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The Civil War General Who Took His Dates to See His Severed Leg at the Smithsonian Museum

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 21, 2024 3:03 am

The Civil War General Who Took His Dates to See His Severed Leg at the Smithsonian Museum

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 21, 2024 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Gettysburg National Park Service Ranger Matt Atkinson tells the story of the Civil War general who created the "temporary insanity" plea, got his leg shot off by General Longstreet, and helped form the Gettysburg National Military Park—Dan Sickles.

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Take it away. So what we're going to talk about tonight is Dan Sickles. And old Dan Sickles, if you don't know anything about Dan Sickles, you're in for a heck of a ride. He just defies description.

It's out of a straight out of a movie or something. So, Uncle Dan is born on October 19, 1819 in New York City. He attended New York University and studied law under none other than the future Union General Benjamin F. Butler. His early years were marked already with graft. He was accused of stealing money from another man, he embezzled money meant for a political pamphlet, and he was accused of mortgage fraud. The connections made though through Butler opened a new world to Dan Sickles.

And that new world was politics. He quickly moved up the graft plague Tammany Hall political machine, which he literally had to fight in at different points, with knife and gun and so forth. And he became the corporation council to the city at age 28, despite all those things in his background.

He later rode that political machine to be a New York state senator from 1856 to 1857, and he served in Congress from 1857 to 1861. Needless to say, what little I've told you so far ought to give you an indication of what type of person he is. Dan Sickles is impulsive. He is amoral. He does not wait on the whims of society whether he should be doing something or not. And he definitely does not pay attention to laws.

As a lawyer once famously told me, Matt you cannot change the law, but you can certainly change the facts. And Dan Sickles is going to be very good at that right there. Sickles lived a fast life. He went through the equivalent of several fortunes, and I mean fortunes by today's standards, millions of dollars in the 1800s.

He blew through all that. And of course on the other side of it, a lot of that money, he also had a passionate side for the ladies. Her name was Theresa Bagulia. He had met her while she was a little girl, and he was studying law at the home of her parents, when now she had grown up. They were married by the mayor of New York, but what did Sickles do? He was married and I think he truly loved this lady. I believe he did, but Sickles was just a formality to him. He's going to be on the move.

He would become the American, and this is really on the move, he would become the American Legation Secretary to James Buchanan at the court of St. James in January of 1853. That's the year after he got married. But this is what Dan Sickles plays well. This is what Dan Sickles plays well. On July 4th of 1854, Sickles' touchy sense of patriotism boiled over when native Bostonian George Peabody gave a dinner to celebrate Anglo-American relations. Sickles did not like celebrating the 4th of July with foreigners, and when he arrived at the party, he found 150 guests, mostly Englishmen.

There were two life-size portraits there, one of Queen Victoria and the king, and at the end of the room with only a small portrait on the opposite end of George Washington. And to top it all off, the toast of Washington would be given by an Englishman. The program for the evening had the Star Spangled Banner and Hail Columbia lyrics with all negative references to England removed. And after the speech with Dan Sickles sitting there, it came time for the toast, that's the way they used to do it. 150 people rose, and then when they said they would place their right foot upon their chair, and then somebody would say, to the Queen, and everybody would echo that, and drink a toast. Out of 150 people, 149 stood up, except for Daniel E. Sickles. Sickles is going to basically get kicked out of England for that, because it's going to cause a royal mess, because he's insulted the Queen. But did he do that, because he really felt that strongly about the night's activities, the program, or was it a political calculation?

Because when he made it back to New York, what did America think of him? Anybody that tweaked the nose of John Bull was a hero. Sickles is not finished. Sickles loved society, he loved public life, and he loved both official and unofficial business. He had made the acquaintance of a gentleman named Philip Barton Key. Philip Barton Key, who's on the left right there, was the District Attorney of the District of Columbia, and the son of Francis Scott Key. Now with Sickles' blessing, Key started to escort Theresa to various social functions, and Key was described as one of the most handsomest men in Washington. And of course with Sickles not being around, an absentee husband, it didn't take long for romance to blossom between these two, Sickles' wife and Mr. Key's. Key was known as a poor lawyer, and Sickles interceded on his behalf and saved his job as a congressman. A rumor came to Sickles about the affair, and he confronted Key with it only to have it denied to his face.

And you know what Sickles did? He believed him. By this time, with Sickles being gone so much, the affair had gotten so serious that Key had obtained a rental house a few blocks from the Sickles' home in Lafayette Square, right across the street from the White House. Neighbors began to see an elegant couple enter and leave the dwelling. The two also had signals. One example is Key would walk in front of the Sickles residence swinging a handkerchief as a signal for a rendezvous. He would sometimes sit across the square with a pair of opera glasses and stare at the house's window looking for a sign from Teresa.

On February 24, 1859, everything came crashing down. Sickles received an anonymous note saying that an affair was going on. Two days later, he extracted a written confession out of Teresa with all the tawdry details.

Only a southerner can pronounce the word tawdry. Unaware of what had happened the next day, February 27, three days after he received the note, Key approached the Sickles' home waving a handkerchief. Sickles was upstairs and saw Key down below. Quote, That villain has just passed my house.

My God, this is horrible. Sickles sent a friend outside to delay Key while he went inside and concealed a revolver and two derringers in his coat and went after Philip Barton. Approaching Key, he exclaimed, Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my house.

You must die. And with that, Key reached inside his coat pocket. Sickles fires the pistol and the shot grazes Key. Key then rushed forward and grabbed Dan and the two wrestled and Sickles dropped the gun before breaking free from the wrestling match. Sickles then produced another gun from his pocket and Key, reaching inside his coat, retrieved some opera glasses and flung them at Sickles exclaiming, murder, murder, don't shoot. Sickles pulled the trigger and the shot hit Key right below the groin.

He fell to the pavement. And you've been listening to the story of Dan Sickles being told by Matt Atkinson, who's a ranger at the Gettysburg National Park. And when we come back, we're going to find out what happens at Dan Sickles' trial here on Our American Story.

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Yes, the son of Francis Scott Key. And he was about to be placed on trial. Here again is Gettysburg National Military Ranger, Matt Atkinson.

Let's return to the story. Sickles will be placed in the DC jail. He will never stay in a cell.

He will actually stay in the jailer's quarters. It will be arguably, at least for this region of the country, the most sensational trial of the century. During the midst of this trial by jury, none other than President Buchanan is going to come in and shake Sickles' hand in front of the jury. What does that tell the jury?

It means he supports him. Sickles will have the dream team defense lawyers. And for the first time, they will argue to the jury that Sickles suffered from temporary insanity. And for the first time in American jurisprudence history, Sickles will successfully use the defense of temporary insanity. In other words, Sickles walks right out of there. Got away with murder. Of course, society did what? They condoned what Sickles had done. That's justifiable homicide.

Key should not have been doing that. They condemned Sickles when he took his wife back. That's when Sickles gets booted from Congress. Probably Dan, as I said earlier, probably did really love her.

And what did he have to say about fidelity? Sickles' political career is basically over, although he still has Tammany Hall behind him. But Sickles, once again, right place, right time.

The war breaks out. Dan, Sickles comes from which party? Democrat. What party does Abraham Lincoln come from?

Republican. Every president of every war of any era is going to want bipartisan support. Because of that, Sickles is going to be one of the first Democrats to come out in favor of a Republican war.

And you know what else Dan does? He backs up his patriotism with his own money. And he raises not a regiment of troops, but a whole brigade. And Lincoln embraces both things.

The support for the war and him being a Democrat. And more importantly, Dan Sickles, when he gets his Brigadier General Commission, he becomes a general very early in the war, and that's going to go into his rise, September 3rd 1861, after he raises what will become known as the New York Excelsior Brigade. Now he was promoted, fast forward a little bit here, he was promoted to major general to rank from November 29th 1862.

Sickles was assigned to corps command that winter, 62, 63. What you need to know as far as us going into Gettysburg, probably one of the more famous stories from the battle of Gettysburg, is actually the wounding of Dan Sickles. Dan Sickles is going to be back at the Trostle farm, and he's going to be sitting astride his horse.

It's got to be a one in a million shot. And you know when you're sitting in the saddle, that when you lean down you're sitting in the saddle, your knees go out. One in a million shot, Sickles is going to feel something warm, he's going to take his hand, he's going to reach down to his leg, and he is going to pull back something warm.

What is that warm? Blood. A Confederate solid shot has come in and smashed, or a piece of shrapnel has come in and smashed his leg. You know the horse was unscathed. This is what Sickles wrote, I never knew I was hit.

I was riding the lines and was tremendously interested in the terrific fighting, I bet he was. Suddenly I was conscious of dampness along the lower part of my right leg, and I ran my hand down the leg of my high top boots, and pulling it out I was surprised to see it dripping with blood. Soon I noticed the leg would not perform its usual functions. I lifted it carefully over my horse's neck, and slid to the ground. They found that the knee had been smashed, probably by a piece of shell, and that the leg had been broken above and also below the knee. But while all this damage had been done, I had not been unhorsed. At first age wrapped a handkerchief around Sickles' leg, then a saddle strap was brought and used as a tourniquet, and Sickles is carried off on a stretcher, and at some point, as all American generals do, when the word went around that he was dead, Sickles had himself propped up on his shoulders, and that lit cigar stuck into his mouth.

And that's the way he left the battlefield, smoking a cigar. Later that evening, his leg is amputated on a farm located near the present day shopping outlets on Baltimore Pike. Sickles will have the leg preserved in a cask of alcohol, and brought with him. Being a politician, and knowing the power and symbolism of a lost limb, he donated the leg to the Army Medical Museum.

And yes, you, my fellow American taxpayers, still own it. It is true that Sickles did visit the leg. On probably his first visit to the Army Medical Museum, the curator was leading Sickles on a tour when the general uttered, oh yes, yes, but let us come to my leg. When the curator led Sickles to the exhibit, the general retorted, where's my foot? What have you done with my foot?

They should have been shown too. When the curator tried to explain that the foot was not really necessary for the exhibit, Sickles became very angry, and anathematized the museum very freely. In October of 63, Sickles is feeling much better, and he met with his boss Meade at Fairfax Station, Virginia to ask for his old command back.

Meade refused. After the war, Gettysburg continued to be a passionate thing in Sickles' life. He made an impassioned plea that the sacred battlefield be preserved, and he vowed in true Sickles fashion to do something about it. In 1893, he won reelection to Congress at the age of 74, for one term.

Two years. While there, he pushed through with irresistible energy, a bill to preserve the land that made him famous or infamous, as the case may be. Today, Sickles Avenue is actually the longest avenue within the military park. I don't know if that was intentional, but I'm sure Sickles would have agreed with it. On May 3rd, 1914, Sickles is going to pass away in New York City.

He was 94 years old. One thing was certain, the Gettysburg event was the defining moment in Dan Sickles' life, and alas, Dan Sickles, the general out of seven Union Corps commanders, one of only two that does not have a monument here, reportedly, and this is up for debate, reportedly when Dan Sickles was asked why he didn't have a statue on the battlefield, he retorted, that is because the whole damn battlefield is my monument. And great job as always to Monty for finding this story, and a special thanks to Gettysburg National Park Service for allowing us to use this audio and what a storyteller Matt Atkinson is. And by the way, that's a story you will not hear in your history class. He was a scoundrel, but in the end, look what he did. He raised the money for a brigade. Scoundrels and knaves, patriots and heroes, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference, and in this case, a scoundrel does in some very strange way become a hero. The story of Dan Sickles, here on Our American Stories.

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