Civil War history has not been kind to the memory of George Sykes. Outspoken peers who outlived him saw their exploits at the battle of Gettysburg well- documented for posterity. Sparse correspondence, a routine battle report, and lack of written recollections have allowed Sykes’s fellow officers to mold his role in the story of the battle. Despite leading the Fifth Army Corps in its greatest battle, Sykes has been relegated to the ranks of forgotten generals. A closer examination of his performance reveals the consummate professional leading his troops with a steady hand. One of only two Corps Commanders at Gettysburg without an equestrian monument, the reputation of “Tardy George” has largely been accepted as historical fact.
Sykes and the Fifth Corps were thrust into the Battle of Gettysburg after Major General Daniel Sickles’s reckless deployment of his corps in advance of the Army’s primary position. Meade’s left was dangerously exposed as Confederate skirmishing announced the combat on July 2. Orders were issued at a hasty assembly of his Corps commanders- Meade was going to reinforce Sickles’ new position (no notation was kept.) Sickles galloped back to his men expecting a brigade from Sykes and assumed the Fifth Corps to be at his disposal. Meade and Sykes conferred separately as the meeting adjourned. Sykes recorded the gravity of the discussion in his report- Meade ordered the Fifth Corps to hold the Union left. Sykes understood this order to be preemptory, freeing him of any obligation to Sickles.
Major Generals David B. Birney and Daniel Sickles testified to Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War that Sykes delayed his movement to the left and allowed his men to “boil coffee.” They slandered Sykes and his men before the Committee and in the press to distract historical scrutiny from their tactical blunder on July 2. Birney told a different story in his more credible battle report; the Fifth Corps arrived “opportunely” and Sykes deployed them with a steady hand. Though he coordinated troop placement with Birney at Devil’s Den, Sykes deployed his men independently, answering Warren’s call to defend Little Round Top and committing the rest of his corps to repulse the Confederate push for Cemetery Ridge. Sickles’s presence at the Peach Orchard salient divided the command structure and hampered Meade’s defense.
The muddled battle lines obscure Sykes’ actions. The well- documented exploits of Colonels Strong Vincent and Joshua Chamberlain epitomize courage at Gettysburg, while General G.K. Warren’s statue stands on Little Round Top as testament to its “savior.” As Corps Commander, Sykes needed to stay above the fray. Battlefield professionalism and a calm demeanor helped save the Union left, but have not landed him a prominent place in the historiography of the battle. Even the routine order to occupy Round Top, given late on July 2 is often attributed to enterprising subordinates rather than Sykes.
George Sykes’s role in the Battle of Gettysburg is overlooked because of circumstance and self-serving recollections in the years after the battle. The enduring debate over Sickles’ blunder has allowed rumors and slander about Sykes’s performance to persist. The nickname bestowed on him from his days at West Point became a convenient depiction of dawdling Corps Commander. The historical record is filled with tales of noble stands and fallen heroes, aggrandized by ambitious subordinates. Sykes wrote little about his performance and had no patience for fellow officers seeking to inflate their own deeds. He cautioned General Samuel Crawford, “There was glory enough in the battle of Gettysburg for all who fought there…and undue prominence given to certain persons and parts of the Corps to the prejudice of others.”
1. Harry W. Pfanz, Gettysburg;The Second Day, (Chapel Hill, Univ.of North Carolina Press, 1987) p.207
United States. 1880. The War of the Rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Vol.XXVII, pt.1, p.592 ; Sykes to Editor of The Chronicle, Dec. 9, 1886, in George J. Gross, The Battlefield of Gettysburg, (Philadelphia, Collins, 1886), p.27
2. US Congress. Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, (Washington, Gov. Print Office, 1865) Vol. 1, p.299, 367;
3.OR, Vol. XXVII pt. 1, p.483; Sykes to Editor of Chronicle, in Gross, p.26-27
4.OR Vol.XXVII, pt. 1, p. 593 ; Edwin Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, (New York, Scribner’s Sons 1968) p.400 ; Pfanz, p. 226
5. William H. Powell, The Fifth Army Corps, (New York, GP Putnam’s Sons, 1896) p. 522 ; Noah A. Trudeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, (New York, HarperCollins, 2002) p.340
6. David and Audrey Ladd, The Bachelder Papers:Gettysburg in Their Own Words, (Dayton, Ohio, Morningside Press, 1995) Vol. 2, p.992-993 ; Bradley M. Gottfried, “Fisher’s Brigade at Gettysburg: The Big Round top Controversy”, Gettysburg Magazine 19 (1998) p.89
7. Sykes to Crawford, December 17, 1863, Chamberlain Papers, Library of Congress ; Pfanz, p.393