Tardy Daniel Sickles and the First Slow Steps Toward Controversy

When people think of Dan Sickles at Gettysburg, the first thing that comes to mind is his ill-fated move toward the Peach Orchard on July 2. Ordered to hold a position that extended the Union line south from Cemetery Hill to the northern slopes of Little Round Top, Sickles instead advanced a mile forward to the high ground around the Peach Orchard—a move informed by Sickles’s unfortunate experience at Chancellorsville’s Hazel Grove two months earlier. (Eric Wittenberg’s 2015 post here offers some details.).

Army of the Potomac commander George Gordon Meade was flabbergasted by Sickles’s move. By the time he could do anything about it, though, Sickles’ found himself hip-deep in Confederates—bad enough that it literally cost him his right leg. The episode triggered one of the war’s ugliest political fights, pitting the self-serving Sickles and the dutiful Meade.

But the tension between the two men started well before Sickles’s Peach Orchard move.

Sickles was a general who owed his position to his political connections. His ability to raise troops in New York City earned him a colonelcy, which he parlayed through connections and seniority all the way to corps command. He took over command of the Army of the Potomac’s III Corps following the ouster of Maj. Gen. William “Baldy” Smith, who’d been deeply entangled in the anti-Burnside politics of post-Fredericksburg.

That path to success didn’t sit well with Meade. As a West Pointer, Meade had a bias against officers who weren’t part of the West point club, with a particular disdain for political generals.

When Meade took command on June 28, he took stock of the position of each of his corps, which had advanced northward through Virginia along a wide front.

On June 29, he sent a note to “Commanding Officer Third Corps” that rebuked Sickles because “your corps is at a standstill at Middleburg (MD), and delaying, of course, all movements in the rear.” Meade’s order told Sickles “to give your immediate and personal attention to keeping your train in motion.”[1]

Meade directed Sickles toward Emmitsburg in support of the rest of the left wing of the army, which, even then, was moving northward toward Gettysburg in an attempt to flush out Confederate intentions. Sickles’s position in Emmitsburg would serve to protect the left flank of the Army of the Potomac—but Sickles’s slow advance to that point raised Meade’s ire. On June 30, Meade tried to egg Sickles onward: “it is of utmost importance that you should move with your infantry and artillery to Emmitsburg will all possible dispatch.”[2]

As Meade again assessed the position of his various corps that night and eyed a possible defensive position along Big Pipe Creek, he noted that Sickles had not moved on the 30th with much alacrity. That prompted a late-night nastygram:

The commanding general notice with regret the very slow movement of your corps yesterday. It is presumed you marched at an early hour, and up to 6 p.m. the rear of your column had not passed Middleburg, distant from your camp of the night before some 12 miles only. This, considering the good condition of the road and the favorable state of the weather, was far from meeting the expectation of the commanding general, and delayed to a very late hour the arrival of troops and trains in your rear. The Second Corps in the same space of time made a march nearly double your own. Situated as this army is now, the commanding general looks for rapid movements of the troops.[3]

The army was stretched across a front more than thirty miles wide, with Sickles on its left flank and, in a wide arc away, Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum’s XII Corps off to the southeast of Gettysburg. The spread-out nature of Meade’s forces made communications a challenge, and Sickles would find himself a victim of those crossed wires late on June 30 and well into July 1. Originally assigned to cover Emmitsburg as the left flank of the Army of the Potomac—with Meade’s eye still on falling back to his proposed Pipe Creek line—Sickles would get messages from Meade as well as from Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, commander of the XI Corps and de facto senior man on the field as the battle of Gettysburg unfolded.

Add to that the confusion stirred by the death of Maj. Gen. John Reynolds, killed at 10:30 a.m. Reynolds had been commander of the left wing of the AoP (the I, XI, and Sickles’ III Corps). Following his death, Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday took command of the I Corps, but Howard took command of the army’s left wing. Communication between the two men was not perfect, and communication between them and army headquarters was not smooth. Meade had a 14-mile line of communication from his Maryland headquarters and the front in Gettysburg, and so any communication from the battlefield had a time delay. Any communication from Meade to Sickles—a gap of some 18 miles—had a time delay, as well. Layered on top of that time-delayed game of telephone were dispatches Sickles received from both Doubleday and Howard over a distance of some ten miles.

No wonder wires got crossed on July 1. Adding even more to the confusion, Meade’s intentions about Pipe Creek shifted as July 1 unfolded, making Sickles’s position in Emmitsburg all the more unclear.

Sickles eventually “decided to assume the grave responsibility of moving to their relief [I and XI Corps] without orders,” Sickles later wrote under the pseudonym “Historicus.” Doubleday had allegedly written “[F]or God’s sake come up with all speed. They are pressing us hard.”[4]

It becomes hard to sort out some of the events of July 1 because the historical record is obfuscated by the poisonous post-battle politics of the Meade-Sickles controversy. Plenty of of real-time confusion existed, with latitude to give both men some degree of benefit of the doubt.

However, the correspondence of June 29 and 30 suggest trouble between the two men was already brewing before Sickles ever set foot on the Gettysburg, let along before he took any steps in the direction of the Peach Orchard.


[1] Seth Williams to Dan Sickles, 29 June 1863, O.R. XXVII, Pt. III, 399.

[2] Seth Williams to Dan Sickles, 30 June 1863, O.R. XXVII, Pt. III, 419.

[3] Seth Williams to Dan Sickles, 30 June 1863, O.R. XXVII, Pt. III, 420.

[4] Enclosure to Meade letter to E. D. Townsend, 15 March 1864, O.R. XXVII, Pt. II, 129. “I cannot resist the belief that this letter was either written or dictated by Maj. Gen. D. E. Sickles,” Meade noted of the “Historicus” piece.

22 Responses to Tardy Daniel Sickles and the First Slow Steps Toward Controversy

  1. Great post. We’ll really never know the sequence of communication snafus on the 1st. The real problem in my view was the unfortunate and uncalled for death of Reynolds, which destroyed or delayed all effective communications.

  2. As a general observation one can trust nothing that comes from Sickles. His fondness for lying was on full display before Meade took command/Gettysburg. On May 2, 1863 at Chancellorsville he concluded that Jackson’s left to right movement in his front was a retreat and so reported it. As we know, it was instead a movement to stage an assault on Howard’s right flank to the north. In his May 20 report, however, Sickles stated that the movement “indicated a retreat on Gordonsville or an attack upon our right flank” and that he reported “these movements” to Hooker, Howard, and Slocum.

    In his own report, however, Slocum stated that Sickles had advised only that he was confirming that Jackson was retreating, that Sickles was occupying the road by which Jackson was retreating, and that he wanted Slocum to support his advance. Sickles’ message to Howard – whose flank was at risk – said nothing about the option of a flank attack and was consistent with what Slocum said in his report. One suspects that if polygraph testing had been available in 1863, a session with Sickles would have found ink sprayed all over the room.

  3. Sickles did put the AoP at risk with his advance to the Peach Orchard. However, if he was so confused as to where to put the III Corps, it was up to Meade to set him straight.

    Sickles did advance to the sound of the guns on Day 1, and was wounded in defense of his country on Day 2.

    I fault Meade, more than Sickles for the advance, since Meade showed poor leadership. Meade should have shown Sickles where to place his men, and if Sickles still persisted, Meade should have relived him on the spot. Meade did have that authority.

    And since Meade ddi relieve Abner Doubleday, are we to believe that Meade had more faith in Sickles than Doubleday? If so, then Meade was poor judge of character and leadership.

    1. He wasn’t confused and that had nothing to do with his unilateral movement. It was based by his own admission on his belief that the ground to his front in the vicinity of the Peach Orchard was better than where he was (connected to the II Corps on his right, by the way) and that the ANV was preparing a flank attack (which it was but one not actually directed at the A of the P’s left flank because as originally intended the ANV plan failed to understand that the Union flank with Sickles extended further south than they thought).

      When Henry Hunt visited Sickles he agreed that the ground to his front appeared more favorable but told Sickles he was not authorized to move until he heard from Meade (on his ride back to Meade Hunt ratcheted down his assessment of the ground to Sickles front). Sickles was wounded on July 2 in connection with his own insubordinate and militarily foolish decision to unilaterally double the length of a III Corps line he had already concluded was too thinly-held; and to expose both flanks of his corps, separating them by considerable distance from the II Corps connection on his right and from LRT on his left. His III Corps was effectively wrecked. The heroes were the officers and soldiers of that corps who were sacrificed by this decision, and the V and II Corps troops who were rushed into the breach and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

      1. Well, according to Hessler in his book, Sickles at Gettysburg, Sickles testified that “Sickles, however , claimed that he was unsure of where he was supposed to go”. ( p.108).

        I agree that Sickles believed the ground was better in the vicinity of the PO, and that Hunt thought the PO was more favorable.

        Being wounded in defense of your country, is not dependent on who gave the orders that put you in that position that caused you to be wounded. I can’t recall any GI landing on Omaha Beach complaining to Ike that Ike got him wounded. Can you cite any documentation that backs your supposition?

      2. John is exactly right … Sickles knew precisely what he was doing … and the idea that the commanding general needs to tell a corps commander where to place his troops when the army is arrayed in a defensive straight line is utter nonsense – a 2nd LT would know that … although i don’t doubt Sickles said it after the fact.

        So, not only did Sickles create a huge, and largely undefendable, salient in the Union, he compounded his mistake by not bothering to tell anybody — like his boss, General Meade … all credit to Meade’s generalship in hustling troops from other sectors to shore up the mess Sickles created … although, i can’t fault Sickles’ personal courage — he was there with his boys.

    2. Meade DID set Sickles straight–with orders delivered via his son, serving as an orderly on his staff, and then by a personal visit himself. Hunt had also reinforced Meade’s orders to Sickles.

      1. It is my understanding of the Battle of Gettysburg, that Sickles had already advanced to the Peach Orchard BEFORE General Meade made a personal visit. What documentation can you provide that indicates that Meade made the personal visit before the IIIrd Corps advanced? And I am not considering the expedition the night before with Capt.Paine, where Meade indicated on a map the placement of the Corps.

        According to Hessler in ‘Sickles at Gettysburg”, Sickles told Meade’s son that General Geary’s troops had no position and were massed in the vicinity. (p. 110)
        Hunt thought that Sickles proposal ( the Emmitsburg Road Line) had some merit. (Sickles at Gettysburg, p116-117).

        Leadership takes many forms. if Sickles was confused about where he was supposed to place his troops, Meade should have showed him, and not delegated that authority. Or he should have replaced Sickles on the spot. Now, that’s leadership!

      2. I’m not sure why you refer to Hunt’s thinking about the PO position (which was more nuanced than you suggest) but ignore what Hunt told Sickles.

      3. I didn’t say Meade personally set Sickles straight before the move to the Peach Orchard. Meade had to ride out there and told Sickles to get back to his assigned position, although Meade didn’t think the enemy would let Sickles get away with the withdrawal–and indeed, that’s just about when Longstreet launched his attack, making it impossible for Sickles to withdraw.

  4. Mark,

    Evidently, Sickles couldn’t find Geary’s position from the night before, as documented in Sickles at Gettysburg. Hence, the times either he or Tremaine ventured to Meade’s HQ to clarify the orders.

    When walking this part of the battlefield, the teaching point is to emphasize the importance and the advantage of interior lines. That is how Meade was able to stem the Confederate en echelon attack ( yes, acknowledge that it didn’t start that way, but evolved into an en echelon attack).That way you are using the battlefield as your classroom and can illustrate that military maneuver.

    And then you can discuss the advantage of exterior lines that the Confederates held. Two examples using the Gettysburg battlefield as your template.

    ( That’s the teacher in me, coming out).

    Contrary to Gettysburg lore, I don’t feel Meade is 100% great and I don’t believe Sickles is 100% evil. Meade adapted to the fluid situation on Day 1 , much to his credit, and ignored Stuart.Meade knew how to delegate authority on Day 1. He should have picked someone else to instruct Sickles His failure was Sickles and not pursuing the Confederates sooner. Sickles teaches us to march to the sound of the guns, and no one can ignore his wounding in defense of his country against an invading enemy.

    1. “Sickles teaches us to march to the sound of the guns, and no one can ignore his wounding in defense of his country against an invading enemy.”

      Actually, Sickles “teaches us” that deciding to unilaterally move your unit without coordinating that with the rest of the army – such that you detach your unit by a considerable distance from its connections on each flank and double the length of a line you already believe is too thinly-held – is a predictably bad military decision. That’s exactly what happened. The assumption appears to be that Sickles made the move because he was confused and therefore thought that Meade wanted him in the PO vicinity. That’s not what happened. Sickles did not like where he was based on it being “lower” ground. And to repeat, Hunt visited him and told him he was not authorizing the move, which Sickles would have to get from Meade. In addition, Hunt’s assessment of the PO as opposed to Sickles’ current position is that it may have been better as a platform to take offensive action but not necessarily from a defensive standpoint. Sickles also misread the ANV plan as it was originally intended, because he was actually well south of where the ANV thought Meade’s flank was located. The irony is that if Sickles had not moved the ANV’s original plan would have exposed its own flank obliquely to Sickles.

      Sickles’ poor decision ended up wrecking the III Corps. Respectfully, the Eisenhower analogy you point to is not apt. The III Corps soldiers who were sacrificed did have a valid objection based on Sickles insubordinate and inept order, but my point was narrower – I simply said that Sickles made his own bed, in a sense. Not that Sickles didn’t try to play the wounded hero role after the battle when he spun his story that he ‘saved” the Union Army on July 2. In fact, it was Meade and the V and II Corps troops that he triaged into the chaos that Sickles created who “saved” the army.

    2. Giant,

      Thanks for your response.

      However, try as you might to defend MG Sickles, there is simply no defense — he blew it on the second by leaving his position for higher ground on the Peach Orchard and then not informing the commanding general … we can debate to a fare thee well his rationale or his post-battle account of where he should have been and his lack of understanding or confusion … but commanders are accountable for their actions and MG Sickles must be held to account.

      To your second point about Meade appointing an officer to “instruct” Sickles, that’s not how it works with Major Generals commanding big parts of your army … for something as simple as finding and maintaining contact with the friendly forces on your left and right flanks, you just do it — in the 19th century, as it is today, that’s infantry tactics 101 … so, it’s not unreasonable that Meade would have fully expected Sickles to follow simple tactical doctrine — which Sickles did not do for whatever reason on 2 July.

      Roger, interior and exterior LOCs … clearly Meade had the advantage over Lee.

      Finally it’s not about Sickles not being a courageous soldier — he clearly was … Sickles was there with his boys slugging it out with the rebs when he was wounded … and while other NY Dems were kitbitzing and bad-mouthing the President, Sickles was in the fight … that says something about the man, even if he wasn’t the most capable Corps Commander in the AOP — but he wasn’t the worst either.

      All that said, however, the movement of his III Corps on 2 July was just a bad move. … which among the pantheon of “bad moves” by the AOP ain’t the worst … at least Sickles was showing some intiative which was not a trait valued in the risk averse culture of the AOP.

      Bottomline on Major General Dan Sickles, United States Army: a courageous citizen solider and general officer who bravely served his country and was greviously wounded after an erroneous tactical call at Gettysburg on 2 July 1863.

      Happy 4th of July to you my friend … and God bless our great country.

      Out, Mark

      1. Hi Mark,

        Sickles was a political general….that means he became one not because of what he knew, but because of WHO he knew.

        I don’t believe that Meade should have appointed someone to instruct Sickles, And I don’t mean to infer that. But when someone repeatedly asks what to do, a true leader shows him or relieves him on the spot. Meade did have that power to do that, as expressed in his orders.

        Perhaps Sickles should have had a chief of staff who attended West Point?

        Thank for agreeing with me about his courage.

        The teaching points for the new students of the Civil War are the value of Interior and exterior lines, and the significance of marching to the sound of the guns. Compare that with Slocum and the 12th Corps.

        IMO, THIS was Meade’s greatest moment. Confronted with a situation not of his making, he adapted, improved and succeeded. Isn’t that what we want of our Generals?

        Amazing that after 159 years, we are still talking about Sickles!!

        stay safe man.

  5. Hi John,

    In Gettysburg, The Second Day by Pzanz, p.96…” General Hunt could see some merit in Sickles’ proposed line”. and on p. 93, “Hunt recalled later that he did not know General Meade’s intentions were offensive or defensive at this time.” So basically, that piece of land was advantageous as an artillery platform. And Hunt did see the need for recon into Pitzer’s Woods.

    Like I said, no one is 100% great or 100% evil. I already said that Sickles put the AoP at risk. However with conflicting orders on Day, Sickles marches to the sound of the guns. Imagine if Benteen had marched to the guns to aid Custer? We know what happened because he did not. We have no idea what would have happened if he had, do we?

    The teaching point is the advantage of interior lines and how Meade adapted to the situation to use those interior lines. And then, you can explain exterior lines and the advantage that exterior lines provide.

    And you can take that knowledge and apply it to all battlefields.

    I think that is an assumption as to the Confederates presenting their flank to Sickles if he had stayed in his original position. One thing I have learned from the study of war is, you can throw out the best laid plans once the shooting starts. Expect Longstreet to adapt. In fact, the Confederates DID adapt to the situation they found on July 2.

    Your comment, and I quote…”Sickles was wounded on July 2 in connection with his own insubordinate and militarily foolish decision to unilaterally double the length of a III Corps line he had already concluded was too thinly-held; and to expose both flanks of his corps.”

    I feel the Confederate artillery had more to do with it. Could Sickles have been wounded if the IIIrd Corps had remained in its original position? Of course he could have!

    1. nygiant: I don’t disagree that he could have been wounded even if the III Corps had kept its position or if it had moved forward in coordination with the rest of the Army. But the insubordinate, unilateral move he made is what resulted in the destruction of his corps, for reasons that are obvious when one simply looks at an accurate map. That’s why I am adding “context” to his wounding. And just to be clear, my assessment of what he did is based solely on objective facts. One source I recommend is Dave Powell, who wrote an excellent article in Gettysburg Magazine (2003, IIRC) and drilled down even more deeply on this during exchanges in a discussion group several years ago.

      Sickles unquestionably was an abhorrent guy with little in the way of character. We all know the biography without going into much detail, including his apparent embezzlement of c. $800K in today’s money from the NY Monuments fund, etc etc. As I posted above, he lied in his official report on Chancellorsville. But none of that affects my view of his actions on July 2. It does admittedly affect my view of whether he belongs in any ranking of “heroes”.

  6. Hi John,

    Putting the AoP at risk sums up Sickles for me on Day 2. That can’t be excused.

    I tend to use Sickles at Gettysburg by Jim Hessler as the definitive work on Sickles.

    I am not influenced at all by what Sickles did before July 1, 1863, and after July 2nd 1863. I just look at his actions on those 2 days in July.

    Hero? Sickles went to war to defend his country from an invading foreign army. He lost his leg in defense of his country against an invading foreign army. Today, he would be considered a wounded warrior and he would be thanked profusely for his service…and rightfully so.

    MOH? Politics played a role. But then again, some believe ( not me though), that Teddy Roosevelt Jr received the MOH for his actions on Utah Beach because of politics ( his cousin was President).

    159 years after Gettysburg, we still argue and discuss his action there on July 1 and 2 1863.

    THAT!, is quite the legacy.

    1. I’ll leave it at this: we still argue and discuss Custer’s action at the Little Big Horn. Some legacies are different from others.

      I’m trying to make it as clear as possible that Sickles’ complete lack of character plays no role in my assessment of the military ineptitude of his unilateral move. As I keep saying, one need only look at an accurate map. And I recommend Dave Powell’s work on this topic because he may have examined it more intensively than anybody. If you have an interest in this subject, I continue to urge reading his Gettysburg Magazine article. I point to Sickles’ utter lack of character, including his mendacity (such as is displayed in his Chancellorsville report) for only one reason: anybody who takes account of his post-battle activities CANNOT ignore those highly relevant facts. Now maybe we can find that $800K that went “missing” from the NY Monuments fund that Dan supervised. 🙂

      1. Thanks John!

        I like Hessler’s books on “Sickles at Gettysburg” and “Gettysburg’s Peach Orchard.”

        Past performance is not indicative of future performance. And while maps are good, nothing beats walking the battlefield to get an appreciation of the terrain.

        Since Sickles sponsored the legislation that made Gettysburg a National Military Park, one can say that the entire battlefield is a monument to him. In fact, Sickles did say that!

  7. Now, according to Hessler and Isenberg in the book, “Gettysburg’s Peach Orchard”, the intent of Lee on July 2nd, 1863 in the assault on the Union Left Flank, was to seize the Peach Orchard and surrounding ground along the Emmitsburg Road to use as an artillery position in support of that attack.

    Only thing is, Sickles and the IIIrd Corps occupied it first. There is something to be said for getting there first, with the most.

    So, I feel we can agree that the PO was desired by both sides, Union and Rebel. And by occupying the PO first, Sickles certainly forced the Rebels to change their plans of attack, throwing g a monkey wrench into the whole affair.

    Rather that discuss “What Ifs”, a better discussion would be comparing and contrasting the response of both Meade and Longstreet to a development on the battle field which threw their plans awry. Who responded the best?

    Who adapted the best?

  8. Chris, what source do you have that said Meade ” told Sickles to get back to his assigned position.”

    I am not looking for a fight, but that’s not what I understand what occurred.

    I am under the impression that when Sickles offered to go back to the position intended for him, Meade said No, the Confederates won’t let you. Meade was forced to support Sickles, testing the strength of the Union interior lines.

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