American Scoundrel: Murder, Love and Politics in Civil War America
"On the last, cold Sunday of February 1859, Daniel Sickles shot his wife's lover in Washington's Lafayette Square, just across from the White House.... This is the story of that killing and its repercussions.
"Charming and ambitious, Dan Sickles literally got away with murder. His protector was none other that the President himself, the ageing James Buchanan; his political friends quickly gathered round; and Sickles was acquitted. His trial is described with all Thomas keneally's powers of dash and drama, against a backdrop of double-dealing, intrigue and 'the slavery question'.
"Enslaved, in her turn, by the hypocrisy of nineteenth-century society, his wife was shunned and thereafter banned from public life. Sickles, meanwhile, was free to accept favours and patronage. He raised a regiment for the union, and went on to become a general in the army, rising to the rank of brigadier-general and commanding a flank at the Battle of Gettysburg - at which he lost a leg, which he put into the military museum in Washington where he would take his friends to visit it.
"Thomas Keneally brilliantly recreates an extraordinary period, when women were punished for violating codes of society that did not bind men. And the caddish, good looking Dan Sickles personifies the extremes of the era: as a womaniser, he introduced his favourite madam to Queen Victoria while his wife stayed at home; as minister to Spain, he began an affair with the Queen while courting one of her ladies in waiting; and in his later years, he installed his housekeeper as his mistress while his second wife took up residence nearby.
"The brio with which Thomas Keneally tells the tale is equal to the pace and bravado of Sickles's life. But, more than this, American Scoundrel is the lens through which the reader can view history at a time when America was being torn apart. This book resonates with uncomfortable truths."
My fascination with the tale recounted in these pages began with Australia and Ireland, and specifically with an Irish political prisoner named Thomas Francis Meagher, transported on a life sentence to Australia in 1849. Meagher was young, famous, eloquent, wealthy, and charming. He had brought back to Ireland from the French republic of Lamartine the tricolor, now the flag of the Republic of Ireland. For his involvement in an Irish uprising that was, in part, a protest against the removal of the Irish harvest to market in the midst of a starving population, he was sentenced to death for high treason and was transported to Van Diemen's Land, today's Tasmania, with four other leaders of what was called the Young Ireland movement.
In 1852 Meagher made a celebrated escape from Van Diemen's Land aboard an American vessel and, upon arrival in New York, was subsumed at once, like many a humbler immigrant, into the Democratic Party apparatus named Tammany Hall. Meagher would have an exceptional career as orator, lawyer, Civil War general, and political activist before he perished, possibly at the hands of vigilantes, in the Missouri River while serving as governor of Montana. I outlined his career, and that of other Irish agitators, comprehensively in a recent book, The Great Shame. But one aspect of Meagher's friendships that I did not have roomto explore in The Great Shame was his relationship with a notable Tammany figure named Dan Sickles, and his association as a lawyer in the tragedy of Dan Sickles, his wife, Teresa, and Philip Barton Key, the federal district attorney of Washington, D.C., and son of Francis Scott Key, creator of "The Star-Spangled Banner." It seemed that this calamity and the careers of Dan and Teresa served as a mirror of the marital, political, and even military morality of the day, at a time when the most notable political experiment of the new world was under its severest test. In these pages the story of the Sickleses is examined in, the author hopes, some of the piquant detail it deserves.
In 1853, at the age of thirty-three, Daniel Edgar Sickles was appointed first secretary to the United States legation in London, at a time when there was much dispute between Britain and the United States. Sickles, known as an eloquent yet tough-minded figure in the politics of New York, had been chosen by the new minister to the Court of St. James's, a crotchety Democrat elder named James Buchanan. Dan Sickles was to work with Buchanan in London on a number of important American objectives, not least of which was convincing the British government that it was in everyone's interest to let the United States acquire Cuba, either by purchase or force of arms.
Those who met, knew, trusted, and loved Dan Sickles swore by his loyalty, discretion, and effectiveness. He was urbane, intellectually gifted, a skillful lawyer. He had already served a political apprenticeship as a New York State assemblyman, and no one doubted that a seat in Congress lay ahead. For the moment, he had given up the choice post of attorney to the New York Corporation to serve his nation at Buchanan's side in Britain. Some said he was escaping debts in New York, but they were predictably Republicans. A trim-waisted, neatly made fellow of just under average height, he carried in his luggage excellent suits and, for use at the British court, the uniform of a colonel of New York militia. He was a promising Yankee, a man with a future, on his way to show the British a thing or two. Yet there was in this stylish New Yorker a tendency to embrace poles of behavior, to go from coolness to delirium in a second, and from statesmanship to excess. His tendency toward berserk and full-blooded risk was partly characteristic of the city he had grown up in, the age he lived in, and his own soul.
From the Random House hardcover edition, 2002.
This page and its contents are copyright ©2003 by Perry Middlemiss, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.Return to Thomas Keneally page.
Last modified: January 8, 2003.