Sickles' Brigade : Excelsior Brigade

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Sickles' Brigade (Excelsior Brigade) : Civil War

Sickles' Brigade, aka Excelsior Brigade, History

Excelsior Brigade Flag (Sickles' Brigade)
Excelsior Brigade Flag.jpg
Excelsior Brigade National Color

The Excelsior Brigade, also known as Sickles' Brigade, was a military unit in the Union Army during the Civil War. Mainly composed of infantry regiments raised in the state of New York primarily by former U.S. Congressman Daniel Sickles, the brigade served in several of the Army of the Potomac's most important battles in the Eastern Theater, including Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. The Excelsior Brigade (Sickles'), belonging to Hooker's (2nd) division, 3d Corps, was composed of the 70th, 71st, 72nd, 73d, 74th and 120th N. Y. infantry. Its losses in killed and died of wounds (battle related) were 876, while several hundreds died of disease, and several hundreds more returned to the Empire State wounded. 
(Right) The National Color seen here, carried by the Excelsior Brigade during the 1862 Virginia campaigns and reportedly made by Evans & Hassall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, includes 34 gold-painted stars arranged in concentric ovals, a pattern typically found on national colors from Philadelphia’s Schuylkill Arsenal. Brigadier General Joseph Revere, a former Navy midshipman, Mexican War veteran, and grandson of Paul Revere, first took command of the Excelsior Brigade in December 1862 and supposedly inherited the flag from the previous commander, Colonel George Hall. Augustus L. Revere, General Revere’s son, presented the flag to state authorities after the war. Courtesy New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History.
The Excelsior Brigade, in addition to the Irish Brigade, was another famous Civil War brigade from New York that was led by controversial Gen. Daniel Sickles, a former U.S. Congressman from New York City. Sickles was a complex figure prior, during, and after the Civil War. Prior to the war, Sickles was tried for the 1859 murder of Philip Barton Key II, son of Francis Scott Key. Regarding the murder, Sickles was acquitted with the first use of temporary insanity as a legal defense in U.S. history. At Gettysburg, Sickles was accused of insubordination. During Reconstruction, he clashed with former Commanding general Meade by stating in newspapers and before Congress that "Meade had secretly planned to retreat from Gettysburg on the first day." Sickles further stated that the victory at Gettysburg belonged to him, and not to Meade. The disgruntled Sickles even remained bitter towards Grant, the former Commanding General of the Union Army, because Grant refused to appoint Meade (who was missing one leg because of Gettysburg) to a combat command. See also New York Civil War History.
Sickles' reputation and wartime endeavors would serve only to delay what he believed was justifiably his. The contentious officer received the Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg, but it took him 34 years to receive it. The official citation that accompanied his medal recorded that Sickles "displayed most conspicuous gallantry on the field, vigorously contesting the advance of the enemy and continuing to encourage his troops after being himself severely wounded." Sickles, who now enjoyed what many viewed as vindication, would live another 17 years and at age 94 would succumb to natural causes and be laid to rest in his beloved New York City.

General Sickles and the Excelsior Brigade
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General Daniel Sickles Biography

General Sickles' Brigade History
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General Sickles in 1902

Daniel Sickles
Daniel Edgar Sickles, a Union officer during the American Civil War; born in New York City, N.Y., October 20, 1819; attended New York University; apprenticed as a printer; studied law; was admitted to the bar in 1846 and commenced practice in New York City; member, New York state assembly, 1847; corporation attorney, 1853; secretary of the legation at London by appointment of President Franklin Pierce, 1853-1855; member, New York state senate, 1856-1857; elected as a Democrat to the Thirty-fifth and Thirty-sixth Congresses (March 4, 1857-March 3, 1861); was not a candidate for renomination in 1860; served in the Civil War as colonel of the Seventeenth Regiment, New York Volunteer Infantry, and brigadier general and major general of Volunteers; retired with rank of major general, April 14, 1869; awarded the Medal of Honor, October 30, 1897, for action at the Battle of Gettysburg; entrusted with a special mission to the South American Republics in 1865; chairman, New York State Civil Service Commission, 1888-1889; sheriff, New York City, 1890; elected as a Democrat to the Fifty-third Congress (March 4, 1893-March 3, 1895); unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1894 to the Fifty-fourth Congress; resided in New York City, N.Y., until his death there May 3, 1914; interment in Arlington National Cemetery.

Satire of soldiers comprising Excelsior Brigade
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Enlistment Of Sickles' Brigade, N.Y

Under authority of the President, dated May 18, 1861, Mr. Daniel E. Sickles recruited and completed this brigade in the summer of 1861 at considerable personal expense, notwithstanding many obstacles during the endeavor.
The 1st Regiment was organized with Mr. Sickles as temporary Colonel, and was later known as the 70th Volunteers.
The 2d Regiment was organized under Col. George B. Hall and Lieut.-Col. H. L. Potter, and known as the
71st Volunteers.
The 3d Regiment was organized under Col. Nelson Taylor, and known as the
72d Volunteers.
The 4th Regiment was organized under Col. James Fairman, and known as the
73d Volunteers.
The 5th Regiment was organized under Col. Chas. K. Graham, and known as the
74th Volunteers.

These regiments were turned over to the State as part of its volunteer force, and, in accordance with the orders of the Secretary of War of December 5, 1861, were numbered by the State authorities, December 11, 1861; they served together while in service as the Excelsior or Sickles' Brigade in the 3d and 2d Corps, and Col. Daniel E. Sickles was successively appointed Brigadier and Major-General, U.S. Volunteers, and disabled (loss of right leg) at the battle of Gettysburg, Pa.

There were, also, recruited for the brigade two batteries, the 1st and 2d Excelsior Batteries; a third battery, not completed, was consolidated with the 2d; these two batteries received the State designation, 5th and 10th Independent Batteries, respectively.

(Right) "Enlistment of Sickles' Brigade, N.Y., 1863." The sketch of men and women in the street in front of a liquor store is a satire on the disreputable class of men allegedly recruited in New York City by Colonel Daniel Sickles for the Excelsior brigade. Enlistment of Sickles' Brigade, N.Y., 1863 was created by the German born artist John Adalbert Volck who resided in Baltimore, MD, during the American Civil War. Adalbert J. Volck went under the pseudynom of V. Blada.


The New York State motto was adopted in 1778 and is expressed in Latin as Excelsior which means Ever Upward.

Three emblems that represent New York State are the Device of Arms (known also as the Coat of Arms), the Great Seal and the State Flag. All three emblems incorporate the image of the Coat of Arms and are inscribed with the motto Excelsior.

The meaning of this famous motto reflects the attitude and hopes of the people of New York following the outbreak of the War of Independence (1775–1783). The Latin word Excelsior also has the meaning of "higher", "superior" or "lordly", although it is commonly translated as "Ever Upward." These sentiments of the people of New York are emphasized on the flag and seal which displays the figure of Liberty whose foot treads upon a crown that represents freedom from the British monarchy.

The Coat of Arms of New York State was officially adopted in 1778, and the center shows a ship and sloop on a river bordered by a grassy shore and a mountain range with the sun rising behind it. Liberty and Justice stand on either side, under an American eagle. Liberty holds a staff topped with a Phrygian cap, symbolic of the cap given to a Roman slave upon the formal act of emancipation and freedom. This cap was adopted by French revolutionists as a symbol of liberty, especially in the U.S. before 1800. The figure of Justice is blindfolded and carries a sword in one hand and scales in the other. These symbols represent the impartiality and fairness required for the assignment of a merited reward or punishment. Liberty and Justice both stand upon the white banner inscribed with the motto Excelsior. The white banner of purity, righteousness, and honesty shows that Liberty and Justice are coequal voices of impartial and fair rewards and punishments. Excelsior demonstrates that wisdom is always present by extending upward and toward the heavens for divine assistance in matters of the State. 

Daniel Sickles and the Excelsior Brigade
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Total losses sustained by the Excelsior Brigade

Losses for Sickles' Brigade were 876 killed and mortally wounded, approximately 500 additional soldiers died of disease, and hundreds more returned to the Empire State disabled. Killed was a term that was generally applied to battle deaths, while terms "died" or "deaths" were applied to those who succumbed to disease or died while in Confederate prisons. On the other hand, "total deaths" or "total died," referred to all deaths for the unit. Because of mounting casualties, Sickles' Brigade, en route to the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862), was augmented by the addition of the 120th New York Infantry.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, the controversial Sickles desired to repair his public image, which had been marred by the shooting death of his wife's paramour, Philip Barton Key. Sickles was active in raising thousands of recruits from around New York City for service in the United States volunteers in May 1861 under the authority of the War Department. The first of Sickles' regiments mustered into service on June 20, 1861. Subsequently, he was appointed as the colonel of one of the four full regiments he organized. Later, Sickles was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers in September 1861, taking command of the brigade.
The four regiments raised by Sickles that comprised the first Excelsior Brigade were the 70th, 72nd, 73rd, and 74th New York Infantry.

Excelsior Brigade and General Sickles
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Major General Daniel Sickles, ca. 1862

(Right) Former U.S. Congressman Daniel E. Sickles raised and organized most of the men that formed the Excelsior Brigade. As a result of General Sickles' actions at Gettysburg, and because of his questionable conduct off the battlefield, he remains one of the most controversial figures of the four year Civil War. The two stars on each shoulder strap (epaulette) indicate major general.

In October 1861, the 71st New York, along with the 70th through the 74th Regiments and 10 Companies of the 3rd Indiana Cavalry, formed the Second Excelsior Brigade under General Sickles. The brigade was placed under the overall divisional command of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker in October. Its initial tasks included assisting in the building of defenses around Washington and stopping resupply of the Confederates from southern Maryland.
In March 1862, Sickles was forced to relinquish command when Congress refused to confirm his commission, but he worked diligently to lobby among his Washington political contacts and reclaimed both his rank and his command on May 24, 1862, in time to rejoin the Army in the Peninsula Campaign. Because of this interruption, he missed his brigade's significant actions at the Battle of Williamsburg. Sickles was back in charge in time for the Battle of Seven Pines and the Seven Days Battles.
On the morning of June 25 at the Battle of Oak Grove, Sickles' New Yorkers encountered difficulties moving through their abatis, then through the upper portions of an impeding swamp, and finally met stiff Confederate resistance, all of which threw the Federal line out of alignment. Sickles was again absent for the Second Battle of Bull Run, having used his political influences to obtain leave to go to New York City to recruit new troops. Col. Nelson Taylor instead led the brigade.
The Excelsior Brigade, still under Colonel Taylor as Sickles had been promoted to divisional command, missed the Battle of Antietam in September because the III Corps was stationed on the lower Potomac River, protecting the capital. The brigade's strength had been augmented by the addition of the 120th New York. In the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Excelsiors were led by Col. George B. Hall.
Brig. Gen. Joseph W. Revere commanded the Excelsior Brigade during the Battle of Chancellorsville in early May 1863. With the rest of Hooker's old division, it was held in reserve in some woods near the Chancellor House, guarding a road that led to the important United States ford over the Rappahannock River.

Excelsior Brigade (Sickles') at Gettysburg
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Battle of Gettysburg, The Peach Orchard, 2 July 1863. Courtesy Civil War Trust online

Courtesy National Museum of Health and Medicine
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General Sickles' leg

The Gettysburg Campaign
Following the Battle of Chancellorsville, Col. William R. Brewster of the 73rd New York assumed command of the Excelsior Brigade, which was then in the division of Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys. Brewster led the brigade during the Gettysburg Campaign in June and July 1863. On July 2, the brigade was advanced to an area near the Peach Orchard. It was flanked out of that position by the Confederate division of Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws. The remains of the brigade took part in a counterattack late in the afternoon that recaptured some abandoned Union guns. Brewster reported that the brigade lost 778 of 1,837 engaged. Gen. Sickles also lost his right leg during the Confederate onslaught.
(Right) Sickles' leg, along with a cannonball similar to the one that shattered it, on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.
During the height of the Confederate attack, Sickles fell victim to a cannonball that mangled his right leg. He was carried by a detail of soldiers to the shade of the Trostle farmhouse, where a saddle strap was applied as a tourniquet. He ordered his aide, Major Harry Tremain, "Tell General Birney he must take command." As he was carried by stretcher to the III Corps hospital on the Taneytown Road, he bravely attempted to raise his soldiers' spirits by grinning and puffing on a cigar along the way.
Brewster fell ill after the battle, and Brig. Gen. Francis Barretto Spinola assumed command during the pursuit of the Confederate army into Virginia. Spinola's brigade led the Union troops on July 23 at the Battle of Wapping Heights near Warrenton, Virginia, suffering 18 men killed, including two officers. Spinola was badly wounded in the fighting, along with dozens of his men.
Col. J. Egbert Farnum of the 70th New York then commanded the brigade until Brewster returned to active duty for the autumn campaigns of 1863. Brewster inspired his men by rising from his “sick bed” to lead the Excelsiors in the Mine Run Campaign.

Sickles Brigade Monument at Gettysburg
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Excelsior Brigade Monument near Peach Orchard Battlefield at Gettysburg

Overland Campaign
When the Army of the Potomac was reorganized in the spring of 1864 for the Overland Campaign of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Brewster retained brigade command. The Excelsior Brigade, augmented with two additional regiments, served in the Battle of the Wilderness in the Fourth Division, II Corps under Brig. Gen. Gershom Mott. When the remnants of the division became part of the Third Division of Maj. Gen. David B. Birney during the Battle of Spotsylvania, Brewster’s brigade became the division’s Fourth Brigade. He led these men at the Battle of Cold Harbor and in the initial operations of the Siege of Petersburg. Subsequently, most of the Excelsiors were moved to the First Brigade, Third Division.
The Excelsior regiments, with exception of the 73rd and 120th, each mustered out of the army during the summer of 1864, and most of the men returned home to New York. Some of the Excelsior men whose enlistment expired in the summer of 1864, transferred to the 120th New York until that unit mustered out on June 3, 1865, at which time veterans and recruits transferred to the 73rd New York. The 73rd was present at Lee's surrender at Appomattox and the unit mustered out, approximately 3 weeks after the 120th, on June 29, 1865.

See also

Sources: The Union Army, vol. 2; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Fox, William F. Regimental Losses in the American Civil War (1889); Dyer, Frederick H. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (1908); Phisterer, Frederick. New York in the War of the Rebellion (1890); New York in the War of the Rebellion, 3rd ed. Frederick Phisterer. Albany: J. B. Lyon Company, 1912; Beckman, W. Robert, "Daniel Edgar Sickles", Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History; Heidler, David S., and Heidler, Jeanne T., eds., W. W. Norton & Company, 2000, ISBN 0-393-04758-X; Sears, Stephen W., To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign, Ticknor and Fields, 1992, ISBN 0-89919-790-6; Tagg, Larry, The Generals of Gettysburg, Savas Publishing, 1998, ISBN 1-882810-30-9; Townsend, Thomas Seaman, The Honors of the Empire State in the War of the Rebellion, New York: A. Lovell & Co., 1889; U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880–1901. Series I, vol. 42; Courtesy Civil War Trust online; National Museum of Health and Medicine; New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History; New York State Department of State; Library of Congress; National Park Service; National Archives.


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