A no-nonsense, career army man, George Sykes was an able, though not inspiring commander who could be relied upon to carry out his orders but who also displayed little initiative in adapting to changing battlefield circumstances. Cautious, methodical and sometimes slow to move, Sykes was known in some quarters as either “Tardy George” or “Slow Trot.” His loyalty to and love for the Union, and his bravery and calm demeanor on the field of battle, however, were never questioned. He was born on October 9, 1822, in Dover, Delaware, the grandson of a one-time governor of the state. After receiving an education in the local schools, Sykes received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, graduating thirty-ninth out of fifty-six cadets in the illustrious Class of 1842. Among Sykes’s classmates were John Newton, Abner Doubleday, William S. Rosecrans, John Pope, N.J.T. Dana, Lafayette McLaws, Richard H. Anderson, and James Longstreet. The irascible future Confederate General Daniel Harvey Hill was Sykes’s roommate for a time at the Military Academy.
Sykes saw substantial service in the pre-war army. Upon graduation from West Point, he was brevetted a 2nd lieutenant in the 3rd U.S. Infantry and was sent to Florida where he fought in what came to be known as the Second Seminole War. Stationed at various frontier posts, Sykes later served with distinction in the Mexican-American War. Participating in General Winfield Scott’s drive from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, Sykes earned a captain’s brevet for gallantry at the battle of Cerro Gordo. Following the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which ended the war with Mexico, Sykes saw further service against the Apache in 1854 and against the Navajo in 1859. In 1855, he was promoted to captain.
When the American Civil War erupted in the spring of 1861, Sykes was appointed major of the 14th U.S. Infantry. He distinguished himself early in the war, at the First Battle of Bull Run, where he commanded a battalion of Regulars. Amidst the rout of the Union forces from the field that day, Sykes and his men covered the flight of the volunteers, slowed the Confederate pursuit, and turned in what was perhaps the best performance of any Union unit that day. Following the battle, Sykes was placed in command of the Regular Infantry Brigade which was stationed in the defenses of the Washington. Promoted to brigadier general of volunteers in September 1861, he commanded first a brigade and then a division in Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps during the Peninsula Campaign and the fighting around Richmond the following spring. For his actions at the battle of Gaines’s Mill on June 27, 1862, Sykes was rewarded with a regular army brevet to the rank of colonel. His command consisted primarily of Regular Army troops; in fact, only two of the eleven regiments that were in his division were volunteers. After suffering heavy losses at the Second Battle of Bull Run in late August 1862, Sykes’s men were only lightly engaged at the battle of Antietam a few weeks later.
At the battle of Antietam, Sykes displayed his characteristic trait of following a literal interpretation of orders even in the face of a potentially tremendous opportunity. His division was held initially in reserve on the east bank of Antietam Creek, but shortly before noon General McClellan ordered Pleasonton’s cavalry troopers and several batteries across the creek by way of the Middle Bridge. Sykes was ordered to supply infantry support for these cannon, although he personally opposed what he considered to be a hazardous move. Roughly 1,500 of Sykes’s men crossed the Middle Bridge. Throughout the afternoon, these Regulars traded shots with Confederate skirmishers, and slowly made their way toward the streets of Sharpsburg along the Boonsboro Pike. Late in the day, Sykes’s men supported the advance of Colonel Benjamin Christ’s 9th Corps Brigade. Pushing steadily forward, the Regulars had little organized opposition to their front. Word was sent back to Sykes about the thin and wavering gray line, along with a request by one of Sykes’s subordinate for a full-scale attack. Sykes denied this request and ordered his men back to within supporting distance of the artillery, which was their order he no doubt reminded them. By the end of the fighting that day, Sykes’s Division had suffered 95 casualties.
George Sykes was promoted to major general two months after Antietam, and he continued to lead his division of Fifth Corps troops through the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville campaigns. On June 28, 1863, just three days before the battle of Gettysburg, Sykes was appointed to command of the Fifth Corps following the promotion of General George Gordon Meade to army command. At Gettysburg, Sykes and his men turned in a stellar performance in the savage fighting in the Wheatfield, Plum Run, and on Little Round Top, and for his service here, Sykes was brevetted brigadier general in the regular army. While the case can be made that Gettysburg was Sykes’s finest hour in the war, especially considering that he was brand new to corps command, trouble developed soon thereafter. In a possible attempt to deflect criticism for not aggressively pursuing Lee’s retreating Army of Northern Virginia after the battle, General Meade blamed Sykes for not following orders to keep close on Lee’s rear. Sykes maintained that he never received such an order. In the fall of 1863, Sykes was criticized again for being too slow and too cautious during the Mine Run Campaign. When General Ulysses Grant came east in March 1864, Meade no doubt expressed his reservations about Sykes to the new commander, and when the army was reorganized before the start of the Overland Campaign, Sykes was relieved of his command.
Sent west, George Sykes finished the war as the Commander of the District of South Kansas, a minor post. He remained in the army following the war, rising eventually to the rank of colonel. On February 8, 1880, George Sykes succumbed to cancer at the age of 57 while in command of the post at Fort Brown, Texas. Following Sykes’s death, the United States Congress appropriated $1,000 for the transfer of his remains from Texas for burial at West Point and for the erection of his tombstone, an act initiated by former Army of the Potomac commander Ambrose Burnside who was then serving in the Senate.