George Sykes (October 9, 1822 – February 8, 1880)

Updated: August 04, 2015

Major General George Sykes was a career United States Army officer, whose 5th Corps of the Army of the Potomac successfully defended Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg.

George Sykes was born, Oct. 9, 1822, at Dover, Delaware. He was the son of William and Elizabeth Goldsborough Sykes. Sykes came from a distinguished family. His great grandfather represented Delaware in the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War. His grandfather was a prominent physician who served as the fifteenth Governor of Delaware from 1801 to 1802.

After attending local schools, Sykes received an appointment to the United States Military Academy. He entered the academy on July 1, 1838 and graduated four years later on July 1, 1842, ranked thirty-ninth out of fifty-six cadets in his class. Among his classmates at West Point were future Civil War general officers Abner Doubleday, William S. Rosecrans, John Pope, Lafayette McLaws, Richard H. Anderson, and James Longstreet.

After graduation, Sykes was brevetted to 2nd lieutenant and assigned to the Third U.S. Infantry. He served the next three years in Florida, where he was promoted to the full rank of 2nd lieutenant on December 31, 1843.

Following two additional years of garrison duty, Sykes was transferred to Texas, where he joined General Zachary Taylor's Army of Occupation as tensions with Mexico escalated. During the Mexican-American War, Sykes participated in the Battle of Monterrey (September 21-23, 1846), earning a promotion to 1st lieutenant, effective September 21, 1846.

After Taylor's army gained control of northern Mexico, Sykes was transferred to General Winfield Scott's Army of Invasion. During Scott's campaign in central Mexico, Sykes participated in the Siege of Vera Cruz (March 9‑29, 1847), the Battle of Cerro Gordo (April 17‑18, 1847), the Battle of Contreras (August 19‑20, 1847), the Battle of Churubusco (August 20, 1847), and the capture of Mexico City (September 12‑14, 1847). For his "Gallant and Meritorious Conduct in the Battle of Cerro Gordo," Sykes was brevetted to the rank of captain, effective April 18, 1847.

Following the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, Sykes served on frontier duty, campaigning against American Indians, primarily in New Mexico. On September 30, 1853, he was promoted to the full rank of captain.

When the American Civil War erupted, Sykes was promoted to major on May 14, 1861 and assigned to the newly created Fourteenth U.S. Infantry. During the Confederate victory at the Battle of Bull Run I (July 21, 1861), he distinguished himself by trying to maintain order during the chaotic federal retreat. Afterward, Sykes was appointed to brigadier-general in the volunteer army, effective September 28, 1861 (General Orders, No. 106 (Headquarters of the Army, December 5, 1861).

During the initial stage of Major General George B. McClellan's Peninsular Campaign, Sykes was engaged in the Siege of Yorktown (April 5-May 4, 1862) as a brigade commander. When the 5th Army Corps was formed on May 18, 1862, Sykes was placed in command of its 2nd Division. Because the division was composed of U.S. Army regular troops, it became known as "Sykes' Regulars." As the campaign on the peninsula continued, Sykes participated in the Battle of Gaines's Mill (June 27, 1862) and the Battle of Malvern Hill (July 1, 1862).  For his "Gallant and Meritorious Services in the Battle of Gaines's Mill," Sykes was brevetted to colonel in the regular army, effective June 27, 1862.

After McClellan's offensive began to falter in July, the War Department reassigned the 5th Corps to Major General John Pope's Army of Virginia. When Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia advanced towards Washington, Sykes's division fought well and sustained heavy casualties during the Battle of Bull Run II (August 28–30, 1862).

The second Confederate victory at Bull Run enabled Lee to take the war to Northern soil in the late summer of 1862. On September 4, the Army of Northern Virginia began crossing the Potomac River and entered Maryland. Sensing the vulnerability of the nation's capital, President Lincoln turned to George McClellan to reinvigorate the Federal forces in the East. Under McClellan's leadership, the 5th Corps was reassigned to the Army of the Potomac. During the pivotal Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862), Sykes's Division was initially held in reserve, but around noon, it was ordered into action in support of Union artillery near the Middle Bridge.

After the Battle of Antietam, President Lincoln replaced George B. McClellan with Major General Ambrose E. Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac on November 5, 1862. Eager to strike Lee before he could reinvigorate his army, Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck prodded Burnside to initiate an invasion of Virginia quickly. As Burnside made his preparations, he reorganized the army. On November 29, 1862, Sykes was promoted to major general, the rank appropriate for a division commander. It was not until nearly a year later, however, that his appointment was confirmed and announced by the War Department in General Orders, No. 316, dated September 18, 1863.

On December 13, 1862, Burnside launched an attack against Lee's army at Fredericksburg, Virginia that ended in disaster after three days of fighting. When Lee's soldiers forced the Army of the Potomac to retreat across the Rappahannock River on December 15, Sykes's division played a major role in the orderly withdrawal. In his after-action report for the Battle of Fredericksburg, corps commander Daniel Butterfield stated, "Under the direction of General Sykes, one of his brigades covered the whole. The order was carried out in the most admirable manner. No confusion occurred; no haste or disorder." He went on to note, "General Sykes only too lightly estimates the fine behavior of his men in his personal report. I would respectfully call attention to it."

In the aftermath of the disaster at Fredericksburg, President Lincoln drafted General Orders No. 20 (U.S. War Department) on January 25, 1863, announcing that Burnside was being relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac, at Burnside’s own request. The order went on to name Major General Joseph Hooker as Burnside's successor. When Hooker assumed command, he named Butterfield as his chief of staff. Major General George G. Meade succeeded Butterfield as commander of the 5th Corps and as Sykes's superior officer.

By spring, the Army of the Potomac was ready for another offensive. Hooker's first test as commander of the army came at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863), where he proved no match for Robert E. Lee. During that engagement the 5th Corps and Sykes's division were only lightly engaged.

The Confederate victory at Chancellorsville prompted Robert E. Lee to launch a second invasion of the North in June 1863. As Lee moved north, Lincoln and Hooker clashed over the deployment of federal troops. When Hooker rashly offered to resign his command, Lincoln quickly accepted and placed Major General George G. Meade in command of the Army of the Potomac on June 28, 1863. On the same day, just three days before the Battle of Gettysburg, Sykes replaced Meade as commander of the 5th Corps.

Sykes's Corps arrived at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, the second day of the battle. Meade ordered Sykes's command toward the left of the army to support the 3rd Corps, which was under assault by fourteen thousand Rebels commanded by Lieutenant General James Longstreet. When Meade discovered that a small knob known as Little Round Top was undefended, he ordered Sykes to occupy the hill and to "hold at all hazards." While a brigade of Sykes's command led by Colonel Strong Vincent succeeded in doing so, Sykes sent reinforcements to fill holes in the 3rd Corps' lines in the adjacent Wheatfield. When the fighting subsided at the end of the day, the Federals had taken the Rebels' best shot and prevented Longstreet from flanking the Union army. Sykes's performance at Gettysburg marked the zenith of his career as a combat leader.

Following the Union victory at Gettysburg, Meade cautiously pursued the Army of Northern Virginia during its retreat into Virginia. Sykes's corps participated in the successful Bristoe Campaign (October 13-November 7, 1863). On October 16, 1863, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the regular army. Sykes also commanded his corps during the inconclusive Mine Run Campaign (November 27-December 2, 1863).

When Meade came under close scrutiny by the northern press and his superiors in Washington following the failure of his Mine Run Campaign, he deflected much of the criticism to the performance of his subordinate officers. On March 10, Meade met with newly-appointed General of the Armies Ulysses S. Grant and discussed reorganizing the Army of the Potomac. Two weeks later, on March 23, 1864, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 115 announcing that Sykes and two other corps commanders had been removed from their commands. The next day, Meade issued Special Orders, No. 75 (AoP) ordering Sykes to report to Major General Samuel R. Curtis, commanding Department of Kansas, at Fort Leavenworth.

After leaving the Army of the Potomac, Sykes began a long string of assignments, mostly in the American West. As the war came to a conclusion, he was brevetted to brigadier-general and major general in the regular army on March 13, 1865, "for Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Battle of Gettysburg" and "for Gallant and Meritorious Services in the Field during the Rebellion." Sykes mustered out of the volunteer army on January 15, 1866, but he continued his career in the regular army. On January 12, 1868, he was promoted to the rank of colonel.

On December 27, 1877, the War Department placed Sykes in command of the District of the Rio Grande and of Fort Brown, Texas. He served there until succumbing to cancer on February 8, 1880, at the age of fifty-seven years.  After burial in Texas, Sykes's remains were reinterred at West Point, where a monument was dedicated over his grave on July 1, 1887.

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"George Sykes," Ohio Civil War Central, 2019, Ohio Civil War Central. 20 Sep 2019 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1540>

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"George Sykes." (2019) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved September 20, 2019, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1540

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