Sunday, March 15, 2015

On the Peculiarities of General Dan Sickles

On the Peculiarities of General Dan Sickles: If there was ever an American Civil War General who led an extraordinary life not named Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant, it was Daniel E. Sickles. For starters, he lived to the age of 94, having been born in 1819 in New York City, and later dying there in 1914. Prior to the Civil War, Sickles worked as a lawyer and served as a legislator in the New York State Assembly. He married a woman who was half his age in the early 1850s, and by 1857, he was elected to serve in the U.S. Congress as a Representative from New York. While in Washington D.C., his young wife (who was only about 20 at the time) had taken up an affair with the local district attorney (who also happened to be Francis Scott Key's son). Upon learning of his wife's infidelity, Sickles proceeded to shoot and kill Philip Barton Key II. At the trial, Sickles pleaded "temporary insanity" and was actually acquitted of murder. His plea is often considered the first use of an "insanity" defense in the history of American jurisprudence. But aside from Sickles' legal issues, he is perhaps best known as the General who lost his leg during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Although the cannonball that tore through his leg effectively ended his military career, Sickles was happy to donate both the cannonball and his amputated leg to the newly formed Army Medical Museum. And on every anniversary of the amputation, Sickles visited the display that contained his shattered leg.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

On Buddy Cianci's Providence

On Buddy Cianci's Providence: As mayor of Providence for two (non-consecutive) decades, Vincent "Buddy" Cianci epitomized the city's "underworld" reputation. Ever since Providence's founding by Roger Williams in 1636, it has been known as a refuge for religious exiles, political prisoners, and career criminals. Situated under the arm of Massachusetts, it has been referred to as both "the sewer" and "the armpit" of New England. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Catholic immigrants, mainly from Ireland and Italy, converged upon the city to work in its burgeoning textile industry. It was under these circumstances that some of Cianci's ancestors emigrated from Italy to Rhode Island in the 1890s. By the early 1900s, Providence's various neighborhoods had become divided along ethnoracial lines. The Italians settled in Federal Hill, the Irish in Smith Hill, the "old-moneyed" WASPs in College Hill, and the African Americans in Wanskuck. Cianci actually grew up in Cranston, but he attended a private school in the wealthy College Hill neighborhood (where Brown University is located). Yet as the city's youngest-elected and first-ever Italian mayor, Cianci sought to smooth over the city's ethnoracial divides (which persisted throughout the decades). And although he survived two felony convictions, with the second one sending him to prison for five years, Cianci has become an icon in Providence. The city will not be the same without him.