American Scoundrel; the life of the notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles – Thomas Keneally

Would I have bought this book, or even looked at it, if I hadn’t been mooching around the Gettysburg Battlefield bookshop waiting for my partner to finish talking to an author whose book he was buying?  Probably not.  But I was and so I did.

I was initially attracted by the blurb on the front cover and then noticed it was by Thomas Keneally whose book Schindler’s Ark I found fascinating (and very different from Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, loosely based on the book).

The American Civil War isn’t a period of history that particularly appeals to me but I enjoyed finding out more about the not-very-United States at this time.  One thing that stood out for me is how very recent it is.  Had I been born in the US my grandparents would have known people who fought in the Civil War!  I find this quite hard to grasp, possibly because as a citizen of the UK Civil War is something that happened centuries ago.

Thomas Keneally paints a good background picture of New York and its politics; the corruption, the divisions and the opportunities for men of ambition.  Dan Sickles fits well into this picture as an intensely ambitious man on the make.  In him I can see a reflection of the career politicians of our own era; people who nominally have a profession but whose only interest and real job is politics, but that a soapbox for a different forum!

The first, and largest part of the book is about Sickles building his political career to the point of becoming a Democrat Senator representing New Year and about his personal life, married to the young Theresa yet maintaining a string of mistresses.  The story builds up to the point at which Dan murders Philip Barton Keys for having an affair with Theresa.  The second part of the book deals with the murder trial and Dan’s acquittal.

The third part of the book is about the Civil War and Sickles transformation from Southern supporting Democrat to Unionist prepared to work with the Republicans for the cause.  It also covers his transformation from politician to General.

The final part of the book covers the period from the end of the War to Sickles death in XXX.  This is probably the least interesting part of the book as his influence wanes.

This was an interesting book from the point of view of learning more about the US at a time when it was deciding what sort of a country it wanted to be and when the sticking plaster came off the cracks.

It was also interesting to learn about a man who was clearly very charismatic but today relatively unknown.  And yet…

I find it difficult to admire a man who achieved so much and yet was corrupt, hypocritical and who literally got away with murder.

It seems grossly unfair, although not surprising, that Dan was a serial philanderer being quite open with some of his mistresses and yet it is seen as understandable when he throws a wobbler on finding out that his wife has fallen in love with someone else.  If you neglect your wife it shouldn’t be surprising when she falls for someone who shows her interest and affection!  Typical double standards of the period.

It also seems incredible to me that despite the number of witnesses and the clear evidence of intent Dan Sickles was acquitted of the murder of Philip Barton Keys.  He deprived a man of his life and yet he walked away scot free!  And then treated his wife as though she was the scourge of society by isolating her in a house on the edge of New York.  I know I’m bringing my 20th/21st century sensibilities to this 19th century event but the inequality of justice makes me head for my feminist soapbox.  Anyway, rant over.

The Civil War part of the book was least interesting to me, as I said earlier, it isn’t really my thing.  That said, I admire Sickles for managing to reinvent himself as a General, having had no previous military experience, and, given that his men admired him, his charisma and energy clearly had an important role to play.  Mostly, during this section of the book, I enjoyed the novel experience of knowing more about a part of the American Civil War than my partner.

In the after-War years the most admirable thing about Sickles is his refusal to allow his disability to curtail his activities back on the political scene.  Having lost a leg at Gettysburg he could be an excellent role model for modern day wounded veterans.

Overall, I found this book very detailed and quite hard to read.  It isn’t bedtime reading as you need to be alert to keep up with what is happening.  It added to my knowledge of 19th century politics in USA, which informs my understanding of the USA today.

Would I recommend it?  Possibly, but only to someone with patience and an interest in American politics.

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