Say what you will about Dan Sickles, he was a master at shaping a story to get himself out of a scrap. Where to start on this New Yorker’s colorful career? My post on the Seward House refers to how he had already gotten away with murder. He won re-election to his seat in Congress in spite of this and his widely known philandering. He tried to advance his career at the outbreak of the war by assuring the War Department that he would quickly raise a full brigade, and then failed to raise even one regiment. But he was still able by early 1862, to convince President Lincoln to appoint him a brigadier general. Maybe that was because the new secretary, Edwin M. Stanton, had been his murder trial defense attorney.
As an army officer, however, it appeared that Sickles had finally found his stride. By many reports, he had performed well on the Peninsula with McClellan, at Fredericksburg under Burnside, and at Chancellorsville under Hooker. But then came Gettysburg.
Gen. Dan Sickles, left, in Washington after Gettysburg recovering from the loss of his leg. He is with Gen. Sam Heintzelman, commander of the Defenses of Washington in 1863.
The recommended reading on this notable military career is Jim Hessler’s book, Sickles at Gettysburg (2009). I refer you there to find a very well-told story of how Sickles’ gift for self-promotion so perplexed his commanding officer, Gen. George G. Meade, and did cost him his own leg. It was during the process of correcting his Third Corps’ alignment along Cemetery Ridge, that a cannon shot took off his right leg. He was carried from the field and after a harrowing escape adventure, his staff were able to put the general on a train to Washington. He arrived there on Sunday morning, July 5, 1863, and was taken to the boarding house where he had previously stayed at 248 F Street.
Col. James Rusling arrived at Gen. Sickles’ new quarters at 3 p.m. that Sunday, just moments before the guard at the door announced, “His excellency the President.’ Lincoln strode in with his son, Tad. They had ridden in from the Soldiers’ Home. Col. Rusling did his general great service in documenting this meeting. The president pressed Sickles for details of the great Union victory. Though in great pain, and still on his stretcher, the general spoke clearly while puffing on his cigar. Since Sickles was the first to get his story out, he began the process of justifying his decisions on the battlefield that had so confounded his superior, Gen. Meade. This was also the meeting during which Rusling claimed that the president confided his great faith in the “Almighty” as having provided Lincoln with guidance and assurance through the dark days of the War. (Men and Things I Saw in Civil War Days. Gen. James A. Rusling; 1899).
The house address for this event was given by another aide, Maj. Henry E. Tremain, in his book, Two Days of War (1905). Tremain said there were other Lincoln visits here to see the recovering general, though dates are not given. Tremain did describe the president anguishing over Lee’s escape into Virginia, telling Sickles that this was “one of the greatest catastrophe’s of the War.”
The Sickles House site at 248 F Street today, across from the Press Club Building near 14th. A carved wooden figure promotes the cigars that General Dan smoked in his conversation with the president.
That Lincoln had brought his son to the interview, was probably an indicator of what had become a family relationship. Tad had accompanied his father when he visited the troops outside of Fredericksburg, VA, in early 1863. There Tad had befriended the corps commanders’ headquarters drummer, Gustave “Gus” Schurman. The 12-year-old boy was already a battle-hardened veteran and expert horseman. When Tad’s horse ran away with him, Schurman caught-up and saved the day before Tad could be injured. This was just one of the incidents that allowed Lincoln and Sickles to develop a relationship. At Tad’s request, the president invited Gus to stay at the White House on leave granted by Sickles until the army began its move toward Pennsylvania in June. More on Tad and Gus when we talk about the Lincoln’s theatre outings.