George Sykes was a career army officer and a general in the Union army in the American Civil War. He commanded the United States Regulars in the first part of the war and became a corps commander in the Army of the Potomac.

Major General George Sykes

Early Life

George Sykes was born on October 9, 1822, at Dover, Delaware, the son of William and Elizabeth Goldsborough Sykes. George’s great grandfather represented Delaware in Congress during the Revolutionary War and his grandfather had been Governor of Delaware.

Sykes became a cadet at the United States Military Academy in 1838 and graduated with the West Point Class of 1842. He ranked 39 out of the 56 cadets who graduated, who included Richard Anderson, Napoleon Dana, Abner Doubleday, Daniel Harvey Hill, James Longstreet, Lafayette McLaws, John Newton, John Pope, William Rosecrans, Gustavus Smith, Martin Smith, Peter Stuart and Earl Van Dorn, all of whom reached the rank of Major General or higher in the Civil War.

Early Army Career

After graduation George became a brevet Second Lieutenant in the Third United States Infantry Regiment. He was stationed at Fort Stansbury in Florida during the Second Seminole War before being transferred to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. On December 31, 1943 he was promoted to full Second Lieutenant in the Third Infantry. From 1845 to 1846 he took part in the miitary occupation of Texas in Zachary Taylor’s army.

Mexican War

Sykes fought in the Battle of Monterrey on September 21-23, 1846. The heavy casualties of the battle opened up opportuities for promotion in his regiment, and Sykes became a First Lieutenant in the Third Infantry Regiment. The Third Infantry took part in the Siege of Vera Cruz on March 9-29, 1847. This led to the Battle of Cerro Gordo on April 17-18 and the Battle of Contretas on August 19-20 and Churubusco on August 20. Sykes was brevetted as Captain for “Gallant and Meritorious Conduct” at Cerro Gordo. The campaign culminated with the capture of Mexico City on September 12-14.

After the fighting in the Mexican War was over Sykes was appointed Commissary for Major General Twiggs’ Division. With the end of the war he returned with his regiment to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri in 1848. From 1849 to 1850 Sykes was assigned to New Mexico in Santa Fe, the Navajo Nation, and at Fort Union. He also spent time on recruiting service.

In 1854 Sykes served against the Apache, scouting and taking part in skirmishes on March 4, April 9 and June 30, 1854 while stationed at Fort Union, Fort Massachusetts, Colorado, and Fort Fillmore, New Mexico. On September 30, 1855 Sykes was promoted to full Captain in the Third Infantry.

Sykes took part in the Gila Expedition in 1857 before being briefly assigned to detached srvice in Baltomore, Maryland. He returned to frontier duty in 1858 at Los Lunas, New Mexico and took part in the Navajo Expedition of 1859 before returning to Los Lunas. In 1860 Sykes was part of the March to Texas which brough the Third Infantry to Fort Clark.

Civil War

At the start of the Civil War the Regular Army added ne regiments, and on March 14 George Sykes was promoted to Major in the new Fourteenth United States Infantry Regiment. When Brigadier General Irvin McDowell led the North’s first army to the Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas) Major George Sykes was in charge of a composite force of eight companies from three regiments of Regulars (2nd United States Infantry, Companies C & K, 3rd United States Infantry, Companies B, D, G, H & K, 8th United States Infantry, Company G.) Sykes’ Regulars won admiration for their steadiness under fire, especially while covering the retreat of the army after the battle. On September 28, 1861 Sykes was promoted to Brigadier General of U.S. Volunteers.

As Major General George McCLellan prepared to move his army to the Virginia Peninsula in March, Sykes was given command of the Infantry Reserve consisting of most of nine Regular and one Volunteer New York Infantry Regiments. The Regulars were intended to act as a strategic reserve that would stiffen the volunteers and hopefully cover any more panics such as Bull Run. They served through the Seige of Yorktown and were praised for the defence of their position at Gaines’s Mill, for which Sykes received a promotion to brevet colonel in the Regular Army for “Gallant and Meritorious Service.” Sykes then led the Regulars at the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862.

Second Bull Run to Chancellorsville

Sykes continued to lead the Regulars in the Northern Virginia Campaign, serving their role as the solid reserve during the defeat and retreat of Second Bull Run on August 29-30. They played a relatively minor role in the Battle of Antietam on September 17 and the Battle of Shepherdstown on September 19, as well as the skirmish at Snickers Gap on November 3, 1862. Sykes was promoted to Major General of Volunteers in November 28, 1862.

Sykes’ Regular Division led Hooker’s flank attack into the Confederate rear along the Orange Turnpike at the Battle of Chancellorsville. They were halted and forced to withdraw by a Confederate counterattack, at which point Hooker decided to halt his advance and take up a defensive position. Sykes’ men saw little fighting for the rest of the battle.

George Sykes (center) and his staff.

Gettysburg

Just three days before the Battle of Gettysburg was to begin, as the dispersed Union army manuevered from Maryland into Pennsylvania, Fifth Corps commander George Meade was abruptly placed in command of the Army of the Potomac. George Sykes, the senior division commander of the Fifth Corps, was elevated to corps command in Meade’s Place.

The Fifth Corps reached the battlefield on the second day and after spending some time in reserve they were thrown into the defence of the army’s left flank around the Round Tops. The fighting on Little Round Top, the Wheatfield and Houck’s Ridge halted the Confederate attack but was intense and costly. The division of Regulars in particular suffered heavy casualties. One onlooker wrote, “For two years the U.S. Regulars taught us how to be soldiers; in the Wheatfield at Gettysburg they taught us how to die like soldiers.”

Sykes continued to command the Fifth Corps during the pursuit of Lee into Virginia and in the Bristoe Camaign. On October 16, 1863 he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in the Regular Army of the 5th United States Infantry Regiment. Sykes commanded the Fifth Corps in the Mine Run Campaign, but was heavily criticized by Meade for being too slow (his nickname at West Point had been “Tardy George”) and lacking aggression.

Kansas

George Sykes was relieved of command of the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac after December of 1863. He was promoted to Brevet Brigadier General in the Regular Army on March 13,1865 “for Gallant and Meritorious Services” at the Battle of Gettysburg. On April 1, 1864 he was ordered to report to Major General Samuel R. Curtis, commander of the Department of Kansas. He was given command of the District of South Kansas from September 1 to October 10, 1864.

After the War

Sykes was awaiting orders from June 7, 1865 until January 15, 1866, when he mustered out of the Volunteer Army. He was placed in command of a detachment of recruits for New Mexico from March 2. He was promoted to Brevet Brigadier General on March 13, 1866 “for Gallant and Meritorious Services in the Field during the Rebellion.”

On August 12, 1865 Sykes took command of his regiment and the post of Fort Sumner, New Mexico. In June of 1867 he took a leave of absence and returned to New York City, where he served on an examining board and awaited orders.

On January 12, 1868, George Sykes was promoted to Colonel of the 20th United States Infantry Regiment. He commanded his regiment in March and April of 1868 in New Orleans, Louisiana before taking command of the District of Minnesota in April od 1869. He was at Fort Snelling, Minnesota until December of 1877, then took command of the District of the Rio Grande, with his headquarters at Fort Brown, Texas. During that time he took part in a Court of Inquiry in 1878 at Fort Clark, Texas, and as as a witness at West Point.

Death

George Sykes died of cancer on February 8, 1880 at Fort Brown, Texas, at the age of 57. He was buried in West Point Cemetery, West Point, New York.