Question of the Week: 6/13-6/19/2022

After being wounded at the battle of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, Dan Sickles never returned to corps command, although he tried. On October 16, he presented himself to Meade and asked to be restored to command of the III Corps. Sickles later admitted that he was “feeling great doubt as to my ability to hold out for permanent command and active campaigning.” Meade, seeing through Sickles’s bravado, came to the same conclusion. It didn’t help that Meade had a burning dislike for Sickles, who was not only not a member of the West Point Club, and not only a political general, but was also someone who had an incredibly seedy reputation. Meade politely but firmly said, “No.”

That left Maj. Gen. William “Blinky” French in command of the III Corps. The men didn’t love him, as much out of spite to support their beloved Sickles as anything, but French soon proved worthy of their scorn. He botched the November Mine Run campaign so badly that Meade had his cachiered.

In retrospect, we recognize that Blinky was a bad idea. From Meade’s perspective in October, Sickles represented a worse alternative.

What would you have done?

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13 Responses to Question of the Week: 6/13-6/19/2022

  1. Alton says:

    I would have done the same as Meade. It was a choice of the lesser of two evils. And in the end he was able to get rid of French which would probably have been more difficult with Sickles.

  2. mark harnitchek says:

    Of course Meade was correct in canning political general Dan Sickles after his spectacular foul-up on the 2nd day at Gettysburg … while there were a few excellent political general officers in the Civil War — Logan and Blair for example — Sickles was not one them … and the army eventually weeded out the others — McClernand, Sigel, Butler, et al … with regard to French, his record prior to Mine Run was good — that’s why Meade assigned him to III Corps … so, both decisions by by Meade were proper and justified.

  3. John Foskett says:

    French was simply mediocre. Sickles was mediocre and insubordinate – among other negative “attributes”. Meade got it right. As pointed out above, it was easier to can French than it would have been to get rid of the corrupt, politically conniving “Dirty Dan”.

  4. billhenck says:

    Meade probably made the right choice, but it is worth pondering what effect Sickles would have had in the Mine Run campaign. It might have been a case where Sickles’ aggressiveness would have helped Meade.

    • John Foskett says:

      I would respectfully disagree if by “aggressiveness” we mean conduct like the insubordinate and militarily foolish decision at Gettysburg on July 2. Isolating one’s force from supporting forces and taking a position that results in two exposed flanks while ensuring that your line will be too thinly-held is a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, that’s the best example we have of Sickles’ “aggressiveness”.

      • billhenck says:

        I’m not defending Sickles, particularly at Gettysburg, but he was aggressive in a more positive manner at Hazel Grove at Chancellorsville. Compared to French’s performance in the Mine Run campaign, that type of aggression might have been a good thing.

      • John Foskett says:

        That’s a fair point as far as it goes, but the problem is that at Chancellorsville Sickles actually misread what was happening. That “lesson” actually may have played some role in his disastrous decision at Gettysburg. At bottom he was a military amateur whose ego may have gotten in the way of making good decisions. And I’m not basing any of that analysis on his reprehensible lack of integrity and character.

  5. Meg Groeling says:

    Huge Sickles fan here, but could he have physically done the job? Probably not. Just finished a new bio about Butler, and it seems to me that West Point’s emphasis on math and engineering left little room for actual military stuff. There were no “leadership” courses either–which might have been nice. Perhaps having a political general was not always the risk it is often made out to be. And yeah, I like Butler, too.

    • John Foskett says:

      I think the lack of “military stuff” in the curriculum at USMA in the decade before the Civil War has been somewhat overstated – in connection with the undisputed fact that it was still popularly known as an “engineering” school. There were required courses in tactics for the three arms, and there were military engineering courses that were more focused than the broader engineering curriculum. The use for a short time of a 5-year curriculum was intended to increase that focus. Where it was clearly insufficient was in addressing larger issues of strategy and as you suggest “leadership”-type curriculum, including command of larger forces (which to be fair didn’t really exist as permanent organizations in the antebellum era)

  6. Katy Berman says:

    I like Meade and don’t like seedy Sickles, but as a military strategist, I would be worthless.

  7. nygiant1952 says:

    Meade should have fired Sickles on the spot, when Sickles couldn’t locate the position he was ordered to occupy.

    • John Foskett says:

      It was worse than that. Sickles’ decision to move his corps unilaterally out to a position which doubled the length of a line he already thinly held, with a salient in its center, and which eliminated his connection with the II Corps on his right flank, was a militarily idiotic choice. The notion that he “saved” the Union left by “disrupting” Longstreet’s attack is a fiction propagated by Sickles as part of his campaign against Meade that went into high gear that Fall and Winter. Authorities, such as Dave Powell, who have walked the ground and thoroughly analyzed this issue have come up with conclusions that are not favorable to Sickles.

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