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American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles Hardcover – April 9, 2002

3.1 out of 5 stars 55 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Politician, man about town, war hero, and murderer: Dan Sickles led many lives, some of them improbable, turning disaster to advantage. Thomas Keneally, whose novels have been populated by heroes and outlaws alike, vividly captures Sickles's life and times. A Tammany politician, for good and ill, Sickles earned national notoriety for gunning down his friend Philip Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key, in what his peers in Congress took to be an excusable crime of passion. Sickles made a glorious comeback with the Civil War, when the regiment he raised distinguished itself time and again under fire at places such as Chancellorsville and Gettysburg--where, defying orders in a bold maneuver, Sickles helped secure the Union victory. "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," writes Keneally. Admired by no less than Mark Twain, Sickles figures only as a footnote in many histories. Ably recounting his triumphs and defeats, Thomas Keneally brings him front and center in a tale that will delight Civil War buffs. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

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.

Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1st edition (April 9, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1740510836
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385501392
  • ASIN: 0385501390
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,476,815 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Keneally writes about Daniel Sickles in an engaging style that certainly captures the reader's attention. This reader must confess that he was, at times, guiltily amused by some of Sickle's exploits both amorous and political.
But the most successful biographies of controversial or notorious figures in history are those that provide the most perceptive insights into the motivations and emotions of the subject and in this task Keneally falls short. Without question Daniel Sickles was one of those occasional personalities who manage to glide through life under a lucky star and, according to Keneally, without an iota of shame. Keneally also makes it abundantly clear that that the morality of the era and the political situation in New York and the young United States facilitated Sickles' rise to prominence and notoriety. After reading passage after passage describing Sickles' exploits,however, one comes away with little real understanding of the man or his motivations. Given some of Sickles'seemingly contradictory actions, it is difficult to simply accept corruption or misplaced loyalty to Tammany Hall politics as the principle motivators of this man.
Several examples of the contradictory nature of the man appear throughout the book. Sickles' introduction of his prostitute-mistress to Queen Victoria of England is described as one of Sickles'early yet typical controversies. After reading of this gross breach of diplomatic protocol and good manners, the reader is almost forced to stop and ask "What on earth could have caused Sickles to do such a thing?" Even in this rambunctious period of US diplomacy, there might well have been serious ramifications to such an escapade.
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Format: Hardcover
Dan Sickles, the notorious scoundrel of this book's title, appears to have gotten away with so many of his sins because he was colorful, resourceful, and charming. Unfortunately for the reader, the same cannot be said of Thomas Keneally's writing. Keneally tells us what a colorful character Sickles was, but never really shows us or makes us feel it. One is left with the thought that Sickles must have been a fascinating and complex man, and the hope that someone will someday write a decent biography of him that will truly capture those qualities.

Despite the fact that Sickles is best known as a Civil War general, this is not a book for Civil War buffs. Keneally's writing on the war is superficial at best, and sometimes nakedly erroneous. (He states more than once that Gen. Stonewall Jackson was shot dead at the Battle of Chancellosville, when of course, even a casual student of the war knows that the general only received a wound in the battle and lingered on for some time, dying of pneumonia while recovering from his wound.)

The intended audience of this book, which is reflected in the writing style as well as content, instead appears to be those who loved following the O.J. Simpson trial in the tabloids. The bulk of the book is devoted to Dan's amorous affairs, his young wife's affair, and his murder of his wife's lover and subsequent trail and acquittal. He writes extensively and floridly on these subjects, without managing much real illumination. I must admit that I was only able to make it through the endless trial material by resorting to skimming the text. However, if you are captivated by tabloids coverage of celebrity trials, this book may suit your tastes.

There were germs of interesting facts in this book.
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Format: Hardcover
Keneally builds his book around two pivotal events in Dan Sickles' life; his muder of Barton Key, his wife's lover, in 1859, and his generalship on the second day at the Battle of Gettysburg. The description of the trial, and its cast of characters, was well written and engaging. The story of Gettysburg, and Sickles' career throughout the Civil War, is marred by many errors of fact that a competent editor should have caught. To mention two, during the Confederate attack on May 2 at Chancellorsville, Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded. He was not killed, as Keneally states in two different places in his text. Second, Hancock's role during the evening of the first day at Gettysburg disappears from sight in Keneally's telling. There is only O.O. Howard, and Dan Sickles' determination to fight at Gettysburg, on display in Keneally's text. I'll leave aside the controversy concerning Sickles' action on the afternoon of July 2, a controversy on which, amazingly, Keneally takes no position.
I enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book, particularly the material on political life in New York City and the trial, but found the Civil War material poorly done. It seemed to me, from the cursory job Keneally did with the last fifty years of Sickles' life, that he tired of his subject, and failed to give us much insight into this complex character.
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Format: Hardcover
The author appears to be more interested in General Stickes' first wife than with the General. Read his biography on any of the many web pages and you realize what an extraordinary person he was. The author devotes the greatest part of the book to the murder of Barton Key. Once past this eiposode, he seems to run out of material. Little mention is made of the relationship that the General must have had with the various Presidents that he served, the extended time he spent in Spain, or his second marriage. Better than waste your time reading this book search the internet for the General. Read the obituary and editorial of the NY Times at the time of his death to get a contemporary feeling as to the statue of this man.
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