I bought “American Scoundrel…the life of the notorious civil war general Dan Sickles” by Thomas Keneally in the After Words bookstore in Chicago recently, when there on business, and I am really glad I did.

Keneally is an Australian author, of Irish descent, and is the author of “Schindlers List”, which is also based on a true story, and was made into a very good movie.  “American Scoundrel” would make a great movie too, with its mixture of low and high politics, adultery, betrayal, exotic diplomacy, and warfare. The book was published by Anchor Books
Keneally became interested in Dan Sickles when researching the life of Thomas Francis Meagher, the Waterford born Young Irelander, who was imprisoned in Australia after the failure of the 1848 rebellion, but escaped from there to go on to have a career in the United States as a politician, lawyer, and leader of one of the Irish regiments who fought on the Union side in the American Civil War.

The flag of Meagher’s regiment was presented to Dail Eireann by the late President Kennedy in 1963, and I used to look at every day as I came in and out of the Library in Leinster House. I had an added interest in it, in that I once stayed in the house where Meagher was born in Waterford (now the Bridge Hotel), and attended the same school as Meagher, though not at the same time! 
Dan Sickles was a close political associate of Meagher in New York politics, and when Sickles was later tried for the murder of his wife’s lover, Meagher was a member of his legal team, charged with coming up rhetorical flourishes that would impress the jury.
Sickles was an effective, if unscrupulous, politician. He was largely responsible for the preservation for recreation of Central Park in New York city, something he gets little credit for nowadays.
He was a Democrat in politics, and initially favoured concessions to the Southern states on the question of slavery, to keep them in the Union.

But when the South fired the first shot, at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbour, he took a strongly pro Union position and used his political name to raise a large number of volunteers in New York for the Union army. On the strength of his recruiting efforts, and without any military experience, he became a General in the Union Army.
And this happened after Sickles had been controversially acquitted of the murder of his  wife’s lover, Barton Key, a man who happened to be the son of the author of the Star Spangled Banner. 
Sickles had neglected his young wife, and  had carried on several public affairs with women, while married, including a notorious brothel keeper. Yet, when he discovered his wife herself had had an affair, to which she confessed, and he saw her lover Barton Key outside on the street, he armed himself, went out and shot the unarmed Key dead.
But he was acquitted in the trial , because it was considered that a man had a right to defend his honour in this way, and because, as one of Sickles lawyers put it, “the personal body of the wife was the property of the husband” (notwithstanding his own notorious misbehaviour). The jury accepted this notion.

Sickles once acquitted, quickly regained his good reputation, and went on to become a close friend of President Lincoln and a General. His wife, in contrast, could barely appear in public for the remainder of her short life. She died of TB at the age of 31. Sickles remarried,  was equally disloyal to his second wife, but lived to be re elected to Congress in 1892, having first served there in the 1850’s.
This book is well worth reading for the insight it gives in social attitudes in the nineteenth century and how different these are from those prevailing today. It also presents a great insight into the politics immediately preceding the American Civil War.
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