General Daniel Sickles and Philip Barton Key, II

Famous Legal Arguments is a book by Moses Field, published in 1897. It includes the legal argument of future Attorney General, Edwin M. Stanton, who was practicing law in 1859, when N.Y. Congressman Daniel Sickles killed Philip Barton Key II. Key was the son of Star Spangled Banner composer, Francis Scott Key, and was sleeping with Sickles’ wife. The book also contains this account of the murder that explains how Dan Sickles found out:

“On Sunday, Feb. 27th [1859], the City of Washington was suddenly thrown into a state of excitement on learning that Phillip Barton Key, U. S. District Attorney, had been shot by Daniel E. Sickles, a member of Congress from New York.

The cause of the terrible affair was the discovery of a criminal intercourse between Mrs. Sickles and Mr. Key, a fact which had been established by Mrs. Sickles’ confession to her husband. Mr. Sickles encountered Mr. Key on the street and exclaimed: “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home; you must die.” Key instantly raised his hand to his breast for his weapon, whereupon Sickles drew a pistol from his pocket and fired. The shot took effect in the groin. This was followed by a second and third shot; he then fell and died immediately. Mr. S. then desisted firing and gave himself over to the authorities.”

As you can see by the use of the words “criminal intercourse,” adultery was considered a crime in the 19th century. Indeed, a little over 10 years after this “crime of passion,” newspaper editor and abolitionist Theodore Tilton would bring charges of “criminal intimacy” against popular preacher Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, for sleeping with his wife. So clearly, there were other remedies besides murder available to Congressman Sickles.

People took the sanctity of marriage so seriously that many already believed a particular part of Stanton’s legal argument: that any law that even allowed Dan Sickles to be charged with murder should be stricken from the books. Husbands should have a right to kill any man who even tried to compromise the sacred bonds of matrimony.

“Thank God, adultery is a crime that is usually a stranger to American society. It is but rarely in our history that some great event like this occurs to startle society and lead it to the examination of the principles on which it is founded. That has been the case, and should it lead to the examination of the principles of law on which homes and family rest, should it result in planting around that home and family the safeguards of the law, in breaking through the bonds by which the adulterous court of Charles the Second undertook to bind the arm of the husband, then some good will grow out of that great evil that has been produced by this event.”

Philip Barton Scott, II was depicted as the evil adulterer while Stanton characterized Sickles’ wife, Teresa, as being unable to give consent to the adultery. Although the legal argument did not bring about any change in the laws, Sickles was acquitted.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Sickles raised a brigade of New York regiments known as the Excelsior Brigade. The politically connected Sickles secured an officer’s commission and eventually rose to the rank of Major General. For the most part, Sickles commanded competently, especially for a political general who was not professionally trained. He was given command of the Union Army’s Third Corps in February 1863. On July 2, 1863 during the Battle of Gettysburg, Sickles redeployed the Third Corps to the west of the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge against orders.  In the ensuing battle, much of the Third Corps was destroyed in heavy fighting. Sickles himself was hit in the  leg with a cannon ball. The lower leg was amputated and Sickles donated it to the Army Medical Museum, now the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC. For years, Sickles visited the leg on the anniversary of the amputation. It is still on display today.

Several books have been written about Dan Sickles, on the murder of Key, as well as his Civil War service. One book, written by Thomas Keneally, is unique, American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles, in that it looks at the affair (no pun intended) through the eyes of Dan’s wife, Teresa.

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