Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sickles at Gettysburg

Sickles at Gettysburg by James A. Hessler
This is a wonderful book, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Daniel Sickles is someone I've always been fascinated by but had never read a biography about because they all seemed to be too pro-Sickles or too anti-Sickles, there did not seem to be a good even handed biography of him out there. I think Hessler has solved this.
The book focuses on Sickles actions at Gettysburg and how he spent the rest of his life defending those actions. There is of course some discussion of his life before the Civil War, probably most well known for murdering Philip Barton Key, and his military record in the Army of the Potomac prior to Gettysburg. But the bulk of the book concerns all aspects of Sickles' Gettysburg performance. Hessler does side with Meade's side in most of the Sickles-Meade arguments over Sickles' Gettysburg record.
The one area I thought the author could have devoted more attention to was explaining how the battle might have been fought if Sickles had stayed put like Meade wanted. Show exactly where his lines would have been and try to guess how Longstreet would have attacked the Union lines. My thinking has always been that Sickles forced Longstreet to use his men taking a position that did not imperil the main Union lines. Sickles was helped out by other Union units taking Little Round Top so that he was not flanked from that position but if Sickles had not been able to secure Little Round Top if he stayed put then it seems to me his position would have been flanked and a greater calamity fallen on the Union lines than actually did. And my own recollection (and Hessler confirms this) is that Hancock's lines ended well north of Little Round Top (near the present location of Pennsylvania state monument), so did Sickles have enough men to connect to Hancock's left and hold Little Round Top?
I think it would have been about a mile long line if it was straight and since the ground was not level, especially to cover Little Round Top, and the left should be refused at least a bit. Sickles had 10,675 men in the ranks. The men would form in two ranks, and if each man is allotted 18 inches of line (somewhere I remember reading that is about how much front a man occupies) then those men would cover a front of roughly 1.5 miles. Measuring on a park map it looks like the line is roughly 1.3 miles long so allowing for some refusal of the flank and some reserves it appears that Sickles could have covered Little Round Top.
Maybe someone has done a study that breaks down exactly how much front Sickles could have filled on the Meade line and also how Longstreet might have reacted, he certainly would not have assaulted straight up the Emmittsburg Pike. I have not read the study if it has been done, but I'm not a voracious Gettysburg reader so it is quite possible that I have missed such a study.
In any respect this is a great book. I only wish Sickles life was made into a movie. He is a fascinating character and Hessler has provided a pretty fair treatment of him. Buy this book.

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