A series of untimely and dramatic events brought George Sykes to the forefront during the Gettysburg campaign in June and July 1863.
Following the resignation of Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker as commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, over strategy differences with General-in-Chief Henry Halleck in Washington, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Fifth Corps commander Maj. Gen. George G. Meade to replace Hooker. That occurred three days before the Confederate and Union armies collided at Gettysburg on July 1.
As a result, Maj. Gen. George Sykes replaced Meade and took charge of the Fifth Corps, comprising some 11,000 officers and men. A native of Dover, Sykes graduated from West Point in 1842 and served in both the Seminole and Mexican Wars — as well as a number of years on the frontier out west.
Historically not a household name in relation to events at Gettysburg, Sykes’s record shows that his actions at key stages of the battle aided in the Union victory. Following the Confederate success against Union forces on the first day of battle, Meade was hard-pressed to withstand a surprise attack against his left flank on July 2.
Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles committed the unpardonable error of ignoring Meade’s orders by placing his Third Corps of more than 10,000 troops in a vulnerable position along the Emmitsburg Road. When the Rebel attack began before Meade could order Sickles to correct his mistake, the army commander turned to Sykes’ corps to forestall a potential disaster.
In his official report of the battle, Meade diplomatically explained that he learned that “Sickles, commanding the Third Corps, not fully apprehending the instructions in regard to the position to be occupied … the Fifth Corps most fortunately arrived and took position on the left. … Major-General Sykes, commanding ….”
Sykes immediately sent a force to occupy Little Round Top, a strategic hill that dominated the left flank of the Union army. Sickles had failed to secure that position to prevent enemy forces from capturing it.
Sykes picks up the story in his official report: “A rocky ridge [Little Round Top] commanding almost an entire view of the plateau held by our army was on our extreme left.… [Col. Strong] Vincent’s brigade … had seized the rocky height…. Vincent’s brigade and [Col. Patrick H.] O’Rorke’s regiment [were] sorely pressed. Both these heroic commanders had fallen … [but] the timely arrival of [Brig. Gen. Romeyn B.] Ayres’s brigades … stemmed the tide, and rolled away the foe in our front.”
Nonetheless, the Confederate assault on the Union left, comprising two divisions of Lt. Gen. James Longsteet’s corps and a third division detailed from Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s corps, was devastating to Sickles’ Third Corps, Sykes’ Fifth Corps and Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps, which lent assistance in an attempt to repulse the Rebels.
However, when the late-arriving Union Sixth Corps under Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick came on the field, the enemy became disheartened, as the lateness of the hour and the “deepening gloom,” forestalled further offensive operations, as historian Edwin B. Coddington recorded in “The Gettysburg Campaign.”
Casualty totals for the second day at Gettysburg tell the tale of the intense fighting that took place. The number of killed, wounded and missing for the federals reached 10,000, while the Confederates lost some 6,000.
In his report, Sykes summed up the day’s events: “Night closed the fight. The key of the battle-field [i.e., Little Round Top] was in our possession intact. Vincent, [brigade commander Brig. Gen. Stephen H.] Weed and [artillery officer Lt. Charles] Hazlett, chiefs lamented throughout the corps and army, sealed with their lives the spot intrusted to their keeping, and on which so much depended.”
While a number of Union and Confederate generals lost their lives at Gettysburg, Sykes was one of the lucky ones who survived. With a sense of gratitude and relief, he closed his report on the Gettysburg campaign in this way: “I am happy to say the Fifth Corps sustained its reputation. An important duty was confided to it, which was faithfully and gallantly performed.”
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” (winner of the Bachelder-Coddington Literary Award for 2015), available at Bethany Beach Books and at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.