Major General Daniel E. Sickles. The mere mention of the name can work many Gettysburg enthusiasts into a frothy rage. (I know because I have spent more than one evening arguing with inebriated history-buffs who interestingly sometimes accuse ME of abandoning Little Round Top.) Why the hate? The man has been dead for nearly a century. Yet the image of Sickles seemingly openly defying Major General George Meade's orders on July 2, 1863, continues to evoke outrage amongst those who would prefer that their historical figures lived cleanly, worked well together, and always did what they were told. But what leadership lessons we can learn from the colorful General Sickles?
The most common reaction that Dan Sickles usually generates among Gettysburg enthusiasts is that he was an "idiot" or some comparable adjective. During the course of his long life, he was an attorney, congressman, diplomat, battlefield preservationist, and Civil War general. He was an early influencer in the creation of both New York's Central Park and Gettysburg National Military Park. Most of us would kill for such a resume. If he was an "idiot" then he certainly had a lot of people fooled. In fact, one of Sickles's professional strengths was his ability to obtain the support of superiors: James Buchanan, Joseph Hooker, and Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln being notable examples of Sickles supporters. In the modern vernacular, Sickles was an accomplished butt-kisser. The one notable superior who would not warm up to Sickles was George Meade.
Sickles's pre-Gettysburg background was certainly colorful but only moderately relevant to teaching Gettysburg leadership lessons. It is well-known that he was a womanizer and user of prostitutes. Unfortunately, many men are. In 1859 while Sickles was a congressman in Washington he murdered his adulterous wife's lover, Philip Barton Key. Congressman Sickles was arrested and assembled the equivalent of a legal "Dream Team" to defend himself. Although the Sickles murder trial is best-remembered for America's first-ever successful "temporary insanity" defense, public opinion was soundly in his favor and the jury quickly acquitted him on the grounds that he was legally permitted to protect his wife, AKA his "property." Those who envision Congressman Sickles as a truly half-mad politician who killed in broad daylight with no fear of punishment may wish to take another look at the facts of the case. But what the Key murder really tells us about Sickles as a leader is that he was an emotional rather than a rational decision-maker when under duress.
On July 2, 1863, at Gettysburg, Maj. General Sickles and his Third Corps were positioned on the Army of the Potomac's left flank. General Meade gave Sickles verbal instructions to connect with the left of Maj. General Winfield S. Hancock's Second Corps, occupy a "range of hills" south of the town, and replace a portion of the Union Twelfth Corps that had been positioned there the previous evening. Sickles's critics insist that he simply ignored Meade's orders and in open defiance moved his men forward into a radically different position. Not quite. Sickles did communicate to army headquarters on three occasions that he had concerns about the position that he was ordered to occupy.
Why did Sickles move his corps forward to the Emmitsburg Road, Wheatfield, and Devil's Den? Some preposterous theories will tell us that he harbored Presidential ambitions. Others tell us that he simply despised Meade (which he did) and was willing to destroy the army to somehow satiate his hatred. Responsible historians should work to dispose of such fiction. Sickles ultimately moved forward because he was convinced that Lt. General James Longstreet's Confederate attack would land on his front (he was right) and Sickles felt that an advanced position would be a better one in which to meet his opponents. It is inaccurate to say that all prominent military officers disagreed with him, but at the end of the day George Meade's opinion was the only one that mattered and Sickles's move did not meet with Meade's approval. Unfortunately, Meade did not learn about Sickles's movements until nearly too late but was able to successfully shift reinforcements to prevent the Confederate attack from turning the Army of the Potomac's left flank.
Was Sickles right? Few historians think so and that debate is mercifully outside of our scope. Suffice to say that both armies were badly bruised that day, Sickles's Third Corps lost the ground they moved into, Longstreet's First Corps was chewed up while taking meaningless positions, and Meade's Cemetery Ridge-line was still intact when it was over. Sickles's move created more Union than Confederate casualties, but as cold as it sounds, the Army of the Potomac had the numeric advantage and could afford heavier losses. We need to resort to no other complicated what-if scenarios. Sickles could not hold the ground that he moved into but Meade did not lose the battle as a result of Sickles's actions. Those are the results.
The real question at hand today is: what lessons can we learn from Sickles at Gettysburg? Have plausible deniability? Eliminate all potential witnesses? Lie to the newspaper reporters? Hopefully we can come up with some more constructive lessons.
Continue to obtain professional training.
Like some other Civil War leaders, Sickles never attended a professional military school and had no formal military training. Sickles was actually a competent brigade commander early in the war. However, as the war progressed and friends such as Joe Hooker promoted him into higher ranks, Sickles became the highest ranking non-West Pointer in Meade's Union army. It was this lack of training - engineering, topographical, etc.- that Sickles lacked at Gettysburg and which might have allowed him to make better use of the "low ground" on Cemetery Ridge that Meade wanted him to occupy.
Get it in writing.
The so-called Meade-Sickles controversy is simply a classic failure to communicate. Meade's orders were verbal and included classically vague instructions such as "if practical" and "within the limits of what I have told you." (Readers are referred to Meade's testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War for a refresher on Meade's own description of his orders.) When dealing with a troublesome subordinate, make your instructions clear, direct, and deliver them personally if the subordinate is not responding well. (As we can see, that lesson applies to General Meade in dealing with his difficult subordinate.)
Admit your mistakes and move on.
Ultimately, Sickles is not hated by historians because of his battlefield mistakes. Many generals took liberties with their orders during the course of the war. (Too many historians make the mistake of viewing the 19th Century military through 21st Century lenses.) Sickles is hated today because he afterwards engaged in a long and sometimes slanderous "spin" campaign to convince the public that he made the right move and that Meade had not even wanted to fight at Gettysburg. If Sickles had simply admitted to his mistakes and gone away quietly, we would not be constantly debating his merits today. But going away quietly was not in Dan Sickles's nature. This is fortunate for those of us who love this story because characters such as Dan Sickles make the Gettysburg story considerably more interesting.
Copyright 2014 Jim Hessler
For Gettysburg Lessons in the Digital Age
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