Sickles was a member of theNew York StateAssembly and New York State Senate before serving in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from New York from 1857 to 1861. His political career was marked by scandal—the New York State Assembly censured him for escorting a known prostitute into its chambers, and he took the same woman on a trip to England while his pregnant wife remained in the States. In 1859, in Washington, D.C., Sickles shot and killed his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key, the district attorney of Washington and son of “Star Spangled Banner” author Francis Scott Key.”Is the damned scoundrel dead yet?” Sickles reportedly asked as he brandished his smoking pistol. Sickles’ murder trial created sensational headlines. He assembled a defense team that included Edwin Stanton, who later became President Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war. Stanton employed a temporary insanity defense, and Sickles became the first defendant in the United States to be acquitted using that strategy. Sickles, who took his wife back,was then shunned by Washington society. Southern diarist Mary Chestnut observed him in the House chambers in 1860 and wrote that “He was left to himself as if he had smallpox.”
When the Civil War broke out, Sickles raised a brigade from New York. The Republican governor, jealous of Sickles’ success, ordered the Excelsior Brigade disbanded, but Sickles appealed to President Lincoln. Lincoln gave Sickles the rank of temporary commander and promised to help negotiate the New York political maze to commission the brigade. This took nearly a year, but Sickles and his command came to be part of General Joseph Hooker’s corps during the Seven Days Battles in Virginia in the summer of 1862.
Sickles quickly moved up the ranks. By early 1863, he became commander of the Army of the Potomac’s Third Corps. His troops fought well at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, in the spring of 1863, and Sickles played a major role in the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July of that year. Sickles occupied a low portion of Cemetery Ridge on the battle’s second day. He moved his troops forward against the wishes of Commander General George Meade in order to take a section of high ground in Sickles’ front. The move left his corps and the Army of the Potomac in a highly vulnerable position. Confederates under General James Longstreet attacked, and Sickles’ corps barely survived the day.
Sickles lost his leg during the battle, and he never regained another command. After the war, he was military governor of the Carolinas and served as U.S. minister to Spain. His time in Madrid was also marked by scandal—rumors spread of an affair between Sickles and Queen Isabella II. After his return to the U.S. in 1874, Sickles spent much of his life defending his actions at Gettysburg and shaping the accounts of the Civil War. He died in 1914 at the age of 94.Sickles is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, but the leg he lost at Gettysburg is on display at the Armed Forces Medical Museum in Washington, D.C.