Daniel Sickles's Leg

Feb 22, 2023 0 comments

One of the most visited exhibits at Washington's National Museum of Health and Medicine is the shattered leg bones of an American Civil War general. The display is very popular and the leg’s owner himself visited it a number of times both to mourn its loss as well as impress upon his visitors whom he brought along.

The leg belonged to Union Major General Daniel Edgar Sickles, one of the war's most controversial political generals. Sickles was born into a middle-class family in New York. After attending university, he undertook a career as a lawyer and then a politician. In 1851, at the age of 32, he caused a minor scandal by marrying Teresa Bagioli, a woman half his age. A notorious womanizer, Sickles became openly involved with a prostitute named Fanny White and took her around to socialize, once taking her to the New York State Assembly Chamber to the dismay of those present.

Sickles's leg, along with a cannonball similar to the one that shattered it, on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

Sickles’s continued love affairs and neglect for his legally wedded wife pushed Teresa to a romance of her own with Phillip Barton Key, a U.S. District Attorney. When Sickles discovered his wife’s infidelity, Sickles shot and killed Key in full view and across the street from the White House. Sickles turned himself in and was arrested, but because he was a a senior lawyer and politician, he was treated disgracefully well. For instance, he was allowed to retain his gun while in prison and received numerous high profile visitors including congressmen, senators, and other leading members of Washington society. At the trial, Sickles pleaded temporary insanity, insisting that his wife's infidelity had driven him insane. This was the first time “temporary insanity” was ever used as defense in a trial, and it seemed to work. Newspapers were sympathetic with Sickles, with one paper claiming that “there can be no doubt, the public of the United States will justify him in killing the man who dishonored his bed.” The prediction turned out to be true; Sickles was acquitted.

Sickles shoots Key. Illustration published in Harper's Weekly in 1859.

Sickles’s brush with the law did little to affect his military career. On the contrary, he was promoted to the rank of Major, and soon he was leading a charge against the Confederates at the Battle of Gettysburg. On the battle's second day, on July 2, 1863, Major General Sickles defied orders and advanced his III Corps ahead of Union lines, exposing much of the Union center to Confederate attack. Corps was effectively annihilated, and while astride his horse on top of a grassy knoll Sickles was hit in the right leg by a 12-pound cannonball.

Also read: The Strange Tale of Lord Uxbridge's Leg

Sickles was removed to a sheltered ravine in the rear of his position and the Medical Director of the Third Army Corps, Thomas Sim, examined his leg. The injury had shattered both the tibia and the fibula of his lower leg, and Dr Sim decided that the only to save the life of the Major General was to amputate his leg.

After the amputation, Sickles instructed the leg to be donated to the Army Medical Museum (since renamed the National Museum of Health and Medicine) which had recently been founded and was seeking specimens, artifacts, and medical reports pertaining to battlefield trauma and treatment for the study of military medicine. Reportedly, Sickles had the leg forwarded to the museum in a coffin-shaped box, where it was received with utmost care and prepared and mounted for display.

Daniel Edgar Sickles.

Sickles visited the exhibit a number of times in the following years, sometimes inviting guests to accompany him during these visits. Once he brought along Mark Twain, who observed that “the general valued his lost leg away above the one that is left.” Twain wrote,”I am perfectly sure that if he had to part with either of them he would part with the one that he has got.”

Sickles’s injury effectively ended his military career. He retired from the army, and went back to politics. He died in 1914, at age 94. His leg is still at display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

# Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles: His Contribution to the Army Medical Museum, National Museum of Health and Medicine
# Sickles' Leg and the Army Medical Museum, Military Medicine
# The Homicide at Washington


More on Amusing Planet


{{posts[0].date}} {{posts[0].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[1].date}} {{posts[1].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[2].date}} {{posts[2].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[3].date}} {{posts[3].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}