours to work his will with her.

Sickles was busy with politics and the law and paid little attention to his wife. Key and Teresa began a flirtation in early 1858. In April or May they first made love—on a large red sofa in Sickles’ Washington residence.

On February 24, 1859, Dan received an anonymous letter. It read in part, “[Key] hangs a string out of the window as a signal to her that he is in and leaves the door unfastened and she walks in and sir I do assure you he has as much the use of your wife as you have.” On the night of February 26, Sickles confronted Teresa. She confessed, writing, “There was a bed…I did what is usual for a wicked woman to do….I…undressed myself, and he also; went to bed together.”

Sickles seemed nearly demented. According to his friends’ testimony, they found him pacing, eyes “bloodshot and red,” uttering fearful groans, that “seemed to come from his very feet.” On the next morning, Key made his last mistake. He was signalling Teresa with a handkerchief from Lafayette Square when Sickles saw him. Dan seized two derringers and a revolver and dashed downstairs. Brandt describes the Congressman running toward the U. S. Attorney, shouting, “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my house, you must die.” He fired. The shot grazed Key. They wrestled. Sickles, dropping the gun, fell back into the street. He pulled out a second weapon.

Key screamed, “Don’t murder me!” Sickles fired again, striking Key in the body. As Key fell to the ground, pleading for his life, Sickles pulled the trigger. Misfire. He recocked and pulled again. Misfire. Sickles recocked, put the weapon to Key’s chest, and fired a bullet through his body. One witness, a White House page, ran to tell the President. Old Buck immediately gave the boy some money and sent him back to North Carolina.

Despite a dozen witnesses, the U.S. Attorney’s office would lose the case to a new-fangled defense: temporary insanity. As Brandt points out, insanity as a defense goes to the question of intent: whether the accused had the mental capacity to form the intent to commit a crime. Sickles’ lead counsel, James T. Brady, took this a step further: whether Sickles had been temporarily insane at the time he killed Key.

Having allowed Sickles’ lawyers to plead the defense, the judge permitted them to put in evidence about the illicit affair, which became relevant for the effect of learning about it on Sickles. Thus, by proving Key and Teresa guilty of adultery, the defense persuaded the jury to find Dan not guilty of murder. Nonetheless, Dan was shunned. He did not seek re-election in 1860.

The Civil War saved him. He raised a brigade of New Yorkers, was commissioned a brigadier general, and led his men at Fredericksburg, Antietam, and Chancellorsville. According to Ezra J. Warner’s Generals in Blue, by June, 1863, Major General Sickles commanded the Third Corps of the Army of the Potomac.

The Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee commanding, had advanced into Pennsylvania. On July 1, 1863, the Union and Confederate forces stumbled into each other at Gettysburg. Meade expected Lee’s assault on his right. He placed Sickles on the extreme left, holding two small hills, Round Top and Little Round Top. Sickles’s scouts and pickets kept telling him of heavy enemy activity in his front. By the morning of July 2, Sickles had persuaded himself the Round Tops were best defended “by putting myself in front of them.” The Third Corps moved 2,000 yards forward, out of the Union line, to take positions in places we now call the Peach Orchard and the Devil’s Den.

Around 3:30 PM, General Meade and his staff galloped up. Rarely had Meade’s meager gift for self-control been so tested. Meade said, politely, “General, I fear you are too far out.” Sickles expressed, with equal grace, his disagreement. Then the artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia opened fire on Sickles’s front, the Confederate buglers sounded the charge, and the rebel yell rose beyond the wheat fields. General James Longstreet, “Old Pete,” had shifted his troops during the night. Sickles’s instincts had been correct: the attack would come on the left.

Meade reinforced Sickles. The Third Corps stubbornly yielded ground. One of every three men would be a casualty. Swanberg states that in one of Sickles’s regiments the commanding colonel was shot. The major who took command was immediately wounded. Command devolved upon a captain, who was killed, as were the other officers. When the firing stopped, the regiment was commanded by a corporal. But the Union line held.

Sickles had been under fire all day. At 6:30 p.m., a cannonball knocked him from his horse. They loaded him onto a stretcher for the trip to the sawbones, where the shattered right leg would come off. Sickles insisted on first lighting a Havana. Only then, jauntily puffing his cigar, did the old smoke leave the field.

In many ways, he never left it. Ever since, soldiers and historians have questioned his conduct at Gettysburg. After the war, Philip Sheridan, the Union cavalry commander, examined the battlefield “very carefully,” and said Dan “could have done nothing but to move out as he did,” for if he had not, “General Meade would have been forced…to withdraw the Army.” In 1902, James Longstreet wrote that Dan “had saved…the Union cause.” Horatio King, one of Sickles’s admirers, wrote:

I see him on that famous field,
The bravest of the brave,
Where Longstreet’s legions strove to drive
The Third Corps to its grave
The fight was bloody, fierce, and long
And Sickles’ name shall stay
Forever in the Hall of Fame
As he who saved the day.

When Sickles had recovered, Lincoln sent him on intelligence missions, first to the occupied South and then to the Republic of Columbia. President Johnson later appointed him military governor of the Carolinas. And President Grant made Sickles minister to Spain, where he exceeded his instructions by conspiring with local politicians of all factions. Then he went to Paris to intrigue with the exiled Queen Isabella II.

Though not a great queen, Isabella was a great personality, with presence, dignity, courage, and in nearly everything save her private life, common sense. She carried herself magnificently and exuded sensuality from every pore. To call her shamelessly promiscuous, though accurate, seems almost unfair. Her marriage had been arranged to a homosexual princeling, and of their wedding night, Isabella later murmured,  “What can I say of a man who wore more lace than I did?” Most historians of her reign suggest that each of her children had been fathered by a different man. A rake like Sickles was the kind of man she liked and they did not resist each other.

Thus, the minister of the United States became the lover of the Queen of Spain and the Indies. She was indiscreet: the Madrid press called Dan “The Yankee King of Spain,” and President Grant recalled him to an even more tempestuous life in politics, law, and high finance.

Some two decades later, despite Dan’s astonishing load of baggage, the voters sent Dan back to Congress in 1892. The old campaigner, hobbling to the podium, brought audiences roaring to their feet: “Who won the victory at Gettysburg? On the left fought General Slocum, a Democrat. On the right fought General John Reynolds, a Democrat…And in the Devil’s Den fought a man named Sickles…a Democrat.”

He died on May 3, 1914 in his townhouse at 21 Fifth Avenue. Five days later, a horse-drawn caisson left Washington’s Union Station, bearing Dan’s body in a mahogany coffin draped in the Stars and Stripes. A young officer led a riderless, prancing stallion, its saddle blanket bearing a major general’s two stars and a single spurred boot reversed in the stirrups.

Daniel Sickles lies at Arlington among the men he commanded at Antietam and Chancellorsville, in the Peach Orchard and the Devil’s Den. His leg is on permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian, in a glass case.

New York Press, February 3, 1999

February 1, 2015   No Comments