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Tom Chaney: Dan Sickles: Roguish Rapscallion

Of Writers and their Books: Dan Sickles: 'Roguish Rapscallion' is a review of American Scoundrel by Thomas Keneally. This column first appeared 27 January 2008
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Mary Lincoln's Insanity

By Tom Chaney

Dan Sickles: 'Roguish Rapscallion'

Let's see now. How to begin describing Dan Sickles?

Dan Sickles died of a cerebral hemorrhage May 3, 1914.

After a life of one scandal after another, he was appointed head of the New York State Monument Commission which he served for 26 years. In 1912 the books were discovered to be out of balance by some $28,000. The state attorney general Thomas Carmody took action against the entire commission and ordered the arrest of its ninety-three-year-old chairman.

Mr. Harburger, the city sheriff, delayed the arrest for a couple of days. Finally he entered the house, laid a hand upon Stickles' arm and declared him arrested. Friends raised the $30,000 bond. The sheriff apologized but said he needed $5.29 for a bond fee.

Dan turned to his mistress, "Eleanor! Please get me $5.29."

"Yes, dear," Mrs. Wilmerding replied, and fetched the money.

General Dan Sickles had defied his superior, General Meade, fifty-one years earlier at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, and moved his troops to prevent the Confederates from gaining the high ground. Some say he saved the day. Some say he opened a "near-fatal gap."

He avoided the consequences of his disobedience by getting his leg shot off and leaving the battlefield smoking a cheroot so his men would know he was alive. By the way, the leg was preserved in a military museum where he would visit it from time to time with one or another of his lady friends.

Lover Dan Sickles was a "persistent, unregenerate rat with women." Before, during, and after a couple of marriages he was coldly adulterous -- in one instance with the mother of Teresa Bagioli, his first wife. Late in life he had an affair with the deposed queen of Spain.

Diplomat Dan Sickles, at the time of his marriage, was conducting an affair with Fanny White, a notorious New York City madam. In fact, when he took a diplomatic post in London, he left his bride Teresa in New York; invited Fanny to accompany him; and presented that professional lady under an assumed name to Queen Victoria.

Congressman Dan Sickles could not, however, endure the unfaithfulness of Teresa with the son of Francis Scott Key, Phillip Barton Key, into whose arms Dan's womanizing had driven his young bride.

Murderer Dan Sickles, with two friends, charged out of his Washington house; challenged the unarmed Barton Key in the street; shot him down and kept pumping lead into him -- this on a quiet Sunday afternoon in full view of the White House.

This murder and subsequent trial became the fulcrum of Thomas Keneally's fine biography American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles [Doubleday, 2002]. Keneally, you may recall, is the Australian author of Shindler's Ark upon which the movie "Shindler's List" was based. He is also the author of Lincoln.

Sickles was acquitted of the murder charge in a Washington trial notorious for the incompetence of the prosecution and of the judge and for being the first trial in the nation in which the defense of temporary insanity was used successfully.

By the end of the trial, Sickles had extracted a written confession of adultery from Teresa and banished her and their daughter to an estate in Bloomsbury in upper Manhattan where he visited only at his convenience between affairs.

Early in his career attorney Sickles was a loyal servant of the Tammany Hall clique of the Democrat party. He began as a staunch Copperhead Democrat believing that slavery should be tolerated in the nation.

With the election of Lincoln, Sickles saw the way the wind was blowing and shifted his Democratic principles closer to the Republican abolitionists.

Keneally traces Sickles' gradual insinuation into the inner social circles of Washington after his mutilation at Gettysburg redeemed him in the eyes of wartime capital society. He even became a member of Mary Todd Lincoln's White House salon and a confidant of Lincoln himself.

Teresa, neglected in the country, sickened and died of consumption. Daughter Laura died embittered at her father. But Dan Sickles lived on.

I must add a personal note to this column. American Scoundrel came into my hands in an unusual way. We keep a couple of tables of somewhat bedraggled romance paperback books on the sidewalk in front of the Bookstore. They sell for fifty cents and folks often take one or two after closing and bring in the money later -- or not as they please.

Earlier in the month I discovered the hardback copy of American Scoundrel amongst the four-bit romance titles. I was intrigued by the topic and the author and began reading -- not knowing who my beneficiary had been.

Last week a twice-per-year customer came into the store. He lives in Ohio and vacations in Florida. Turns out he had left the Keneally book on the down trip one night after closing, and had stopped to check on the way home that I had found it.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-01-27 04:02:05
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