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Cannonball Read #24 (5K Book 3 -- Biography): American Scoundrel: The Life of Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles by Thomas Keneally

This book is a fascinating look at a person who could either be considered a national hero or an irredeemable asshole.

This is the story of Dan Sickles, a native New Yorker who was brought up through the Tammany system. Although not well-remembered today, Sickles was a dynamic, popular, and very gossip-worthy figure of his time. His connections to Tammany Hall were definitely not entirely honest, but he often used them to accomplish good things, like the establishment of Central Park, and many years later would head the effort to preserve the battlefield at Gettysburg.. He served in the US government, and became friends with many powerful people, including the Lincolns. Sickles was also (as mentioned in the title) a general during the Civil War, fighting on behalf of the Union, despite his pre-war Southern sympathies. His actions at Gettysburg--moving his troops ahead of the planned position and onto higher ground--could have resulted in Union disaster but instead led to victory. However, the most dramatic episode in Sickles's life came when he went on trial for shooting down his young wife's lover (son of Francis Scott Key, the anthem writer) on a sunny Washington street. His trial would be the first time "Temporary Insanity" would be used as a legal defense in the USA.

The life of Dan Sickles is packed full of adventure and heroics, but the author never turns away from showing the downside of Sickle's personality--his tantrums, his philandering, his arrogance, and his neglect of his family. It seems to be a relatively fair description of the man, with many details pulled from historical record. However, I found the style slightly lacking. It often felt sort of "And then this happened. And then this happened. And we think this happened, but we can't be sure." Sometimes it felt more like a report than a story. However, on the whole I enjoyed it. I love finding out about forgotten historical figures. I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in Civil War history.

Fun Fact: Sickles had his leg horribly injured by a cannonball at the battle of Gettysburg. The leg was amputated and the bones sent to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington D.C. He visited the leg for many years on the anniversary of its removal, and kept a photo of it in his home until his death. The leg is still on display at the museum for public view.


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