Cover image for American scoundrel : the life of the notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles
American scoundrel : the life of the notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles
Keneally, Thomas.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2002.
Physical Description:
xii, 397 pages ; 25 cm
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Item Holds
E415.9.S53 K46 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
E415.9.S53 K46 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
E415.9.S53 K46 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Biography

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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 Scoundrelis 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. After losing a leg in that battle, Sickles fought on and after the war became military governor of South Carolina, and later was named minister to Spain, where he continued astonishingly to conduct his amorous assignations. With great brio and insight -- and a delight in bad behavior -- Thomas Keneally has brought to light a tale of American history that resonates with uncomfortable truths about our politics, ethics, and morality.

Author Notes

Thomas Keneally was born in Sydney, Australia on October 7, 1935. Although he initially studied for the Catholic priesthood, he abandoned that idea in 1960, turning to teaching and clerical work before writing and publishing his first novel, The Place at Whitton, in 1964. Since that time he has been a full-time writer, aside from the occasional stint as a lecturer or writer-in-residence.

He won the Booker Prize in 1982 for Schindler's Ark, which Stephen Spielberg adapted into the film Schindler's List. He won the Miles Franklin Award twice with Bring Larks and Heroes and Three Cheers for the Paraclete. His other fiction books include The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, Gossip from the Forest, Confederates, The People's Train, Bettany's Book, An Angel in Australia, The Widow and Her Hero, and The Daughters of Mars. His nonfiction works include Searching for Schindler, Three Famines, The Commonwealth of Thieves, The Great Shame, and American Scoundrel. In 1983, he was awarded the order of Australia for his services to Australian Literature.

Thomas Keneally is the recipient of the 2015 Australia Council Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature. The award, formerly known as the Writers' Emeritus Award, recognises 'the achievements of eminent literary writers over the age of 60 who have made an outstanding and lifelong contribution to Australian literature.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

This well-respected Australian writer could have easily turned the subject of his latest book into another of his admired and avidly read historical novels, a list that includes The Confederates (1980) and Schindler's List (1982). Instead Keneally has chosen to present his material as a biography, but he brings to it an unerring instinct for letting colorful characters shine in all their created or--as in this case--natural vibrancy. Dan Sickles was "urbane, intellectually gifted, a skillful lawyer." In 1853, at the age of 33, he was appointed first secretary to the American legation in London, under the wing of the new American minister to the court of Queen Victoria, future president James Buchanan. Sickles represented lower Manhattan in Congress and later was drawn into the circle of Mary Todd Lincoln's favorites; President Lincoln himself stood behind Sickles' appointment as a brigadier general in the Union forces. After the war, Sickles served as the military governor of South Carolina and American minister to the court of Spain. Certainly an interesting resume, but what makes the story of his life doubly interesting is his volatile personality, which led him to make "extreme gestures." The worst consequence of his overly excitable nature was his murder of his wife's lover, Philip Barton Key, the federal district attorney for Washington, D.C. (and son of Francis Scott Key of "Star-Spangled Banner" fame). Yet throughout Sickles' life, despite whatever trouble he got into, no one could help but "forgive him everything." --Brad Hooper

Publisher's Weekly Review

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) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The author of Schindler's List tells the real-life story of New York Congressman Dan Sickles, who in 1859 murdered his best friend (and his wife's lover), was acquitted, and rose to fame as a Union general. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



I 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. Thus, on August 6, 1853, in the presidency of Franklin Pierce, the elderly bachelor Buchanan and the married Dan boarded one of the relatively new and splendidly fitted paddle steamers of the U.S. Mail Steamship Company. But Dan's young wife, Teresa, and his infant daughter were not to join him in London until the following spring, when the child would be considered old enough to face the Atlantic crossing. Instead of Teresa, Dan had invited with him to London a young and successful Mercer Street prostitute named Fanny White. He had been a lover of the succulent, worldly Fanny for some years, since well before his marriage, and now he had invited her to see the sights of London with him over the next six months. She jumped at the chance, left her New York brothel under the management of a friend, and bought her steamer ticket. Dan intended to set her up in rooms where he could visit her, and he was willing to have her accompany him to the West End theaters and operas, for he loved both. In early 1854 news reached New York, and would ultimately be printed in certain sections of the New York press, that Fanny White had expressed to the indulgent Dan an interest in meeting the woman who would give her name to the era--Queen Victoria. And Dan had been rash enough to take Fanny to a royal reception at Buckingham Palace, at which he passed her off to the Queen and Prince Albert as Miss Julia Bennett of New York. Thus, the proprietor of a fashionable New York bordello took the hand of, and executed a curtsy toward, the monarch of Great Britain and the arbiter of strenuous moral ambitions for an entire empire, even for those lost sections now incorporated in the United States. Years later, when Dan was involved in murder, military slaughters, and Washington politics, the tale of his association with Fanny White would be repeated by those hostile to him as a clear model of the sort of fellow he was and of the faults and outrages inherent in him. As for his friends, including Mr. Buchanan and, later, Mr. Lincoln, they seemed, like many others, to forgive him for everything. Only some sixteen years earlier, Dan had been considered by his parents, George Garret Sickles and Susan Marsh Sickles, to be sufficiently unsettled and in need of special tutoring that they arranged for him to live in the scholarly house of the Da Ponte family on Spring Street, New York. It was a household like few others in that hardhanded, mercantile city, at a time when New York had little of the Italian character it would later take on. Dan was already an admirer of Professor Lorenzo Da Ponte the younger, an engaging man in his late thirties who held a chair at the institution that would soon acquire the name New York University. Dan's father, George, had introduced Professor Da Ponte to his son as an improving influence. The junior Da Ponte may have been an impressive fellow, but the head of the household was an astonishing old man, Lorenzo Da Ponte the elder, who held the chair of Italian at Columbia University. By the time Dan came to live in the household, Professor Lorenzo Da Ponte the elder, nearly ninety years old, had lived a life of dazzling personal, amorous, and artistic adventures. Dan provided him with a young American ear into which to relate, in German, Italian, French, and English, his vivid tales of having been a priest, an associate of Casanova, an employee of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, a colleague of Salieri and Mozart (for whom he had written librettos), a friend to the French poet and president Lamartine and to the great actor-manager of the Drury Lane Michael Kelly. For reasons impossible to discern, Da Ponte, at a time when other men would be nestling into patriarchy and grandfatherhood, had emigrated to the United States, established a house at 91 Spring Street, and successfully applied, at the age of eighty, for the job of first professor of Italian at Columbia. Another member of the family was an admirable American girl, Maria Cooke, a splendid young woman from Croton Falls in Westchester. The elder Da Ponte had adopted her, and it was widely believed that she was his "natural child," his daughter from an American liaison conducted when he was near the age of seventy. Maria Cooke was thus barely older than Dan himself, but she was already married and had a child. Her husband was another fascinating Italian, Antonio Bagioli. Born in Bologna, Bagioli had come to the United States in 1832 as gran maestro of the Montressor Opera Company, and had, of course, called at Spring Street to pay respects to the renowned Da Ponte. There he had fallen in love with Da Ponte's adolescent ward, Maria, and stayed in New York for love's sake even after the rest of the opera company continued on to Havana. Bagioli married Maria and moved into a house already buzzing with music, discussion, and a highly non-Protestant and non-Yankee brio. Bagioli had by now established himself in New York as a voice teacher. His American students became eminent performers, and to Bagioli was attributed the spreading popularity of Italian song throughout America. He still worked as an orchestral conductor and, while courting Maria Cooke, had set to music Da Ponte's "Hymn to America," with which he always opened and closed concerts. His daughter, Teresa, born when Maria Cooke Bagioli was seventeen, was about three years old when Dan began living and studying in the extraordinary Da Ponte Spring Street manage. Contact with the Da Pontes nourished Dan's taste for the theater and for the operas performed at, if not the finest, the largest opera house on earth, the New York Academy of Music. But the boy was also congenitally political, a person to whom political associations were the most important of relations, and was already a gifted member of the Democratic machine located in Tammany Hall. Some of his strongest relationships were with the men he met at the Tammany Hall, or Wigwam, on the corner of Frankfort and Nassau Streets. When not yet seventeen, in the summer of 1836 he had given a speech at a rally in Brooklyn in favor of the Democratic presidential candidate Martin Van Buren. As a friend later recorded, an old man who heard Dan turned to one of the party leaders, Captain Brownell, and said, "Captain, who is that young man? God bless him; if he lives he will be great." That idea, released into the air of Brooklyn, would be maintained and reinforced over a quarter of a century, repeated by supporters at high levels, and come to be accepted by Dan himself as self-definition. But in another and more generic sense, Dan Sickles loved women and was sexually precocious. There would later be a persistent rumor that he had seduced Maria Cooke Bagioli. But he was enthusiastic for prostitutes, and well aware that he lived in a racy port of limitless erotic opportunity. Lorenzo Da Ponte the elder's tales of women in northern Italy and Austria did little to encourage Dan to a life of scrupulous chastity. He had got to know that young and unpolluted girls, many of whom were not professional street women, could be picked up on the corner of Dwayne and Broadway. Relatively elegant prostitutes could be met at the Broadway Theatre, in the gallery, above the dress and family circles. When, a little earlier, Dan had worked as a printer in Fulton Street, he had been in reach of the area near City Hall known as Five Points, at the crossroads of Anthony, Leonard, Orange, and Centre Streets, where seventeen brothels operated, quite apart from the prostitutes who worked the streets. These women were often country girls of evangelical upbringing who had fled to the city when they became pregnant in their rural communities. Many of them abandoned their children on doorsteps, and, after that, found prostitution not such a long step to take, particularly when compared with the drudgery and poverty of domestic service and factory work. In the 1830s, when adolescent Dan began to prowl, charm, and spend, seamstresses were paid from six cents to twelve and a half cents per shirt. And $1.12 for such a female worker was considered a good weekly wage. Domestics, who in some senses lived better, worked fifteen or sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, often slept in cramped quarters, and ate leftover food from the family table. Apart from young prostitutes of Yankee derivation, a third of the whores of Sickles's energetic New York youth were Irish--women who had been born in strictly regulated rural communities in Ireland, but who now had to make whatever way they could in the stewing, ruthless tenements of the Sixth Ward. As well, there were much-favored brothels that catered to interracial sex--the Diving Bell, the Swimming Bar, and the Arcade on Orange Street, for example. As yet, young Dan lacked the money to attend the fancier bordellos, but he was an energetic "sporting man," as New Yorkers called a frequenter of brothels, and thus wise enough to avoid the lower end of the flesh market, the bagnios of Green Street, notorious for disease, where women dismissed from the fancier establishments because of age or infection got work. He understood too that Water Street, a trap laid for hayseeds coming to the city for a first, dangerous visit, was one of the lowest rungs of the demimonde, where a customer stood an excellent chance of being drugged and robbed, even of being thrown unconscious into the river. To his dealings with men and women, he brought an air of promise and cultivation, a demeanor that was noticed and appreciated in his fledgling speeches for Tammany Hall. He was a man who could convey an intense feeling of tribalism, of inclusion, of the rightness of the factional argument. Those who knew him always were attracted to him; those who disapproved of him had the record of his fallibility as their guide. Despite all, however, he was extravagantly loved by his parents, his friends in Tammany, the Da Pontes, and the Bagiolis. He was attentive to, and much adored by, the infant Teresa. Excerpted from American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles by Thomas Keneally All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.