Philip Kearny

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Philip Kearny

Philip Kearny, Jr., (June 2, 1815September 1, 1862) was a United States Army officer, notably in the Mexican and Civil wars.

Kearny, who pronounced his name "CAR-nee", was born in New York City to a wealthy family. His maternal grandfather was John Watts, one of New York's wealthiest residents who had vast holdings in ships, mills, factories, banks, and investment houses. Kearny's father, also named Philip, was a Harvard educated New York City financier who owned his own brokerage firm and was also a founder of the New York Stock Exchange. Early in life, Kearny desired a career in the military. His parents died when he was young, and he was consequently raised by his grandfather, who insisted against the younger Kearny's wishes that he pursue a law career. Kearny attended Columbia College, attaining a law degree in 1833.

In 1836 his grandfather died, leaving Kearny a fortune of over $1 million. Instead of a life of ease and luxury, he chose to make the army his profession. The following year Kearny obtained a commission as a second lieutenant of cavalry, assigned to the 1st U.S. Dragoons, who were commanded by his uncle, Colonel Stephen W. Kearny, and whose adjutant general was Jefferson Davis. The regiment was assigned to the western frontier.

Kearny was sent to France in 1839 to study cavalry tactics, first attending school at the famous cavalry school in Saumur, France, and then participating in several combat engagements with the Chasseurs d'Afrique in Algiers. Kearny rode into battle with a sword in his right hand, pistol in his left, and the reins in his teeth, as was the style of the Chasseurs. His fearless character in battle earned him the nickname by his French comrades "Kearny le Magnifique" or "Kearny the Magnificent." He returned to the United States in the fall of 1840 and prepared a cavalry manual for the Army based on his experiences overseas.

Shortly afterward, he was designated aide-de-camp to General Alexander Macomb, and continued to serve in this position until Macomb's death in June of 1841. After a few months at the cavalry barracks in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Kearny was assigned to the staff of General Winfield Scott, soon becoming his aide-de-camp. He did additional duty on the frontier, accompanying his uncle's unit on an expedition to the South Pass of the Oregon Trail in 1845.

Kearny, disappointed with the lack of fighting he was seeing in the Army, resigned his commission in 1846, but returned to duty only a month later at of the outbreak of the Mexican-American War. Kearny was assigned to raise a troop of cavalry for the 1st U.S. Dragoons, Company F. He spared no expense in recruiting his men and acquiring 120 matched dapple gray horses with his own money. This unit was originally stationed at the Rio Grande but soon became the personal bodyguard for General Scott, the commander in chief of the Army in Mexico. Kearny was promoted to captain in December of 1846.

Kearny and his men participated in the battles of Contreras and Churubusco; in the latter engagement Kearny led a daring cavalry charge and suffered a grapeshot wound to his left arm, which later had to be amputated. Kearny's courage earned him the respect of his soldiers and fellow officers alike, the greatest of which came from General-in-Chief Winfield Scott who called him "the bravest and most perfect soldier" he had ever known. He nevertheless quickly returned to duty, and when the U.S. Army entered Mexico City the following month, Kearny had the personal distinction of being the first man through the gates of the city.

After the war Kearny did a stint with the Army recruiting service in New York City. While there he was presented with a sword by the Union Club for his service during the war, and was promoted to major.

In 1851 he was a member of a unit that saw action against the Rogue River Native American tribe in California. After the failure of his marriage, frustrated with the slow promotion process of the Army, Kearny resigned his commission in October of that year, and embarked on a trip around the world, visiting China, Ceylon, and France In Paris, Kearny fell in love with a New York City girl he met there named Agnes Maxwell, but was unable to marry her because his first wife would not grant him a divorce. In 1854, Kearny injured himself when the horse he was riding fell through a rotten bridge, and the sympathetic Agnes moved in to take care of him. Kearny and Agnes lived in "Belle Grove" (his estate in Newark), until 1858, when his wife finally granted the divorce. Then he and Agnes moved to Paris, and were married.

In 1859, Kearny returned to France, re-joining the Chasseurs d'Afrique, who were at that time fighting against Austrian forces in Italy. Later he was with Napoleon III's Imperial Guard at the Battle of Solferino, where he was in charge of the cavalry under General Louis M. Morris, which penetrated the Austrian center, capturing the key point of the battle. He was described in this charge as: "Holding his bridle in his teeth, with his characteristic impetuosity." For this action, he was awarded the French Légion d'honneur, becoming the first U.S. citizen to be thus honored.

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Kearny returned to the United States and was appointed a brigadier general, commanding the 1st New Jersey Brigade, which he trained efficiently. The Army had been reluctant to restore his commission due to his disability, but the shocking Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run made them realize the importance of seasoned combat officers. His brigade, even after he left to command a division, performed spectacularly, especially at the Battle of Glendale. He received command of the 3rd Division of the III Corps on April 30, 1862. He led the division into action at the Battle of Williamsburg and the Battle of Fair Oaks. At Williamsburg, as he led his troops onto the field, Kearny shouted (in a notable quote), "I'm a one-armed Jersey son-of-a-gun, follow me!" Here again the general bravely led the charge with his sword in hand, reins in his teeth. His performance during the Peninsula Campaign earned him much respect from the army and his superiors. However, he held much contempt for the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Major General George B. McClellan, whose orders (especially those to fall back) he frequently ignored. After the Battle of Malvern Hill, which was a Union victory, McClellan ordered a withdrawal, and Kearny wrote:

I, Philip Kearny, an old soldier, enter my solemn protest against this order for retreat. We ought instead of retreating should follow up the enemy and take Richmond. And in full view of all responsible for such declaration, I say to you all, such an order can only be prompted by cowardice or treason.

Kearny is credited with devising the first unit insignia patches used in the U.S. Army. In the summer of 1862, he issued an order that his officers should wear a patch of red cloth on the front of their caps to identify themselves as members of his unit. The enlisted men, with whom Kearny was quite popular, quickly followed suit of their own volition. Members of other units picked up on the idea, devising their own insignia, and these evolved over the years into the modern shoulder patch. (Daniel Butterfield is credited with taking Kearny's idea and standardizing it for all corps in the Army of the Potomac, designing most of the corps symbols.)

By the end of August 1862, General Kearny led his division at the disastrous Second Battle of Bull Run, which saw the Union Army routed and almost destroyed by the Confederate Army of Robert E. Lee. The Union army retreated towards Washington and fought with the pursuing Confederates on September 1, 1862, at the Battle of Chantilly. In a violent storm complete with lightning and pouring rain, Kearny decided to investigate a gap in the Union line and dismissively responded to the warnings of a subordinate with "The Rebel bullet that can kill me has not yet been molded." Subsequently riding into Confederate troops, Kearny ignored a demand to surrender and while attempting to escape, a single bullet penetrated the base of his spine, killing him instantly. Confederate General A.P. Hill, upon hearing the gunfire, ran up to the body of the illustrious soldier with a lantern and exclaimed, "You've killed Phil Kearny, he deserved a better fate than to die in the mud." His body was returned to the Union, accompanied with a note by General Lee. Ironically, there were rumors rampant at the time in Washington that Abraham Lincoln was contemplating replacing George B. McClellan with none other then "Kearny the Magnificent".

Kearny was buried at Trinity Churchyard in New York. On July 4, 1862, he was promoted posthumously to major general. In 1912 his remains were exhumed and re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery, where there is a statue ( in his honor, one of only two equestrian statues at Arlington.

The city of Kearny, New Jersey, is named in the general's honor. Likewise, a fort in Wyoming was named for Kearny; however, it had but two years of existence. New Jersey is represented by a statue of Kearny in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol.

External links


  • Eicher, John H., & Eicher, David J.: Civil War High Commands, Stanford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8047-3641-3

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