When I recently read about a new book on US Major General Daniel E. Sickles, that Savas Beatie, LLC. was publishing, my interest immediately sparked. Like many of my readers, I have read a significant amount about Dan Sickles, but only as it pertained to larger battle narratives. Searching Amazon.com, for titles on Sickles, there were few to choose from. While there have been a couple of Sickles biographies over the past couple of decades, they are few, and far between. Since I hadn’t read any of the other biographies, I contacted Sarah Keeney, at Savas Beatie, to request an advanced copy. While I have about a dozen books, in my queue, awaiting review, I was anxious to get my copy, and start dissecting it. Written by James “Jim” A. Hessler, a licensed Gettysburg Battlefield guide, it is his first full length book. Doing a quick Google search on Mr. Hessler, I found several videos of him at one of my favorite blogs – Gettysburg Daily. After watching these videos, I quickly understood that Jim has an authoritative knowledge base on Sickles, and the Battle of Gettysburg. Sarah also stated that Jim would be pleased to let me interview him.
Starting the book, I realized that this was not going to be a “Pro Sickles” biography, but a balanced study of his life. A life, that had its share of controversies: the murder of Philip Barton Key, back-room maneuvering for promotion in the Army of the Potomac, his abandonment of Little Round Top at Gettysburg , his wounding, his efforts to regain command of the III Corps, and his participation in the hearings of the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War – the list goes on, and on. In the first chapter, I came upon a quote from George Templeton Strong, that I believed set the tone for the entire book, “(Sickles belonged) to the filthy sediment of the [law] profession, and lying somewhere in the lower strata. Perhaps better to say that he’s one of the bigger bubbles of the scum of the profession, swollen and windy, and puffed with a fetid gas.”(i) OK, so I was hooked.
For the next several chapters, Hessler reeled me in. He does not spend a great deal of time detailing his early life but jumps right into Sickles activities recruiting what would be the Excelsior Brigade, in chapter two, “The Making of a First Class Soldier.” Chapters two, and three, deal with his back-room politicking to obtain a brigadier generalship, which was initially not confirmed by the US Senate, his actions in his first battle at Fair Oaks (Seven Pines), his leapfrog style promotion to division command, dissension in the high command of the Army of the Potomac and his command at the Battle of Chancellorsville – a brave, but less than stellar performance where he claimed CSA General Robert E. Lee was retreating, when in fact CSA Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was making his legendary flank march which would annihilate US Major General Oliver O. Howard’s right flank – which would lead to US Major General Joe Hooker’s terrible defeat.
Chapters four, through twelve, cover his promotion to command of the III Corps (after only fighting in two battles!), his command decisions at Gettysburg and finally his wounding at the Trostle Farm. These chapters represent the “meat” of the book – his controversial decision to place his corps nearly a mile in front of the Federal line at Gettysburg, in an effort to protect his flank. In my interview with Mr. Hessler, he offered his learned opinion that this move may have been attributable to Sickles’ concern that his flank would be rolled up, as Howard’s was at Chancellorsville. The author provides a great amount of detail, in these chapters, about the tactical placement of troops, troop movements and the actual fighting that took place in areas of the Gettysburg battlefield that will forever be burned into our memory: The Wheatfield, The Peach Orchard and Devil’s Den. This makes for some exciting reading that draws the reader into Sickles’ reasoning, and state-of-mind. It is very well bolstered by first hand accounts. As Hessler quickly pointed out, in our interview, he wanted to “get out of the way,” and let the soldiers tell what happened on that fateful day, in early July 1863. In much of the narrative of the battle, the author provides differing battlefield accounts, that cannot be reconciled, advising the reader to make their own judgments on what actually took place. This is especially the case with the wounding of Sickles, and the story that has since be perpetuated by historians of Sickles asking for a cigar, and being readily visible to his soldiers as he is carried to the rear. Again, Hessler provides several firsthand accounts, that cannot easily be reconciled, allowing the reader to decide what is fact, and what may be fiction.
Chapters thirteen, and fourteen, dive into Sickles maneuvering to regain command of the III Corps, or any other position, “….appropriate to my rank and in a position where I can Communicate easily with influential people who will be in Washington this year…”(ii) This was part of a letter written to Abraham Lincoln regarding the rumor of an opportunity for him to command the garrison protecting Washington City. As detailed in these chapters, the command would not materialize and he would be pulled into the hearings of the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War.
The remaining four chapters cover Sickles postwar efforts to regain his reputation, his efforts to preserve battlefields – especially Gettysburg, his return to Congress and his twilight years.
“Sickles at Gettysburg” provides a fresh, unbiased evaluation of Major General Daniel E. Sickles. With much new material, and a fluid prose, Hessler has written the definitive work on this controversial figure in American politics, and military history. I highly recommend this book to any serious student of the American Civil War. I am confident that you will enjoy reading it as much as I have.
On the morning of July 3, 2009, I had the pleasure to interview Mr. Hessler. Unlike my other interviews, which have always been done by phone, this interview was recorded live, at the Trostle Farm, where Sickles had his III Corps headquarters, on July 2. Originally, one of two sites recommend by Jim, the other being the Peach Orchard – both of which Jim states, “…ARE Sickles to me.” I am pleased that he chose the Trostle Farm, as this is the site of his wounding. Plus, it set the mood for a wonderful conversation on Dan Sickles. Listeners will quickly note that horses can be heard throughout the interview, and at times wind can be heard blowing past my digital recorder. This does not detract from the quality of the recording, but creates a certain ambiance that can be felt by the listener. I invite you to take time to listen to all twelve parts of the interview.
James A. Hessler Interview – 12 Parts
Total Time: 1 hour, 14 minutes, 12 seconds
Part 1: James A. Hessler Interview Pt 1
Contents: Welcome | About Jim Hessler | How Jim became interested in the Civil War | Mentors that influenced Jim’s interest in the Civil War | What styles of Civil War authorship Jim likes | Why write about Daniel E. Sickles?
Part 2: James A. Hessler Interview Pt 2
Contents: “Sickles at Gettysburg” – fair and balanced | Recruiting the Excelsior Brigade and the use of “political generals” | Sickles’ troops and their loyalty to him
Part 3: James A. Hessler Interview Pt 3
Contents: Sickles’ use of political maneuvering | Sickles’ lack of battlefield experience | Leapfrog promotions for Sickles | Sickles’ ability to navigate around adversity
Part 4: James A. Hessler Interview Pt 4
Contents: Animosity in the upper command of the Army of the Potomac | Sickles at Chancellorsville | George Gordon Meade’s promotion to command of the Army of the Potomac | Conflicting orders on the approach to Gettysburg
Part 5: James A. Hessler Interview Pt 5
Contents: III Corps approach to Gettysburg | Sickles and David Birney at Gettysburg | Political infighting within the Army of the Potomac | Firsthand accounts from the ranks | Researching “Sickles at Gettysburg”
Part 6: James A. Hessler Interview Pt 6
Contents: Sickles’ decision making at Gettysburg | Confusion with Meade’s commands on troop placements | Henry Hunt’s impact on the positioning of the III Corps | Hunt’s second analysis of Sickles’ position
Part 7: James A. Hessler Interview Pt 7
Contents: Birney’s decision to send troops to Plum Run Valley | Lack of troops to effectively hold the III Corps line | Reinforcements from the II and V Corps | Longstreet’s defective tactical attack | Lack of coordinated command structure throughout Sickles’ lines
Part 8: James A. Hessler Interview Pt 8
Contents: The ultimate blame is with Dan Sickles | The buck stops with Meade | Sickles’ confusion with Geary’s divisional placement | The salient at the Peach Orchard – was it the primary cause of the III Corps collapse? | Birney’s division placement causes concern for CSA Major General John Bell Hood
Part 9: James A. Hessler Interview Pt 9
Contents: Sickles’ wounding and the truth about the “Cigar” | Modern day accounts of Sickles’ wounding – let the reader decide | Sickles chumming with Abraham Lincoln
Part 10: James A. Hessler Interview Pt 10
Contents: Did Meade want to court martial Sickles for his performance at Gettysburg? | The Second Battle of Gettysburg | Cemetery Hill – who chose the line? | “The Circus” - the hearing of the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War
Part 11: James A. Hessler Interview Pt 11
Contents: Sickles’ efforts to preserve Gettysburg and other battlefields | Gettysburg – Sickles’ legacy? | The long-term legacy of Daniel E. Sickles | Hessler’s hope for his book
Part 12: James A. Hessler Interview Pt 12
Contents: Will Sickles’ reputation ever be revived? | Hessler’s future plans | Wrap up and closing
Check out other great Civil War titles from Savas Beatie, LLC.
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Written by: J. David Petruzzi with maps by Steven Stanley
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Date of First Edition: June 1, 2009
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All these Savas Beatie, LLC. titles can be purchased directly from the publisher, by clicking here.
(i) Hessler, James A., Sickles at Gettysburg: The Controversial General Who Committed Murder, Abandoned Little Round Top, and Declared Himself the Hero of Gettysburg, published by Savas Beatie, LLC. in 2009, Pg 7.
(ii) Hessler, James A., Sickles at Gettysburg: The Controversial General Who Committed Murder, Abandoned Little Round Top, and Declared Himself the Hero of Gettysburg, published by Savas Beatie, LLC. in 2009, Pg 259.