It wasn’t an abiding interest in the Civil War that caused me to tuck into Thomas Keneally‘s “American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles.” And it was only a little bit an interest in how a member of Congress was able to murder the son of Francis Scott Key, invent the insanity defense, and somehow later rise to the rank of Major General in the Civil War. What drove me was a need to understand why a downstate Tammany Hall politician opposed the construction of a bridge across the Hudson at Albany, a bridge that would eventually become the Livingston Avenue Bridge, still in service today. He not only opposed it when serving in the State Senate in 1856, he returned to Albany as a war hero in 1864 and spoke to the State Senate broadly on the future of the republic, coincidentally (or not) just the day before the issue of the bridge was taken up again. While the citizens and leaders of Troy vehemently opposed what they thought would be an encumbrance to navigation that would accrue to Albany’s benefit, I find nothing that would tie a New York City politician, even one with some connections to Glens Falls and the Adirondacks, to a position against bridging the Hudson at Albany. Perhaps a potential contractor wasn’t in favor with Tammany. Perhaps the ferry interests were. It’s even possible that Sickles agreed with Troy’s concerns and was taking a principled stand, though having read Keneally’s book that seems unlikely at best.
Keneally apparently found the matter of the bridge uninteresting, preferring instead to focus on these more mundane particulars of Sickles’s life:
- At 33, he married a 15-year-old girl he had known since she was 3 years old.
- As part of the Tammany machine, he war part of a group that overran the Broadway post office, gathered up a series of letters opposing a Tammany candidate, and set fire to them in the post office.
- He was friendly with every president from Pierce to Grant, and was such a particular favorite of Mary Todd Lincoln that there were rumors that their relationship was inappropriate.
- He became an intimate of famous prostitute and brothel-owner Fanny White and was censured for bringing her onto the floor of the New York State Assembly. He also presented her to Queen Victoria.
- While a notorious womanizer, he could be little bothered with his child bride, who embarked on an affair with Philip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key. Sickles’s anger over the brazenness of this affair would lead him to shoot a defenseless Key in broad daylight in Lafayette Park, across from the White House.
- Sickles used his connections and his will to put himself in a key role at the Battle of Gettysburg, a role that has been debated ever since.
- After the war, he built on his role in creating Central Park by heading a commission to memorialize the New York regiments at Gettysburg. A large sum of money went missing, presumed to have been siphoned by the General.
- He married a Spanish society woman, Caroline de Creagh, but did not let his courtship of her interfere with sexual liaisons with Queen Isabella II of Spain.
And there is much, much more. Just don’t be disappointed by the lack of juicy bridge politics.