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Gen. Dan Sickles, left, in Washington after Gettysburg recovering from the loss of his leg. He is with General Sam Heintzelman, commander of the Defenses of Washington in 1863.

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American Scoundrel: Love, War and Politics in Civil War America.

Thomas Keneally

 

Sunday Times

12 May 2002

 

F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously declared that there are no second acts in American lives. Dan Sickles is one of the exceptions that proves the rule. An influential Congressman from New York in the late 1850s, he killed his wife's lover in public and faced death by hanging. Yet he was acquitted of murder and went on to become a confidant of President and Mrs Lincoln, a major-general in the Union army, a military governor of South Carolina, and an American diplomat. As second acts go, this was practically a resurrection, as Thomas Keneally relates in this engaging biography.

A Tammany Hall politician from New York, Sickles was a "sporting man", the euphemism for a gentleman who visited brothels. He also trifled, discreetly, with other men's wives. Although he married a child bride, the 15-year-old Teresa Bagioli, in 1853, he was "simply not designed for consecrated love". That same year he was appointed as a diplomatic representative to Britain. Leaving his wife in New York, he presented his then lover, the prostitute Fanny White, at one of Queen Victoria's receptions, introducing her as Miss Julia Bennett and thus causing outrage among his detractors back home.

As a Congressman, Sickles honed his networking skills while Teresa flourished as a political hostess, and Keneally deftly conveys the atmosphere of ferment in pre-civil war Washington. Disaster struck when Teresa had an affair with a stylish Southerner, Robert Barton Key, a friend of her husband's. Their encounters "formed a pattern of recklessness" and had the servants talking. Once his wife had confessed her infidelity, Sickles spotted Key in the square outside their house, apparently signalling to Teresa's window with a handkerchief. In a state of agitation, Sickles took a pistol and twice shot Key, who was unarmed. He then attempted to deliver a coup de grace three times.

Despite the obvious evidence of premeditation, he offered the first ever plea of temporary insanity in American law. His defence team pursued the twin strategy of arguing that Sickles "was too frenzied to behave calmly and with reason, and yet in the same breath claiming that the killing of the adulterer was right and admirable". The trial had the "stench of sanctimony" about it: the prosecution did not impugn Sickles's moral character where women were concerned, while females were not admitted to the court for fear they would be corrupted. The jury was out for only 70 minutes before acquitting him, but Teresa Sickles went on to face society's "moral death sentence".

The second act of Dan Sickles's life is significant not only as a remarkable comeback, but also because it represented a critical shift in public opinion. The pro-slavery South was vital to New York's trading economy, and Sickles was one of several northern Democrats who was a pragmatic defender of slavery. But when the South attacked federal property, he became a vigorous supporter of the Union cause.

Although without military experience, he raised, armed and equipped a brigade in New York, then won nomination in the Senate as a brigadier-general - at the second attempt and by a single vote. Since more than 100 Union generals died in battle during the course of the civil war, promotion was almost assured. According to whichever expert you choose to believe, he "nearly won or nearly lost" the Battle of Gettysburg when he overrode the orders of his dilatory commander. In that same battle he suffered the amputation of a leg, and in later life "managed to look dashing on crutches" rather than wear a prosthetic device. "I suppose Sickles with his one leg, is among our best volunteer officers," an old political enemy grudgingly conceded. "His recuperative powers are certainly wonderful. Four years ago he was a pariah, whom to know was discreditable."

While Teresa lived in seclusion at her husband's New York home with their daughter, Laura, Dan Sickles rarely saw her and "blocked her path to redemption". Nonetheless he was grief-stricken when she died of tuberculosis at the age of 31. The "scoundrel", for his part, married again and lived into his nineties, when he was prosecuted for misappropriating $28,000 in expenses from the New York State Monuments Commission, which he chaired.

This is not a ground-breaking study; two other biographies of Sickles have been published during the past 20 years. However, Keneally has the advantage of a novelist's sense of pace, a mellifluous prose style and a profound sympathy for both his main characters, Dan and Teresa Sickles.