© 2022 Robert Sickles
Maybe I should, but honestly, I haven’t pulled many threads to see where my family's stories might unravel. My lovely niece has created a family tree and knows much more than I do about names and dates. I've lived quite contentedly with what could be either verifiably true or exaggerated hogwash. My opinion is, until someone insists otherwise, that it doesn't matter a whole lot. You know me... I won't let accuracy stand in the way of a good story.
I know that other peoples' family trees can make for boring stuff, so please know that this is not required reading; there will not be a test. I have a feeling the only ones who will reach the end of this post will be my close relatives, and the chances are good they have different versions of the same stories. Here are some legends that have been passed down.
First of all, Sickles is a Dutch name. I believe my ancestors left Holland several centuries ago to become English citizens. By the mid-1700's, the Sickles name reached the American colonies. and I am descended from one of three Sickles brothers who came over around 1760.
On my mother's side I have more information. If it wasn’t for having Grandma McNeill live with us for a time, I might never know that her husband’s grandfather came to America from Barra in the Outer Hebrides. Recently, I was actually delighted to learn that Clan McNeill, like many other non-English British Isles natives, were left with few options but to become habitual outlaws, surviving on piracy, salvage and scavenge. One Ruan McNeill of Barra was arrested for raiding a ship belonging to Queen Elizabeth I. Luckily, the prosecutor was an enemy of Elizabeth, so Ruan won his freedom by arguing humorously that he should be commended, not condemned.
My Scottish-American great-great granddaddy, Archibald McNeill, had some noteworthy moments. Back in the Civil War, he got a letter of commendation from President Lincoln for heroically driving a herd of pigs across the battle lines so the embattled Union army could have pork. I think he was just a young boy at the time.
Years later, Mr. McNeill refined a type of canning process and became a partner in Libby McNeill Libby meat packers, which is now Libby’s Foods. The Libby brothers cheated unsavvy businessman McNeill out of his fair share during a shady buyout. This was according to my Grandma McNeill. She had to sneer on behalf of her husband’s clan every time she saw a Libby’s ad on TV. She wagged he finger and scolded “Don’t you ever buy Libby’s! They're crooks!”
There are some other characters in my old family tree, and a few interesting events in more recent times.
One individual, a direct ancestor 11 generations ago on my father's side, is a founding father of Rhode Island Colony, Roger Williams. He came to America about 10 years after the Mayflower and was a pastor in Plymouth. The Puritans accused him of heretical preaching, and because he wouldn't conform to their rigid laws, he was banished with his followers. They, migrated west to practice freedom of thought and separation of church & state in his own settlement, Providence. It seems we should thank him for a small part in inspiring the 1st Amendment of our Bill of Rights! Much is known about Williams, but one thing that appeals to me is that he was fair and generous with the local Narragansett people, and spoke with them in their language—the tribes play a lacrosse-style ball game at a tournament in his honor to this day.
Here's another, my favorite. Behold Daniel E. Sickles, an indirect and distant cousin, whose life looks like an inspiration for the House of Cards TV series. He first made scandalous headlines in 1859 when he shot and killed his wife’s lover (the son of Francis Scott Key) in Lafayette Park near the White House. He became the first person ever to succeed in using the defense of temporary insanity.
While a gadabout in New York City politics, he gets some credit for lobbying for the funds that created Central Park.
Dan Sickles finagled a commission to Major in the Union Army. He was a frequent hard-drinking and bordello-carousing companion to General J. Hooker, whose surname is sometimes attributed to the modern slang term for prostitute (they were known as Hooker's girls.) Sickles rose quickly to become Lincoln’s only Civil War general who was not a West Point graduate. He ordered the infamous charge at Gettysburg that lost 40% of his men, but controversially won a medal for helping to win the battle. He himself lost a leg in that battle, and he sent the amputated limb to Abe Lincoln in a little casket-shaped box. It now sits on display in the Smithsonian Institution next to the cannon ball that hit him.
After the Civil War, when New York State elected Sickles to Congress, a call arose to enshrine Gettysburg battlefield, and he was a prominent figure in raising congressional and public funding. He suggested that a bust of himself as the “Hero of Gettysburg” be a central monument. But when the project stalled temporarily, he pocketed most of the money he’d raised, and the statue erected instead was the figure of an eagle.
Nevertheless, the sidewalks of Manhattan were packed on the day of Dan Sickles’ funeral parade, he was New York City’s favorite son! Such a master of reputation rehabilitation!
Some footnotes and trivia:
My mother, when she was a secretary at a law firm in 1960, worked evenings and weekends with Peter Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Congressman. He fought and won the battle to stop a major jetport from being built over a large wetlands area in his Morris County district. I believe it was the first time that the protection of an endangered habitat and species stopped construction of a major development project. The area they worked to preserve is now called The Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. It should also be noted that Frelinghuysen's centuries-old family estate abutted the jetport's proposed location!
My father started out working as personal secretary to Clifford Mallory at the Mallory Steamship Lines New York City offices. Mallory’s office was decorated in nautical art and included a collection of Yankee whaler’s scrimshaw—etched drawings and designs on whale tooth and ivory tusk—much of which was eventually donated to the family’s pet project, Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut. Decades later I won an award for scrimshaw art at the Mystic International Maritime Art Competition, and sold the piece to Clifford Mallory.
My uncle Robert McNeill was an air crewman on a WWII bomber, the one that was waiting for Truman’s order to deliver the 3rd A-bomb if Japan didn’t surrender.
Here's an intriguing explanation for a persistent trait of mine: My Grandma Sickles' maiden name was Charlotte Webb. I am scared of spiders, and as a very young tyke was afraid of Grandma Sickles. See the link?
I don’t know if there’s an awakening for me in knowing about these characters. I don’t have the depth of spirituality that propelled my wife, Linda, to uncover so much of herself by writing the book about her Grandma Pearl. It is fun for me to have coffee table conversations about the hooligans and heroes in my tree. The rest of my lineage… ah, well.
Photo: Kisimul Castle, Castlebay, Barra, Outer Hebrides, Scotland. In sailing vessels resembling the Viking longships, the NcNeill pirates sailed from this harbor to raid cargo vessels in the seas around western Scotland. Arrr, laddies!