Friday, May 8, 2009

"Sickles at Gettysburg" - Jim Hessler's must-have biography of Ol' Dan

There has been a lot of buzz lately about Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide Jim Hessler's upcoming (June 2009) biography of Dan Sickles - Sickles at Gettysburg: The Controversial Civil War General who Committed Murder, Abandoned Little Round Top, and Declared Himself the Hero of Gettysburg. Published by Savas Beatie LLC, this much-anticipated book will be, in my opinion, the seminal work on Sickles at Gettysburg as well as the must-have military biography of the general. Love him or hate him, Sickles is a pivotal figure of the battle, and much has been written about his role on July 2. Jim has presented a very thoughtful, reasoned, balanced, and extremely well-documented treatise of Sickles' controversial participation on the Union left during the second day of battle, as well as his influence on the rest of the Gettysburg Campaign, not to mention Sickles' infinitely interesting post-battle life and career.

I have read the other published biographies, as well as more material on Sickles' Gettysburg role than I care to remember. Jim's book will place all of the extant material in perspective, and I believe will drive much of the opinions to come. Jim has no agenda or axe to grind with his book - he simply presents (in more detail than I've ever seen) all of the facts and circumstances that led to Sickles' controversial move of his 3rd Federal Corps forward from the Cemetery Ridge line on July 2. And the biographical details that Jim provides convinced me that previous to this book, I knew much less about the general than I thought I did.

The July 2009 issue of America's Civil War magazine also contains an article on Sickles at Gettysburg by Jim, based on his book. It's on newsstands now - check out the article for a taste of what is in the book, and don't miss the discussion of the "Sickles Chomping on a Cigar" battlefield story.

I must also compliment publisher Ted Savas and his design folks for the beauty of the cover of this book. It is wonderfully done. Last night, Jim forwarded an electronic image of the full cover of the book, and I was very impressed. Savas is well known for having the best book covers in the business (they have done a beautiful job with all of mine) and this one is gorgeous.

Congratulations to Jim on giving us what will be the standard Sickles work, and an infinitely interesting read that everyone will thoroughly enjoy.


  1. That is a nice cover.

    I watched Jim's Sickles' tours on Gettysburg Daily. Looks really interesting.

    I like that he is delving into the preservation efforts by Dan as well. At least old Historicus did one thing right, eh?

  2. JD,

    I'm still not convinced. The title doesn't come across as 'fair and balanced'. Do you think this adds to Swanberg's pretty decent, but dated, biography?

    However, Jared is right about the cover. The artwork is outstanding.

    Best wishes,


  3. This should be a fascinating book on Sickles. Swanberg's book I have enjoyed reading over the years and I still think that it is a worthy read (Swanberg also wrote a very nice book on Fort Sumter that I also recommend). I look forward to what Hessler has to say about this very controversial figure. Sickles reminds me of Aaron Burr, someone who was pretty much a scoundrel but is sure interesting to read about.

  4. Mark,

    The title of the book - although most would certainly describe Sickles that way - is a bit of a play on his reputation and how he is commonly characterized. So there's an interesting catch and double-play on words there. The book definitely adds to Swanberg's bio, as I believe readers will be able to understand - and here's what I felt as I read Jim's book - "understand" Ol' Dan quite a bit more. And as Jared alluded to, along the way as you read about Sickles' efforts to preserve Gettysburg, you'll feel yourself rooting for him. Rooting for the scoundrel, so to speak, which will make you catch yourself.

    And that's where Sickles is different than the other famous "scoundrels" of the war - guys like Kilpatrick, Pleasonton, etc. Most of these others weren't nearly as influential (or at all) in deeds such as the preservation of historic land.

    Dan was arrogant, frustrating, insubordinate, a murderer, and all-around boob, but when you finish this book you just might hate AND love him.


  5. Writing a truly "fair" bio on Sickles is like writing a fair book on Richard Nixon...although both men did good in their lives, they also did very wrong stuff. Either way, you are going to have to discuss those circumstances. Sometimes, the good will outweigh the bad given the individual.

  6. Hi everyone,

    Thanks J.D. for all the kind words. You are exactly right : the sub-title is a bit of a play on his reputation and yet would still be considered accurate by most people (he DID murder somebody, he DID abandon Little Round Top, and he DID go to great efforts to declare himself a hero of the battle. Those are all basically facts and not really my opinion.) So I see no conflict between the sub-title and our efforts to be unbiased.

    Here's a story I like to tell. Several years ago I pitched this book to a prominent historian and he rolled his eyes and said, "Well, whose side are you on?!?" I find it fascinating (and humorous and frustrating) that in order to have an interest in Sickles, we must take "someone's side" (of course we are really talking Meade's side or Sickles' side). That really should not be a historian's role.

    I want the book to accomplish 5 things:

    1) Produce something that Civil War enthusiasts will enjoy reading and referencing.

    2) I'm a "Day 2 guy" and to really understand that day, you have to understand Sickles' actions.

    3) I also wanted to understand why he moved forward. What seems like an increasing number of Gettysburg studies ascribe some pretty sinister motives behind his move to the Peach Orchard (he supposedly wanted to be President, or he did it simply because he hated Meade, etc.) I think when you examine the baggage that comes before Gettysburg, and then the chain of events on the morning of July 2, it becomes alot less "sinister" and more explainable. That doesn't have to mean that Sickles was right, but it can give a little balance to his historical image by giving some more rational reasons for his actions.

    4) I basically just wanted to know more about this guy because like Chris said, he sure had an interesting life.

    5) Produce something that Civil War enthusiasts will enjoy reading and referencing. (Hey, I already used that one!)

    The bottom line is: the book obviously doesn't support everything he does, but tries to see him as a real (and really interesting) person with alot of flaws but maybe not the monster that some Gettysburg students have been conditioned to expect.

    Finally, I love Swanberg's book and that has obviously been the standard up until now. But as far as what I hope to "add": I cover the development of the Meade-Sickles relationship in greater detail, Gettysburg in alot greater detail, and his preservation role in alot greater detail (previous Sickles books have hardly touched on this at all). Gettysburg (the battle and the preservation) really isn't a focus of Swanberg's book; it is in mine. Along the way I challenge some of Swanberg's conclusions (see this month's America's Civil War as an example), just as I assume someone will challenge some of my conclusions. Probably comes with the territory.

    Finally (sorry to make this so long!), today I was out filming another installment of Bobby Housch's A Park Ranger was watching us and when I mentioned Sickles at Gettysburg, she said..."Well, whose side are you on!?!" True story.

    Have a good weekend-- I'm heading into Baltimore to catch the Yankees / Os tomorrow night.

    Jim Hessler

  7. All "Day 2 " guys , I include myself as well, should be lining up for this book. Understanding Sickles is a must for a study of July 2. Looking forward to this book as well as J.D's book this summer.


  8. I agree. Those two books are very much on my Wish list.

  9. LOL, Jim - I believe it! And thank you very much for the synopsis. Even those who may not have had much interest in Sickles until now, or have been purposefully staying away from him (I did that for many years!) will thoroughly enjoy your book, and also learn a great deal about July 2.

    Be sure to check out Jim's website.


  10. I read the interview on the Savas Beatie website, and that hooked me. The cover is really striking. These guys do great covers (and great books). I already have the book ordered. Thanks for writing it.


  11. JD, all.

    Thanks for the interest you are showing for our forthcoming biography of old Dan Sickles, and the courtesy you are exhibiting to new book author Jim Hessler. I was very leery about a Sickles biography until I read Jim's manuscript. I realized it would be a major contribution to the field. Now that we have spent long months preparing it for publication, its value has been reconfirmed in my mind, times five.

    I am confident--very confident--that people who read it will not only learn a lot more about Sickles, the Third Corps, and Gettysburg, but about Sickles the man. And what a man! The scoundrel, liar, cheat, soldier, diplomat, politician, philanderer, attorney, murderer, and brave warrior lived a soap opera life for nearly a century. And I had no idea just how much in debt I was to Old Dan until I read this book. I learned much more about him than I anticipated I would, and I found every page a fascinating read because so much is new and well presented.

    We are proud of all our books, and in the biographical entry, we are exceptionally proud of this one.

  12. I have read "Sickles The incredible" and enjoyed that book very much. I look forward to picking up this one and learning more about the man....espwecially his efforts to preserve the Gettysburg battlefield.

    Incidentally, I had the distinction of meeting a Chris Sickels (notice the spelling) a descendant of the General, last summer. I had a chance to speak with him a bit; he verified a few things I had read in books...such as the Sickles family deliberately changing the spelling of the surname so as to avoid any association with General Sickles.

    Strangley enough, Mr. Sickels is also missing his right leg. He jokingly referred to the mishap as "The Sickles Curse"...only he lost his leg in a car accident when he was 17 years old; not by a cannonball.