BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles, by Thomas Keneally
, August 24, 2002
AMERICAN SCOUNDREL: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles
by Thomas Keneally
Rec. price: $39.95
One of the more colourful, if at times egregious, characters in American history is Daniel Sickles, whose exploits included introducing his mistress to Queen Victoria, killing his wife's lover only to be acquitted of the charge of murder, and service as a civil war general and diplomat.
Sickles was born into a New York family in 1819. He was tutored by the elderly Lorenzo Da Ponte, who had written the librettos for some of Mozart's operas.
Sickles eventually studied for a career at the bar and as a young man acquired a reputation as a womaniser. He also became actively involved in the Democratic Party, through Tammany Hall.
In 1852, against the wishes of both families, Dan married Teresa Bagioli, the granddaughter of Da Ponte, who was then only 15.
This did not prevent Dan from accepting the following year a diplomatic post to London in the entourage of James Buchanan, being accompanied not by his wife, but instead by his mistress. His wife was to join him later.
Teresa was a popular society hostess, both in London and later in Washington when Dan was elected to Congress, until her affair with Philip Barton Keys, the District Attorney of Washington, became public knowledge in the wake of Dan's killing of Keys in 1859.
One of the more engaging sections of this book is the discussion of Dan's ensuing trial for murder, which drew much public interest and sympathy. He was acquitted, the first to be so on the grounds of temporary insanity.
With the advent of the Civil War, Sickles vigorously recruited troops and received the rank of Brigadier General, eventually being promoted to Major General.
He fought in the Peninsula Campaign, at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.
Historians are divided as to whether his actions at Gettysburg ensured the Union victory or almost led to its defeat. During the battle, Sickles was wounded in the leg, which was later amputated.
Although he was a friend of Abraham Lincoln and was to be a military governor after the war, Sickles never secured another combat appointment, despite his numerous attempts.
Much of Sickles' post-war career mirrored his earlier years. He gradually became distant from his wife before her death from tuberculosis.
His daughter from the marriage, Laura, was to die in poverty, estranged from her father.
Sickles resumed his diplomatic career, becoming minister to Spain.
While enjoying an intimate friendship with the exiled Queen Isabella II, Sickles courted one of her ladies in waiting, whom he eventually married.
The couple had two children, but they gradually became distant and separated in all but name. Sickles remaining a notorious philanderer.
Dan served another term in Congress and also became actively involved in work for veterans, particularly monuments for the war dead.
As a nonagenarian, he was to participate in the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913, and died in New York in 1914.
Thomas Keneally's American Scoundrel
is a lively and most interesting biography.