- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

Book examines disputed actions of two Union generals at Gettysburg

In his latest book, Richard A. Sauers provides what will probably remain the definitive account of the famous controversy between two Union commanders at Gettysburg.

Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles so exposed his flanks at the southern, left end of the Union line on the Pennsylvania battlefield that the subsequent Confederate attack might well have produced a Southern victory. Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, the overall Union commander, was shocked to find that Sickles had deployed his Third Corps far forward of the line he had been ordered to hold. By the time Meade learned what Sickles had done, it was too late to redeploy the corps and Meade could do no more than reprimand him.

Sickles lost more than a third of his corps of 11,000 men in the battle that followed. Sickles’ own right leg was crushed by a cannonball and was amputated. In the end, the Union left flank was not turned by the Confederates, in good part because of the brave defense of Little Round Top by Col. Joshua Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Regiment, depicted most notably in the film “Gettysburg.”

Sickles thereafter during his long life (he died in 1914) insisted that he done right at Gettysburg — and that Meade had been a poor commander. He had moved his corps forward, he said, in the absence of orders. Meade naturally defended himself, until his death in 1872, but rather than castigate Sickles he limited himself to saying that Sickles had misunderstood his orders.

The author admits that he became very biased against Sickles during his long research for the book. But if the author is biased, his book is sound.

Sickles began his public self-justification only months after the battle, during testimony in 1864 before the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War. The committee was controlled by Radical Republicans who wanted Meade removed from command. Meade clearly made missteps; most notably, in not following up his victory at Gettysburg by swiftly pursuing and destroying Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army as the Confederate commander retreated southward. If that distressed members of the joint congressional committee critical of Abraham Lincoln, it had distressed Lincoln still more.

Sickles, like many other generals North and South, had no military experience before the war. (Meade, in contrast, had spent most of his career in the Army after graduating from West Point in 1835.)

Sickles was born to a prosperous New York family in 1819 and became in turn a lawyer, a Democratic politician in the days of Tammany Hall and the assistant to the American envoy in London, James Buchanan. In 1856, Buchanan was elected president and Sickles won a seat in the House of Representatives. In 1859, Sickles shot to death his wife’s lover in Lafayette Square. His victim was a prominent man, a district attorney who was the son of our national anthem’s author Francis Scott Key; but Sickles was found innocent after pleading temporary insanity — the first acquittal on such grounds.

All this is told, in more detail than Mr. Sauers has room to recount, in the well-written new biography of Sickles by Thomas Keneally (Doubleday, 2002), which is properly titled “American Scoundrel.” Readers may round out their view of Sickles and of Gettysburg by reading, besides Sauers and Keneally, the newest and one of the best overall accounts of the battle, “Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage” by Noah Andre Trudeau (HarperCollins, 2002).

In April 1861, soon after the attack on Fort Sumter, Sickles was authorized by New York Gov. Edwin Morgan to organize a Union regiment. The regiment expanded to a brigade, with Sickles in command as brigadier general. His troops saw action in the major campaigns in Virginia, and Mr. Sauers says Sickles performed well in the first real test of his combat leadership at Chancellorsville in May 1863. There are several accounts of the brigadier directing his men in cool and calm fashion as battle raged around him.

On July 1, 1863, Sickles, now promoted to major general and corps commander, brought his troops north to Gettysburg, as battle was looming, on the basis of somewhat contradictory orders from Meade. On arrival, he reported to Meade’s chief of staff that “This is a good battle-field but that Our left and rear are not sufficiently guarded.”

Meade later spoke with Sickles and instructed him to hold the Union left. He was to deploy his corps in a line stretching south along Cemetery Ridge, from the left flank of the Second Corps to Little Round Top. Sickles did this but grew concerned about a low area along the line, between the end of Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top, that might not be defensible. He also saw that there were low ridges west of his present line and, as Mr. Sauers recounts in detail, he decided to take action to keep the Confederates from occupying them.

When Sickles had finished his new deployments on July 2, much of his force was along the Emmitsburg Road. This was more than three-quarters of a mile west toward Confederate lines from Cemetery Ridge, where Meade assumed Sickles and his corps had remained.

Sickles’ men occupied a peach orchard that stood along the road on slightly higher ground, just a third of a mile southeast from a wheat field — each would figure prominently in the battle.

As Mr. Trudeau reports, Sickles’ exposed positions came under fierce Confederate attack and the fighting sucked in much of the adjacent Second Corps and the Union reserve. Sickles’ men fell back from the orchard and the wheat field, and behind them a rocky area soon named Devil’s Den became a site of carnage. In the end, the Union held.

The following day came George Pickett’s desperate charge against the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, and the ultimate Union victory. Sickles, now minus a leg, arrived in Washington by train. He was soon visited by the president, who was full of praise and interested to hear Sickles’ account of why he had sent his men so far forward. Mr. Keneally in his book says that it was at this point that Sickles began his campaign to discredit Meade — before Meade could discredit Sickles.

Lincoln, already worried that Meade was not following up on his victory, was willing to listen. The controversy between Sickles and Meade continued beyond Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the war two years later.

During Reconstruction, Sickles commanded the Second Military District, comprising North Carolina and South Carolina, and despite criticism of his service he was made American minister to Spain in 1869, serving until 1874. Perhaps his most interesting accomplishment in those years came not in Madrid but in Paris, where he carried on an affair with the former Spanish queen.

This, however, goes beyond Mr. Sauers’ main subject, the actions of two generals at Gettysburg. The author concludes that Meade’s main shortcoming, as regards his controversy with Sickles, was his failure to examine his army’s left flank personally until it was too late to countermand what Sickles had done. What Sickles had done, in moving forward, was to jeopardize the entire Federal line.

Peter Bridges is a retired Foreign Service officer and former ambassador to Somalia. His most recent book is “Pen of Fire: John Moncure Daniel.”

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