The Richmond History Podcast

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Daniel Sickles

Daniel Sickles

Philip Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key, who penned the Star Spangled Banner was shot to death in 1859, on a sidewalk in Washington DC, in plain sight, in broad day light, in view of the White House,1 in Lafayette Square, where he had been having repeated rendezvoused with his not so secret mistress, Teresa.2  His killer was a two term US Congressman from New York named Daniel E. Sickles, Teresa's husband.1

Sickles was jealous, but, was not an ideal spouse himself.  He had been censured by the New York State Assembly for escorting a known prostitute into the NY Assembly chambers and he took the same date on a trip to England while his pregnant wife remained state side.3  According to, while his pistol still smoked he said, "Is the damned scoundrel dead yet?"

Daniel Sickles
So he went straight to jail, right?  No.

He had a pretty good lawyer.   Someone named Edwin Stanton.Stanton is best know for loosing the 1860 Presidential election to a fellow named Abraham Lincoln who appointed him to be his Secretary of State during the Civil War.  

Sickles' sensational 22 day trial1 was ground breaking.  It resulted in the first acquittal on the grounds of "temporary insanity"4 or as it became know "The Insanity Dodge".5 

Looking through the Victorian lens of honor, the public saw him as a hero, defending the sanctity of marriage4 and he went on to reunite with his wife and return to his job as a representative.   Washington society saw it differently.  Mary Chestnut, the Southern diarist wrote that in the House Chambers in 1860 "He was left to himself as if he had smallpox."3

The Sickles' story was not over being strange.  At the out break of the Civil War he raised a brigade from NY and earned a commission as Brigadier General.6  Among his war time distinctions, he became know as the "amateur " general that disobeyed General Mead's orders at Gettysburg7 loosing his leg and a great number of his men, for which he received the Congressional Medal of Honor.8

From 1869-1873 he was Minister to Spain where his distinctions included, allegedly having an affair with Queen Isabella II and being accused of using "child virgins for the purpose of prostitution.7  He resigned in 1874 and moved to Paris, then returned to NY in 1879.7  Back in NY he saw a Civil War vet begging for food so he devoted the rest of his life to raising money to help the Union vets... and giving speeches at Gettysburg that attempted to persuade people he was right and General Mead was wrong.7

Sickles (center) at Gettysburg 1888
Sickles died at the age of 94, in 1914 and was mostly buried in Arlington Cemetery, minus his leg.  But he hadn't really "lost" his leg, he knew exactly where it was.  At Gettysburg it was amputated just below the thigh after it was crushed by a 12 lb cannon ball.  Shortly after that, the leg arrived at The US Army Medical Museum, (where it remains,) in a small wooden box that has been described as a small coffin, with a calling card attached reading "Compliments of Major General DES".  When he was in the area, he would limp over with friends and visit his leg.9 

Francis Scott Key did not live to see his son murdered.  He died in 1843.  Nor did he live to see his poem, The Defense of Fort McHenry become the National Anthem.  It gained popularity in the mid 19th century as the Star Spangled Banner and it's popularity increased during the Civil War but did not become the National Anthem until 1931.10

5. Destiny of The Republic, Candice Millard
6. Tried by War: Abraham Linclon As Commander in Chief, James M Mcpherson

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  1. Interesting article. We sometimes complain about the injustices of our justice system today; but there have always been holes and loopholes. Thanks for the post. Please follow my new blog at and keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yea the more I look at the past the more I realize that today is tame. A few naked cell phone pics and you are out... hows a little murder and prostitution for you.
      I check back in on your blog.