Publishers know that three subjects sell books: sex, the Civil War and the Nazis. American Scoundrel, Thomas Keneally's fast-paced, smooth-as-silk biography of the colorful Civil War general Daniel E. Sickles, contains nothing on the Nazis, but has plenty of sex and lots on the Civil War to satisfy readers' prurient and historical tastes.
Keneally, author of Schindler's List and other novels, is a gifted writer who captures the mood and manner of an age in succinct verbal portraits. In Dan Sickles he uncovered a remarkable and colorful subject for a biography. Almost larger than life, Sickles was a Victorian American who seemed to be everywhere, know everyone and was always forgiven for his many transgressions.
A New York City lawyer, Sickles rose quickly in Democratic political circles, serving in Congress from 1857 to 1861. He had many influential friends in high places, including President James Buchanan. Sickles' connections came in handy when, in February 1859, he murdered his close friend, Philip Barton Key (son of Francis Scott Key), the lover of Sickles' wife, Teresa. Sickles, whom Keneally describes as "sexually precocious" and an obsessive womanizer, surrendered to authorities. While he was acquitted for defending his family's honor, Key's murder hung like a cloud over Sickles for the remainder of his long life.
When in 1861 the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, Sickles rushed to defend the nation's honor, leading a brigade of New York volunteers and serving as a brigadier general. One of President Abraham Lincoln's few competent generals early in the war, he was promoted to major general and assumed division command. At Gettysburg, Sickles sustained a severe wound in his right leg, which led to its amputation. For decades afterwards he engaged in an acrimonious public debate with General George G. Meade, whom he blamed for his own recklessness at Gettysburg and for his loss of command. Despite his war wound and wounded pride, Sickles remained in the U.S. Army until 1869. In the postwar years he served as military governor of South Carolina, U.S. minister to Spain (where he became the lover of Queen Isabella II and one of the ladies of her court, whom he married) and U.S. congressman.
Keneally describes Sickles as "a man who could convey an intense feeling of tribalism, of inclusion, of the rightness of the factional argument." Throughout his interesting and provocative life, Sickles consistently flouted conventional notions of ethics and morality. And he got away with it. John David Smith is professor of history at North Carolina State University. His most recent book is When Did Southern Segregation Begin?