On the last Sunday of February 1859, Dan Sickles, a charming young congressman from New York, murdered his good friend Philip Barton Key (son of Francis Scott Key)-who was also his wife's lover-in Washington's Lafayette Square. The shooting took place directly across the street from the White House, the home of Sickles's friend and protector, President James Buchanan. Sickles turned himself in; political friends in New York's Tammany Hall machinery, including the dynamic criminal lawyer James Brady, quickly gathered around. While his beautiful young wife was banned from public life and shunned by society, Dan Sickles was acquitted. American Scoundrel is the extraordinary story of this powerful mid-nineteenth century politician and inveterate womanizer, whose irresistible charms and rock-solid connections not only allowed him to get away with murder - literally - but also paved the way to a stunning career. Once free to resume his life, Dan Sickles raised a regiment for the Union political elite and went on to become a general in the army, rising to the rank of brigadier general and commanding a flank at the Battle of Gettysburg in a maneuver so controversial it is still argued over by scholars today.
Obviously intrigued by a minor character in his previous nonfiction title, The Great Shame, Keneally has written a largely fascinating biography of Tammany politician and Civil War general Dan Sickles. Sickles was famous in his time both as the cold-blooded killer of his wife's lover, the son of Francis Scott Key, and as the insubordinate commander who defied orders at Cemetery Ridge, instigating a still-raging debate among military scholars about whether his regiment's actions "won or nearly lost the war." The book's apt title suggests its major drawback: Sickles's mercurial charm and courage in battle notwithstanding, his flaws as a flagrant adulterer and a mendacious and neglectful husband and father make him a difficult subject; evidence of his violent temper and ill-disguised egotism further alienate the reader's interest. By his own admission, Keneally's sympathies lie with Sickles's wife, Teresa, whose temptation into adultery with federal district attorney Philip Barton Key was a direct result of her congressman husband's neglect. Her life was ruined by the scandal, whereas Sickles was acquitted of murder and remains a lionized figure. With the Clinton sex scandals in recent memory, it's ironic to read of the marital morality of the mid-19th century, and how a relatively short time ago, the double standard regarding the position of women and the obsession with personal honor could condone murder. Once past the dramatic events of Sickles's revenge and court trial, the narrative loses its momentum. In order to describe Sickles's further career in the military, Keneally is forced to condense and summarize Civil War history. The bifurcated narrative retains its intrinsic interest, however, since Keneally's sure grasp of the political, social and historical details defines an era, and the panache of his prose, even if it sometimes veers into sentimental excess in describing Teresa's plight, remains as seductive as ever. Agent, Amanda Urban. (On-sale Apr. 9) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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May 12, 2003
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Excerpt from American Scoundrel by Thomas Keneally
In 1853, at the age of thirty-three, Daniel Edgar Sickles was appointed first secretary to the United States legation in London, at a time when there was much dispute between Britain and the United States. Sickles, known as an eloquent yet tough-minded figure in the politics of New York, had been chosen by the new minister to the Court of St. James's, a crotchety Democrat elder named James Buchanan. Dan Sickles was to work with Buchanan in London on a number of important American objectives, not least of which was convincing the British government that it was in everyone's interest to let the United States acquire Cuba, either by purchase or force of arms.
Those who met, knew, trusted, and loved Dan Sickles swore by his loyalty, discretion, and effectiveness. He was urbane, intellectually gifted, a skillful lawyer. He had already served a political apprenticeship as a New York State assemblyman, and no one doubted that a seat in Congress lay ahead. For the moment, he had given up the choice post of attorney to the New York Corporation to serve his nation at Buchanan's side in Britain. Some said he was escaping debts in New York, but they were predictably Republicans. A trim-waisted, neatly made fellow of just under average height, he carried in his luggage excellent suits and, for use at the British court, the uniform of a colonel of New York militia. He was a promising Yankee, a man with a future, on his way to show the British a thing or two. Yet there was in this stylish New Yorker a tendency to embrace poles of behavior, to go from coolness to delirium in a second, and from statesmanship to excess. His tendency toward berserk and full-blooded risk was partly characteristic of the city he had grown up in, the age he lived in, and his own soul.