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Eye on the News

Clark Whelton
Gettysburg and the City
Prominent New Yorkers were briefly linked on the great battlefield.
3 July 2013

Both sides made their share of mistakes at the Battle of Gettysburg 150 years ago this week. Perhaps the most notorious was committed by a scandal-prone Manhattan-born general, Daniel E. Sickles, who had been corporation counsel of the City of New York in 1853 and went on to serve in the state senate and in the U.S. Congress. Sickles had been censured by the New York State Assembly for bringing Fanny White, a well-known prostitute, into its chambers. Then, leaving his pregnant wife Teresa in New York, Sickles took Fanny to London, where he managed to present her to Queen Victoria. Misdemeanors in Albany and London, needless to say, are not necessarily fatal to the careers of New York City politicians. Sickles was elected to Congress in 1856. While serving in the nation’s capital, however, Sickles suspected Teresa was having a fling with Francis Barton Key, whose father wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Key the younger was a handsome widower and infamous Washington rake. Teresa admitted everything and Sickles, confronting her lover in a park near the White House, shot Key dead. Pleading temporary insanity, Sickles claimed he had been driven mad by the graphic details of Teresa’s confession, which he then leaked to the Washington papers. He was acquitted.

When the Civil War broke out, Sickles used political pull to get himself a commission in the Union army, hoping military service would help rehabilitate his scandal-stained name. Though he had no military experience, Sickles’s plan to cleanse his reputation in uniform went reasonably well, until—over-promoted by political friends—he found himself at the head of the III Corps at Gettysburg, the only amateur officer in the Union army to be given such an important command. On the second day of the battle, Sickles ignored orders to occupy and defend Cemetery Ridge and a strategically vital hill called Little Round Top. Instead, he advanced his divisions far to the front, where he was gravely wounded in a Confederate attack that quickly overwhelmed his exposed position.

As Sickles, his right thigh smashed by a cannonball, was being carried from the field, another New York general, Gouverneur K. Warren, arrived on the scene. Warren, a West Point graduate, was born in the Hudson Valley, one of 12 children, the second-youngest of whom was his brilliant sister, Emily. Every inch a professional soldier, Warren recognized that Sickles’s failure to occupy Little Round Top had placed the entire Union line in peril. With the help of a staff officer named Washington Roebling, Warren commandeered a passing brigade and organized a defense of the hill, saving the day, and perhaps the Union. Warren and Roebling succeeded at Little Round Top because volunteer regiments, such as the 44th New York and the 20th Maine—a unit drilled and trained by an officer named Adelbert Ames and ably led at Gettysburg by Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a college professor turned soldier—stood their ground under withering fire.

Gettysburg changed the course of the Civil War and altered the lives of everyone who fought there. Dan Sickles survived the battle and the war and remained in the army until 1869. He was appointed minister to Spain, where he was linked romantically to the deposed Queen Isabella II. After returning to New York, he bought a mansion at Fifth Avenue and East Ninth Street and held various civic and political positions, winning another term in Congress in the 1890s. He always defended his dubious maneuvers at Gettysburg, was suspected of embezzling funds to build a monument to himself on the battlefield, and on occasion would visit the bones of his amputated leg, which had been preserved by the army medical corps. Today, the bones remain on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. In 1914, Sickles died at 94 in New York.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain also survived Gettysburg and was promoted to brigadier general. Ulysses S. Grant chose him to preside over the formal surrender of the Confederate army at Appomattox. Chamberlain went on to become president of Bowdoin College and governor of Maine. His friend and mentor, General Adelbert Ames, lived until 1933, five years after the birth of his great-grandson—New York author, editor, and actor George Ames Plimpton.

Gettysburg was General Warren’s finest hour. He rose to the command of the V Corps, but at Five Forks, the last major battle of the war, he was unjustly relieved of his authority. He spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name. Only after his death did the War Department exonerate Warren and restore his reputation.

For Warren’s sister Emily, the war ended on a happier note. While visiting her brother at the front, she fell in love with and married Washington Roebling. Together, they built the Brooklyn Bridge. When her husband was crippled by the effects of working in high-pressure caissons beneath the bridge towers, she took over many of the duties of chief engineer. In 1883, Emily Warren Roebling—carrying a rooster as a symbol of victory—was the first to cross the bridge by carriage. She lived another 20 years, but Washington Roebling survived her by 23 more, dying in 1926. The Roeblings are buried in Cold Spring, New York, where General Warren and Emily were born. Today, statues of General Warren stand on Little Round Top and in Grand Army Plaza—a short distance from where a magnificent portrait of Emily hangs in the Brooklyn Museum.

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