The American Civil War, like any conflict, produced a cast of both famous and infamous characters and personalities throughout its brutal span. Whilst some, like General Sedgwick and his famous last words, (“Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist-“) will always hold a special place in our hearts , it’s hard not to give center stage to General D.E. Sickles, the subject of this week’s article, a man whose amputated leg was perhaps more famous than he was.
Born in 1819 in New York, Daniel Edgar Sickles conducted his early life in reasonably the same fashion he would throughout his entire earthly tenure – committing crimes and incompetencies and getting away with it almost every time. Calling him a socialite was putting it mildly, even after marrying the sophisticated, intelligent and beautiful Teresa Bagioli, he frequented brothels with intense regularity and with brazen attitude, at one point presenting a known prostitute under the alias of a New York politician to Queen Victoria. While holding many posts, including Secretary of the U.S. delegation in London, and member of the New York State Senate, yet meanwhile continued his rampant debauchery, much to the embarrassment of his young wife and family.
If it’s not obvious by now, Sickles was a man of impulse, and such lack of self control caused these impulses to manifest in jealous violent rage, when in 1859, he shot and killed Philip Barton Key II, following his discovery of an affair between the young man and his wife. Employing the very best legal counsel that New York had to offer, he was fully acquitted, with ‘temporary insanity’ being his defense, the first time in legal history that such an argument was utilized.
During the civil war, Sickles skillfully utilized his political influence to rise to the rank of Brigadier-General of the III Corps, despite having no military experience. He was however popular with his soldiers, if not as loved by his superiors. Associated with what was considered the worst of the Union Army due to general debauchery, Sickles and his peers were considered:
“…the disgrace and bane of this army; they are our three humbugs, intriguers, and demagogues.”
He wasn’t entirely without competence as a military leader and fought with distinction in several sites including Williamsburg. It wasn’t until Gettysburg that his character got the better of him, resulting in the tragic loss of most of his command – as well as his leg.
Disobeying a direct order from his superior General Meade, Sickles advanced out of a depression and away from protective flanks to occupy ‘Peach Orchard’, a slight hill a mile from his position towards the Confederate lines, believing it would give him a crucial advantage. Instead this exposed his men to attack and artillery bombardment on three sides. It wasn’t long before his Corp was under devastating attack, resulting in almost complete annihilation of his command. 4,039 men were killed and wounded, along with General Sickle himself.
During the bombardment, Sickle’s command headquarters came under direct artillery fire, and he was hit with an errant 12lb cannonball which shattered his right leg below the knee. He was carried from the tent and moved to a nearby barn. Legend has it that he smoked on a cigar and smiled during his relocation to keep morale high – although it is more likely that he was excited to be getting away from the results of his ruined tactical maneuvers.
Using a saddle strap as a tourniquet, Dr Thomas Sim amputated the limb ‘low on the thigh’ and Sickles recuperated in Washington D.C.. However, unlike most limbs severed during the pitch of battle, piled unceremoniously outside the surgeon’s tent, Sickles ordered his leg separated from the rest and kept. Perhaps eager to preserve his reputation as a wounded veteran of Gettysburg to distract from his disastrous actions, he kept the remnants of his leg with him and paraded them wherever he went.
General Sickles finally relinquished possession of the leg following a directive from the Surgeon General William Hammond:
“…to forward to the office of the Surgeon General, all specimens of morbid anatomy, surgical or medical, which may be regarded as valuable, together with projectives and foreign bodies removed…”
He contained the bones of his leg in a small coffin-shaped box with the note: “Compliments of General D.E.S.” However Sickle appeared to miss his leg and made an anniversary trip to visit his leg for years afterwards. It’s not known why, but it is apparent that his circumstantial disability brought him much credibility in the public and he frequented many social events without a prosthetic, despite his ability to use one.
His reputation as a scoundrel continued through his autumn years, his success no doubt buoyed by his injury. Following meeting him, Mark Twain remarked that Sickles appeared to “value the leg he lost more than the one he’s got”, continuing “I’m sure if he had to part with one he would prefer to lose the one he still has.”
Sickles died in 1914 of cerebral hemorrhage at the grand old age of 95, both physically and fiscally incapacitated. His leg was not buried with him, and his bones remain on display to this day.