Union General Daniel Sickles returns to visit his old command, the Third Corps of the Army of the Potomac. He was recovering from the loss of his leg at the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July 1863, and the visit turned sour when the army’s commander, General George Meade, informed Sickles that he would not be allowed to resume command until he completely recovered from his injury.
Sickles had a somewhat checkered past. In 1859, while a U.S. congressmanfrom New York, he killed his wife’s lover across from the White House in Washington, D.C., but was acquitted when his lawyers employed a temporary insanity defense. He used his political leverage to secure a commission as a brigadier general when the Civil War began, and his personal skills endeared him to his men. He rose quickly, and by early 1863 was commander of the Third Corps.
At Gettysburg, Meade posted Sickles’ troops at the left end of the Union line. The Army of the Potomac was arranged in a three-mile long, fishhook-shaped line on the top of Cemetery Ridge and Culp’s Hill. On the morning of July 2, Sickles noticed that just in front of his position was a section of high ground. In his estimation, this rise could be used by the Confederates to shell the Union position. Sickles expressed confusion over his orders and three times Meade explained that Sickles was to hold the end of Cemetery Ridge. Sickles was unhappy with the explanation, failing to understand that Meade was fighting a defensive battle. He moved his corps forward anyway, and the move nearly cost the Union the battle. A furious Meade ordered Sickles to withdraw his troops, but the Confederates were already attacking. After heavy losses, the Third Corps moved back to Cemetery Ridge.
Despite his wound, Sickles hurried back to Washington to conduct damage control. One of his first visitors was President Abraham Lincoln. Sickles was one of the few Democrats who welcomed Lincoln to Washington in 1861, and Lincoln remembered that gesture. Sickles gave his account of the battle and justified his move. He even claimed that his action prevented Meade from retreating and therefore prevented a Union defeat. This began a war of words between Meade and Sickles that lasted the rest of their lives. When the reports on the battle were filed that fall, Sickles did not fare well. Many, such as General Gouverneur K. Warren and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, blasted Sickles for his actions.
The hatred that Sickles developed for Meade after the Gettysburg incident peaked on October 18, 1863, when Meade made it clear that he had no intention of restoring Sickles to command. Sickles later testified in front of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War against Meade, but his own combat career was effectively over. He spent the next half-century defending his record, attacking Meade, and trying to shape the history of Gettysburg by continuing to promote his account of the battle before he died in 1914.