Today in History, February 19, 1859:
New York Congressman Daniel E. Sickles is acquitted of murder using a temporary insanity defense, the first time this defense was used in US courts.
Sickles was quite a character…he had been censored by Congress more than once, most prominently for having brought a known prostitute into the House chamber, and then taking her to England and introducing her to Queen Victoria while his wife was at home pregnant.
Despite this, he was enraged when his wife confessed to him that she had been carrying on an affair with the District Attorney for the District of Columbia, Phillip Barton Key II (Francis Scott Key’s son…you know..the Star Spangled Banner author).
Sickles confronted Key in Lafayette Square, across the street from the Executive Mansion (White House) and shot him dead. Sickles then went to the Attorney General’s home, turned himself in and confessed.
Future Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton defended Sickles at his trial, painting the wife as a cheating harlot, and securing Sickles’ acquittal. Sickles went back to his wife, which enraged his supporters much more than the murder.
When the Civil War began, Sickles used his influence to recruit NY volunteers and gain a political generalship, something that was possible in those days. With no military experience he actually made a good accounting of himself in several battles.
Ironically, his most controversial act was yet to come.
At the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg, his III Corps was assigned a portion of the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge. On his own he decided to move his unit forward to higher ground, which thinned his lines and left a gap in the Union lines, and blatantly ignored the orders of the commander of the Army of the Potomac, General Meade.
Confederate General James Longstreet’s Corps attacked and decimated Sickles’ command, costing Sickles his leg.
The controversy amongst historians is whether Sickles sacrifice of his Corps helped or hurt the Union’s chances of victory. In the end the Union could count Gettysburg as a victory, but in my humble opinion, the ambitious Sickles had little to do with it. He put it at risk.
In his later years Sickles served as Minister to Spain (continuing his womanizing there) and returned to the legislature.
He spent much effort in creating the Gettysburg National Military Park and in denigrating Gen. Meade, while promoting himself as the true reason for the victory at Gettysburg. After lobbying for 34 years, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery in the battle. Perhaps most telling is the fact that there are memorials to almost all of the generals involved in the battle at the Park, but not for Sickles.
Good or bad, between his killing of Francis Scott Key’s son, his pioneering use of the insanity defense, and his military career, Sickles’ story is fascinating.