Was wounded Dan Sickles coolly chomping that cigar as he was carried off the field at Gettysburg, or is it just a puffed-up tale?
Every student of the Battle of Gettysburg knows the story—the intrepid Major General Dan Sickles, seemingly unperturbed, calmly smoking a Havana as he was carried from the field with the wound that cost him his leg. But whether the tale is more myth than legend remains a bit of a mystery.
The story begins as shot and shell filled the air around the Trostle Farm at Gettysburg on the afternoon of July 2, 1863. Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s flank attack against the Union left was in full sway, slamming into the men of Sickles’ III Corps, lined along and at right angles to the Emmitsburg Road. At about 6 p.m., Sickles’ situation only worsened as Longstreet’s Rebels began to hammer the Union troops stationed in the Peach Orchard. The colorful general watched the action from near the Trostle farmhouse, and his anxious staff officers implored him to move to a safer location.
In trademark fashion, Sickles disregarded their advice and instead rode up to a knoll just west of the Trostle barn. He wasn’t there long, however, before a shell or shell fragment struck his right leg. Perhaps because his horse was completely unscathed by the impact, or maybe because of shock, the general didn’t seem to be aware at first that he had been hit. He became “conscious of dampness along the lower part of my right leg, and I ran my hand down the leg of my high-top boots and pulling it out I was surprised to see it dripping with blood,” Sickles revealed in 1882.
“Soon I noticed the leg would not perform its usual functions,” he said. “I lifted it carefully over my horse’s neck and slid to the ground. Then I was conscious of approaching weakness, and the last thing I remembered was designating the surgeons of my staff who should examine the wound and treat it. They found that the knee had been smashed, probably by a piece of shell, and that the leg had been broken above and also below the knee; but while all this damage had been done I had not been unhorsed, and never knew exactly when the hurt was received.”
And as a celebrated story goes, Sickles was escorted from the field while theatrically chomping on a cigar and inspiring his men to hold their ground. That final act of bravado has become part of the lore of the second day’s fighting at Gettysburg.
W.A. Swanberg’s 1956 biography Sickles the Incredible is probably most responsible for perpetuating the legend. According to Swanberg, Sickles “seemed only moderately upset” and “was not one to allow this moment to pass without making full use of its dramatic value. Being informed that a rumor had gone around that he was mortally wounded, he requested a stretcher bearer to remove a cigar from [his inside pocket] and light it for him. He was carried away with the Havana projecting dauntily from his mouth.”
The tale of Sickles’ vigorous and heroic departure from the battlefield became part and parcel of his 1897 Medal of Honor citation, which claimed he continued to “encourage his troops after being himself severely wounded.” Many historians have repeated the notion as unchallenged fact. But contemporary sources are mixed on whether this courageous display really happened.
In his 1882 account, Sickles never mentioned smoking a cigar at the time of his wound, but he did recall “losing blood rapidly. Hurriedly calling to a trooper nearby, I ordered him to bring me a strap from his saddle, and with his aid I bound the leg close up to the body, stationed a guard of twenty men about me and directed that no surgeon be allowed to disturb me until the arrival of Dr. [J.T.] Calhoun.”
“Most of the staff were absent,” remembered Captain George Randolph, chief of artillery for the Union II Corps. “I do not recollect anyone but myself and a couple of orderlies being with him at the time. We bound his leg first with handkerchiefs and finally with a strap from a saddle, and sent for surgeons and ambulance.”
Major Henry Tremain, Sickles’ senior aide, was away from the scene when Sickles was struck, helping move reinforcements from the II Corps to the nearby Wheatfield. He later wrote, “not an officer was near him; nor was there, as far as I ever could ascertain, when the ball hit him.”
Tremain wrote that he found Sickles “reclining with apparent suffering against the wall of the barn, while a soldier was engaged under the general’s direction in buckling a saddle strap, which had been tightly wound around his leg above the knee—thus forming an improvised tourniquet.”
“Tell General [David B.] Birney he must take command,” Sickles ordered in a clear voice. Fearing the worst, Tremain watched as Sickles “produced the tiniest flask ever carried by a soldier, and wet his lips with its brandy.”
Later histories emphasized Sickles’ calm and cool demeanor as he waited for an ambulance, but Randolph remembered that “our line had been broken about the Peach Orchard and our infantry and artillery came pouring by in rapid retreat. Sickles’ only thought seemed to be the fear of being taken prisoner. He repeatedly urged us not to allow him to be taken.”
An ambulance finally appeared. Tremain thought the “shot and shell” being hurled by the Confederates would destroy the vehicle, yet amazingly neither horse nor man was hurt. “After we had succeeded with much difficulty in getting an ambulance and him into it, I thought he was dying,” Tremain wrote a week after the battle. “I was riding with him alone, holding his mangled leg, which was tightly bound by a strap.”
Father Joseph B. O’Hagan, the 74th New York’s chaplain, joined Tremain in the wagon. O’Hagan “also thought the general [was] dying and we administered stimulants by the wholesale,” Tremain recalled.
The smoking stogie
The first contemporary account that mentions Sickles holding a cigar was recorded on July 3, 1863. Correspondent Whitelaw Reid reported that in passing Sickles along the Baltimore Pike on the morning of the 3rd, he saw the general “with his right leg amputated and lying there, grim and stoical, with his cap pulled over his eyes, his hands calmly folded across his breast, and a cigar in his mouth!” Reid’s account was widely reprinted during the late 19th century, but sometimes with variations that did not always clarify that he had seen Sickles on July 3, not July 2. Perhaps as a result, a reporter for the May 28, 1899, edition of the Philadelphia Times wrote that when Sickles “was carried from the field he lay on his stretcher smoking a cigar as serenely as if he was still unhurt.”
Private John Haley, who was fighting with his 17th Maine in the Wheatfield on July 2, claimed later that somewhere between the Trostle Farm and the amputating table he glimpsed Sickles “sitting in an ambulance smoking and holding his shattered limb and appeared as cool as though nothing had happened. A few minutes later his leg was amputated at or near the knee.”
Lieutenant Colonel William E. Doster, commander of the 4th Pennsylvania Cavalry, wrote in 1915 that while riding from Maj. Gen. George Meade’s headquarters, he “noticed Sickles on a stretcher, smoking a cigar. They said his leg had been shot off in the last charge.”
Campfire and Battlefield, a popular 1894 narrative history of the war by Rossiter Johnson, quoted an observer from the Union III Corps—possibly Captain Benjamin Piatt—as saying, “I was within a few feet of General Sickles when he received the wound by which he lost his leg.” In that version, however, Sickles stayed anything but calm and unaffected, half-falling to the ground and exclaiming, “‘Quick, quick! Get something and tie it up before I bleed to death!’ These were his exact words….”
But according to the officer, Sickles was then carried to a farmhouse, “coolly smoking a cigar, quietly remarking to a Catholic priest…‘Man proposes and God disposes.’ His leg was amputated within less than half an hour after receiving the wound.”
Private William H. Bullard, a drummer in the 70th New York, would write one of the most influential primary accounts of Sickles’ wounding. In 1897, he sent Sickles a letter documenting his memories. The letter resulted from a reunion in Buffalo, N.Y., in which Bullard had apparently promised Sickles to “state as near as I remember my personal experience” when Sickles was hit.
Bullard and other musicians were acting as stretcher-bearers. After carrying several wounded soldiers off the field, Bullard was returning to the front “when I noticed a commotion near Gen. Sickles and saw him taken from his horse. I hastened to him thinking I could be of service in some way; the aids on his staff gave way for me.” Bullard, who was carrying silk cords and a canteen “filled with stimulants,” examined and bound the wounded leg to stop the blood loss. “I shall never forget how white the Gen. was. I gave him something from my canteen which seemed to revive him. I then placed him on the stretcher and was about to start for the ambulances which were placed behind large rocks.”
But first, according to Bullard, Sickles asked, “Won’t you be kind enough to light a cigar for me?” Bullard took a small cigar from an inside case in Sickles’ pocket, bit the end off, lit the cigar and placed it in Sickles’ mouth. As he helped carry the stretcher away, Bullard claimed that soldiers began to ask if the general were mortally wounded, and that “Sickles heard them and he raised himself up and said ‘No No not so bad as that. I am all right and will be with you in a short time’ and in his old Clarion voice the boys knew so well, said ‘you must hold your position and win this battle, don’t waver, stand firm and you will surely win’ or something to that effect.”
Bullard accompanied Sickles in the ambulance, he said, but recounted nothing more of the ride until they “took him to old Penna. Barn or stone barn and Dr. Ash [sic] I think and others and amputated his leg.”
Another frequently quoted account of Sickles’ wounding is contained in the regimental history of the 72nd New York, published in 1902: “As he was placed on a stretcher the General was informed that his men thought he was mortally wounded. To correct this report, and cheer up the men, he requested the Drum Major of the First Regiment, who had charge of the brigade stretcher bearers, to take a cigar case from an inside pocket, and light a cigar for him. This having been done, the General was carried along the line, coolly smoking, to a road leading to the rear.”
Fact or fiction?
Of all the contemporary accounts, only Tremain and Randolph actually appear to have been on the scene for
any length of time, although there is no reason to doubt Bullard’s assertion that he was also there. Both Tremain’s and Bullard’s recollections were written decades later, although Tremain claimed he was relying heavily on correspondence written immediately after the battle.
Tremain recalled that Sickles was badly wounded, pale and in no shape to dramatically encourage his men. A significant inconsistency of Tremain’s account, though, is that while he claimed he rode alone with Sickles until the two were joined by Father O’Hagan, Bullard claimed he was also in the ambulance.
Despite the inconsistencies, 20th-century historians transformed Sickles’ wounding into a Gettysburg legend. Sickles’ biographers have led the charge, beginning with Edgcumb Pinchon’s Dan Sickles: Hero of Gettysburg and ‘Yankee King of Spain’ (1945). “Fearing the effect the news might have upon his men, his orderlies rushed him to the rear,” Pinchon wrote. “There, stoically smoking a cigar while he waited for the surgeon, he demanded to be kept informed of every development on the battle front.”
Pinchon’s version is relatively understated, surprising given the overall tone of his biography. But one wonders if the “stoicism” noted by many was actually a stupor brought on by shock, exhaustion, blood loss, and “stimulants” being pumped into him “by the wholesale.”
Swanberg’s Sickles the Incredible took the theme a step further. Swanberg’s Sickles was “only moderately upset,” “cool” and had a “Havana projecting dauntily from his mouth.” Swanberg’s sources were Campfire and Battlefield, Tremain’s memoir, William Doster’s account and the 72nd New York regimental history. In fact, Swanberg’s version is pretty much an abbreviated copy of the 72nd New York account. None of Swanberg’s other sources suggested the cigar as an intentional attempt to rally the troops.
No major Sickles biography appeared for decades after Swanberg’s, and full-scale treatments of the battle—with Sickles only one among a cast of thousands—generally treated the incident more modestly.
Sickles took a more prominent role in Harry Pfanz’s Gettysburg: The Second Day (1987): “Sickles took [the cigar] and puffed away. Sickles’s condition soon attracted attention. In order to present a brave and calming front, Sickles raised himself on the stretcher so that passers-by could see that he was alive if not well and asked them to stand firm.” Pfanz’s source was William Bullard’s 1897 letter.
Pfanz’s work subsequently became a definitive reference in any post-1987 study on Gettysburg’s second day. As a result, Bullard’s letter inadvertently became an authoritative account of Sickles’ wounding. A case in point occurs in the Jeanne Knoop’s 1998 Sickles biography, I Follow the Course, Come What May. Knoop wrote that before the ambulance arrived, “To stop any rumor of his death, which would demoralize his troops, he kept smoking the cigar and waving to his men.” Knoop’s source is Pfanz’s Gettysburg: The Second Day.
Noah Andre Trudeau retained the primary elements of Swanberg’s and Pfanz’s versions in Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage (2002), with Sickles transformed from Swanberg’s “daunty” to “jaunty”:
“Before the ambulance appeared to transport him to the Third Corps field hospital, the wounded Sickles had himself propped up with cigar in mouth, jauntily urging the soldiers who passed him to stand firm.”
In 2003, Stephen Sears wrote an almost identical description in Gettysburg: “Game to the end, Sickles puffed jauntily on a cigar as he was carried away.”
Thomas Keneally graphically wrote in his 2002 Sickles biography American Scoundrel: “Dan was still astride his horse in the Trostle farmyard, an unlit cigar in his mouth, maintaining without apparent effort a deliberate but tautly aware frame of mind…a twelve-pound cannonball that had failed to explode came visibly lolloping, far too fast to be avoided by Dan and his mounted staff…and shattered and tore to pulp Dan’s right leg in its blue fabric….Dan was conscious of the damage, yet was not overwhelmed with pain and did not lose consciousness. Already in a heightened, feverish state from the battle he was fighting, perhaps he found it all the easier to marshal the chemicals appropriate to trauma. A captain of the 70th New York, standing nearby, nonetheless feared that the men still fighting on the III Corps line might be affected if too many of them heard the rumor that their general had been—as it seemed— mortally wounded. The captain formed a detail of a sergeant and six soldiers, who covered Dan with a blanket and carried him to the shade of the Trostle farmhouse. This was, above all, in the hour of his wound, a moment of which the right sort of general could make a myth of his easy gallantry, and Dan managed it, his cigar still stuck between his lips by grimace or by stubbornness. When he arrived by the wall of the house, he appeared merely moderately upset and told one of the men to buckle a saddle strap tightly over the upper thigh as a tourniquet….A stretcher arrived, Dan had an NCO light his cigar, and that was how he was carried away, cap over his eyes, cigar in mouth, hands folded on chest.”
Tremain’s and Randolph’s accounts appear to be the primary sources for Trudeau’s version, while Keneally also relied heavily on Tremain. Yet neither Tremain nor Randolph indicated a “jaunty” Sickles; they portrayed a badly wounded general who was most worried about being taken prisoner. But as Gettysburg literature entered the 21st century, the image of a cigar-chomping Sickles calmly being carried off the field had fully overshadowed the actual primary accounts.
In the end, an assessment of the “cigar incident” must take at least one factor into consideration. If it occurred, then Sickles’ own initial accounts fail to mention it. Sickles’ battlefield performance became the subject of much scrutiny, and certainly such a self-promoter would have brought attention to the fact that he took time, while badly wounded, to rally and encourage his men.
“I was conscious of approaching weakness, and the last thing I remembered was designating the surgeons of my staff who should examine the wound and treat it,” Sickles admitted in one interview.
Given the shock and blood loss, Sickles may not have even remembered how he acted as he was being carried off the field. There are enough accounts to accept that a heavily medicated Sickles smoked a cigar or two before and after his amputation. But only in later years, after he had time to consider things and speak with veterans like Bullard, did he tell how he “placed a lighted cigar in his mouth and had myself carried down the battle line in order to talk to and encourage my men. They stood firm as a rock, and Longstreet’s charge failed.”
This article is adapted from Sickles at Gettysburg: The Controversial Civil War General Who Committed Murder, Abandoned Little Round Top, and Declared Himself the Hero of Gettysburg (Savas Beatie, May 2009).
Originally published in the July 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.