- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 8, 2002

By Thomas Keneally
Doubleday. 397 pg. $27.50
Reviewed by Erin Solaro

Thomas Keneally's biography of Dan Edgar Sickles makes for sordid reading, not because Keneally is prurient, but because Sickles was thoroughly dishonorable.
Dan Sickles died in April 1914 at the age of 94. A year earlier, he had been arrested for appropriating about $28,000 from the New York Monuments Commission.The man who discovered the discrepancy, State Controller William Somer, started a drive to cover Sickles' embezzlement, and Helen B. Longstreet, daughter of the Confederate general, undertook to "raise money among the ragged, destitute, maimed veterans who followed Lee. The Republic, whose battles you fought, will not permit your degradation."
That was not the only example of Sickles' financial irresponsibility. In 1912, his estranged second wife, Caroline de Creagh Sickles, paid a $8,020 judgment against him, took a second mortgage on his house for him and pawned some of her jewels to pay a debt of $5,050 to prevent foreclosure on his home, despite a relationship he carried on with the housekeeper.
Sickles was born during the yellow fever summer of 1819 to parents of such means that when they became alarmed by his teen-age behavior, they arranged for him to live in the household of Lorenzo Da Ponte Sr., a department chairman at Columbia University. It was unwise. Sickles probably already was using the services of prostitutes, and Da Ponte had a history of frequently disastrous affairs.
As a young man, Sickles studied law, became active in Democratic politics and worked on a bill to create what is now New York City's Central Park. In 1853, at age 33, he was appointed first secretary to the American legation in London.
"A trim-waisted, neatly made fellow of just under average height, he carried in his luggage excellent suits and, for use at the British court, the uniform of a colonel of New York militia. Yet there was in this stylish New Yorker a tendency to embrace poles of behavior, to go from coolness to delirium in a second, and from statesmanship to excess," writes Mr. Keneally, an Australian novelist whose many books include "Schindler's List." Sickles' "tendency towards berserk and full-blooded risk was partly characteristic of the city he had grown up in, the age he lived in, and his own soul."
His 15-year-old wife, Teresa Bagioli, one of Da Ponte's granddaughters, and their infant daughter, Laura, too young to face the rigors of an Atlantic crossing, stayed behind in New York.Accompanying him was the wealthy prostitute Fanny White, whom he presented to Queen Victoria herself.Upon his return to New York, Sickles submitted the bills he had run up in Britain to the U.S. Treasury. The Treasury refused to pay, infuriating his British creditors, but he was beyond their reach.
Sickles' life was defined by two later incidents. The first took place on Feb. 24, 1859, when, as one of New York's Democratic congressmen, he killed Philip Barton Key for having an affair with Teresa.Had Sickles been faithful, or even discreet in his adulteries and attentive to his wife, the murder of Key in Lafayette Park across from the White House would have been tragic, for Sickles' deranged grief at Teresa's affair appears to have been genuine.His neglect of his wife, however, shows him to be so appallingly self-centered that he could conceive of restoring his "honor" only by killing the unarmed Key.
Disabling Key by shooting him in the leg, Sickles shot him again in the chest and would have shot him through the head if friends not dissuaded him. Sickles was acquitted in court after pleading temporary insanity and then reconciled with his wife.
The second significant event occurred on July 2, 1863, at Gettysburg, where as a major general, Sickles took his 3rd Corps out of the Union line and advanced it forward along Emmitsburg Road and through the peach orchard to anchor it on Devil's Den. This placed 3rd Corps on higher ground than where Gen. George G. Meade originally had stationed it. Sickles was thinking of what had happened to his troops at Chancellorsville, Va. He had given up the high ground there and suffered some 4,000 casualties as a result.
Ignoring his commander's orders and intent, Sickles extended his line beyond what his 12,000 men could strongly hold and nearly unhinged the Union line on Cemetery Ridge.Some of his troops retreated in orderly fashion, and some stampeded, but by night, the Union line lay along Cemetery Ridge as Meade had first intended, although both Round Tops were held by the Union.
Sickles lost a leg above the knee in that fight. He survived the war, his social reputation redeemed by his military exploits, the near-catastrophe at Gettysburg notwithstanding. Teresa, by contrast, spent the war at their New York home at Bloomingdale, during which time her husband did not permit her to engage in such wartime good works as nursing or administering relief for the widows and orphans of her husband's fallen comrades. After living in isolation, Teresa Sickles died of tuberculosis in 1867.
Their daughter Laura, estranged from her father, died of alcoholism and tuberculosis in 1891 after having a bad marriage and being abandoned by her husband. She eked out a living as a painter. Dan Sickles had turned his back to her years before she died and did not attend her funeral.
Mr. Keneally is more fascinated by Sickles' ugly life than he should be, given that others paid for his recklessness, impetuousness and indiscipline when they weren't paying for his embezzlement. The author seems to find Sickles charmingly roguish, but there is nothing charming about a man who leaves ruin in his wake.

Erin Solaro is a master's candidate in Norwich University's diplomacy and military science program. She is writing a thesis on the 127th Infantry during the Buna, Papua New Guinea campaign of World War II.

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