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The Biography of

General Philip Kearny
"The Bravest of the Brave"

Philip Kearny (pronounced CAR-nee) was a flamboyant adventurer and soldier who most notably fought for the United States of America in the Mexican, Indian, and Civil Wars. During his brilliant military career he proved himself honorable, chivalrous, and compassionate towards his men, with a joie de vivre that inspired his troops in battle. 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.

Life as a Young Aristocrat

Born in New York City on June 1, 1815, the only child of Philip and Susan (Watts) Kearny, young Philip never knew want due to his aristocratic heritage and upbringing. Yet, he knew suffering at an early age with the untimely death of his beloved mother before his ninth birthday. A shy and sensitive youth, Philip spent many hours alone sketching battle scenes and playing with toy soldiers. There was also a daring side to him as he would race at top speed on horseback. But though his demeanor was reckless he demonstrated great skill as a rider, and his rare talent in handling horses would serve him well throughout his life.

Perhaps the greatest immediate influence in his youth was that of his uncle, the distinguished Major General Stephen Watts Kearny. Philip looked up to him as a role model with aspirations of following in his footsteps as a career soldier. This fascination with the military displeased his father and maternal grandfather who had other occupations in mind for the family's only boy. As one of the founders of the New York Stock Exchange, the elder Philip had planned a career for him that would support his business on Wall Street. Meanwhile his grandfather, the family patriarch, had contemplated a career for him as a minister.

To appease both parties, Philip attended Columbia College (now Columbia University) where he studied law, graduating with honors. He worked for a brief time as a clerk at a law office, a job which left him restless and bored. When his grandfather died, the 21-year-old received an inheritance that afforded him financial independence. Now an adult and still longing for a taste of soldierly life, Philip decided to pursue his dream of a military career. In his own idealistic way, he desired to live out his recently-adopted motto: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori," a quotation by the Roman poet and satirist Horace, which translates as "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country."

A Cavalier in America and Abroad

Kearny obtained his first commission with the army cavalry in 1837 as a member of the 1st U.S. Dragoons, Company F, stationed at Jefferson Barracks and Fort Leavenworth. From the beginning, his military career was destined to be winning one, as he showed an enormous amount of confidence in himself, a willful determination in all his undertakings, great honesty and forthrightness in his dealings with others, progressiveness in his thinking, and an abhorrence of setbacks and failure.

Kearny's success as a soldier would not be overlooked by his superiors. Within the next two years he would be selected by the Secretary of War to attend the French Cavalry School at Saumur. At this renowned institute he studied cavalry tactics and served as aide-de-camp and officer in the 1st Chasseurs d'Afrique, considered one of the best regiments in the French Army. In 1840, he received his baptism of fire in the Algerian War, where he rode with the 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." The engagement was a victory for the French.

Kearny had found in France a second home and would often return, though not always as a soldier. Up until the American Civil War, he would maintain contact with his friends in Paris. The French seemed to share his passionate temperament and fondness for the good life. While a student at the Cavalry School, he threw an elegant ball which increased his popularity among his peers and officers and cost him a small fortune. But for those he cared about, his generosity knew no bounds. In all his pursuits he gave 100 percent of his energy, whether it was in his work or diversions. Throughout his life, Kearny would equally enjoy recreational activities, social affairs, and engaging in battle, all one and the same. His enthusiasm for adventure would take him on journeys across the country and around the world, beyond Northern Africa and Paris, to places such as Switzerland, Italy, Russia, Mexico, and India.

Back home in America, life as an aide-de-camp to General Winfield Scott, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army, was dull and uninspiring for the ambitious and action-oriented Kearny. A year later, in 1841, the dashing officer wed the charming and headstrong Diana Moore Bullitt in what would be a disharmonious union. The discord in their relationship and his uneventful subsequent years as lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Dragoons rendered him frustrated and restless. At his wife's persistent urging, he resigned from the military.

His retirement would be short lived. With the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, Kearny withdrew his resignation and 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. The following year, while seeking to capture General Santa Anna at Churubusco, outside of Mexico City, he led a fierce charge to the San Antonio gate. Bearing in mind the Chasseurs' credo to never retreat, Kearny nearly reached the gate, despite the signal for recall. His left arm was shattered by grapeshot and required amputation at the shoulder. For his bravery and gallantry, he was breveted Major by General Scott.

The 1850's proved to be a decade of continual change and new challenges for Philip. After the birth of their fourth child, Diana left him and took the children to her native Kentucky. Kearny served for a time as a recruiting officer in New York City. Later, as a major with the 1st U.S. Dragoons, he and his troops sojourned to the Pacific Northwest to quell the Rogue River Indian uprisings. Having successfully accomplished his mission, Kearny felt slighted for the lack of promotions and new assignments for him. The proud cavalier resigned from the military, then set sail on a world tour in December 1851.

A few years later, now at Paris, Philip met the fair Agnes Maxwell, daughter of the customs collector at the port of New York City. Though his liaison with this young woman created quite a controversy amongst the American social circuit, the two became too enamored of one another to relinquish their association. In 1854, Kearny had begun construction of a palatial mansion in the present day locale of Kearny, NJ. He had envisioned a life of bliss there with Agnes, but this would not be possible until his marriage with Diana was terminated.

By the end of the decade, following his bitter divorce from Diana, the contented newlyweds were able to enjoy life at their estate which was named Bellegrove. They also found happiness at various residences overseas, until the eruption of the Italian Wars in Europe stirred Kearny's soldierly blood and urged him to enlist to the aid of his former French comrades. As a volunteer aide to the commander of the Imperial Cavalry under Emperor Napoleon III, Kearny fought at the battlefields on Italian soil at Montebello, Magenta and Solferino. He was commended by General Morris for his bravery during the grand charge at Solferino and accorded the Cross of the Legion of Honor by his hosts for his services to their country.

"Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori"

At the outset of a civil war brewing in America in 1861, Kearny returned home with Agnes and their three children. By now, he had an extensive and impressive military career and was highly qualified for an appointment to command troops of his native New York. When his request was denied—largely because of his personal life which was regarded as scandalous in Victorian times—Kearny became incensed. However, as New Jersey was in search of a commander to lead their first brigade of infantry, he received an appointment as Brigadier General of Volunteers.

At first Kearny was less than impressed with the unkempt, untrained, and unmotivated volunteers that comprised the regiments. But through sheer diligence he soon transformed these men into true soldiers. Those in his brigade would quickly learn that the general was a strict taskmaster who was also generous in bestowing praise and recognition for a job well done. He earned the respect of his men for his strong convictions and leadership skills. He would also win their loyalty and affection for personally looking after them and ensuring that they were properly nourished, uniformed and armed. Any deficiencies in these areas were resolved by him taking action to purchase the necessary goods out of his own pocket.

Not long after the Union defeat at the Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, General Winfield Scott retired and was replaced by General George McClellan. The tedious months of idleness for the First New Jersey Brigade and the habitual hesitation of the new Commander-in-Chief frustrated Kearny to no end. But the magnitude of personal matters would weigh even more heavily upon him. In February 1862, the death of his and Agnes's young son proved to be a tragedy that he would never overcome.

In May, Kearny was appointed commander of the Third Division, Third Corps. By now, McClellan's Peninsula Campaign—a plan to capture Richmond, Virginia, the capitol of the Confederacy—was well under way. Kearny's newly assigned troops were immediately engaged in the battle at Yorktown and then at Williamsburg where the general bravely led the charge, sword in hand, reins in his teeth. True to form, Kearny displayed a keen wit and a joyous spirit in battle which seemed to inspire and embolden his men, encouraging them to follow him at any cost. The rare bond that was created between them and him would be so strong that even long after his death he would be fondly remembered by his soldiers.

After the Battle of Seven Pines, in which neither side gained any ground, Kearny devised a method that would help him readily identify his men and also alleviate some of the monotony of camp life which persisted at this time. He had each man sew on his cap a diamond-shaped piece of red flannel. This concept for corps badges soon became widely used in the army and is still in use today. By the end of June, in the Seven Days' Battles, Kearny's division was engaged at Oak Grove, Glendale, and Malvern Hill. Typically believing his forces to be outnumbered, McClellan ordered a retreat to Harrison's Landing on the James River, in what would be termed the "Great Skedaddle."

The Peninsula Campaign was now abandoned, much to Kearny's disgust and despite his vehement protestations against McClellan's order. Though he was promoted to Major General on July 4, 1862, his irritation with the Commander-in-Chief escalated, along with his bitterness for not being appointed a corps commander. By the end of August, the Third Division fought in the Second Battle of Bull Run. What seemed a victory in the beginning culminated in a major disaster in the end due in part to a lack of supports the general had requested. With this humiliating defeat for the Union, on top of other recent disturbances, Kearny flew into a rage.

On September 1, 1862, on the heels of the disaster at Bull Run, the Battle of Chantilly was fought. By nightfall, the rain poured down in blinding sheets. Though advised not to reconnoiter a gap in the line that was left unguarded, Kearny willfully rode there and was met by Confederates who were lying in wait. When asked to surrender himself a prisoner, the general refused and dashed away. A miniť ball struck him in the spine, and the brave warrior fell instantly and died—as he had wished—for his country.

Philip Kearny's loss would be felt deeply by many on both sides of the war, for a number of the officers in the Confederacy had been comrades of his during the Mexican War and regarded him with the highest respect. He was buried at Trinity Churchyard in New York City. He would be reburied at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia in 1912. A magnificent equestrian monument bearing the general's likeness in bronze would be erected over the burial site in 1914.

On November 29, 1862, the officers of the First Division, Third Corps established a medal of honor which bore Kearny's motto: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." This medal, which was to be known as the "Kearny Medal of Valor," was presented to all officers (and those soldiers promoted to officers prior to January 1, 1863) who had "honorably served in battle under General Kearny in his division." On March 13, 1863, Brigadier General Birney, who served in Kearny's brigade, issued an order to establish a "cross of valor" which was to be known as the "Kearny Cross." This would be awarded to non-commissioned officers and privates who had distinguished themselves in battle. With honors as these, the memory of their legendary hero would not be forgotten.

In 1890, Philip and Agnes's eldest daughter Susan requested a personal tribute about her father by the Comte de Paris (Louis Philippe Albert d'Orleans). The Comte de Paris, a former aide of General McClellan and son of the Duc d'Orleans (whom Kearny had served as a member of the Chasseurs), wrote an elegant tribute. The most striking passage that I believe best sums up Kearny's character says:

One who saw Philip Kearny recognized in him the typical soldier. As early as 1849 the young and brilliant cavalry officer had lost his left arm before one of the gates of Mexico at the battle of Churubusco. His infirmity did not prevent him from always mounting the most vigorous-looking horses, which he controlled on the march with rare elegance, holding in his only hand his reins and his naked sword. A head, the picture of energy, framed by the cape which almost invariably hung about his shoulders, a strongly marked nose, and a piercing eye, gave him the look of an eagle. His abrupt speech and his imperious manner denoted a proud disposition, and a character incapable of flattery or of dissimulation. But though at first his manner was not always fitted to attract, one soon learned to appreciate the noble qualities of his heart, the firmness of his will, the accuracy of his judgment, the truthfulness and grandeur of his soul. This man, apparently so nervous, was calmness itself in the presence of the enemy. His unerring eye, his prompt decision, his clear and concise orders, at once revealed in him the true warrior. He inspired an unbounded confidence in all those who had once been under fire with him.

[William B. Styple, Letters from the Peninsula: The Civil War Letters of General Philip Kearny (New Jersey: Belle Grove Publishing Company, 1988), p. 25.]


Books Used in Writing this Essay

Kearny the Magnificent: The Story of General Philip Kearny, 1815-1862, by Irving Werstein, The John Day Company, NY, 1962.

Letters from the Peninsula: The Civil War Letters of General Philip Kearny, by William B. Styple, Belle Grove Publishing Company, NJ, 1988.

The Little Bugler, by William B. Styple, Belle Grove Publishing Company, NJ, 1998.

To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign, by Stephen Sears, Houghton Mifflin Company, NY, 1992.


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