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Philip Kearny:

An American soldier's gallant fight
in the Battle of Solferino

Information contributed by William B. Styple

June 24, 1999 marks the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Solferino—the most decisive battle of the Italian Campaign in the Franco-Austrian War which would unify Italy, set the stage for modern warfare, and result in the formation of the International Red Cross. This key world event also would recognize the undaunted American soldier, Philip Kearny, again proving his bravery on foreign soil amongst his French comrades.

picture of Solferino today
In April 1859, the outbreak of the Franco-Austrian War found the army of Napoleon III, Emperor of France, in alliance with the army of Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont-Sardinia (King of Italy) in an attempt to oust Emperor Franz Joseph's Austrians from northern Italy. Retired U.S. Army Major Philip Kearny, then living in Paris at 15, avenue Matignon, personally applied to the French emperor for permission to join the Chasseurs d'Afrique in the Italian Campaign. Kearny had served with the Chasseurs as a U.S. military observer in Africa in 1840 and wished to rejoin his old regiment. His request denied, Kearny instead was given the distinguished honor of an assignment on the staff of General Morris. Morris, Kearny's former commander in Africa, had been chosen by the emperor to lead the Cavalry Division of the Imperial Guard.

picture of Philip Kearny in Paris, 1859
Dressed in uniform as a major of the First Regiment, U.S. Dragoons, Philip Kearny left Paris on May 12, 1859, the day after the departure of Emperor Napoleon III. In a battle comprised of 270,000 men, Kearny fervently fought with the Chasseurs for more than nine brutal hours. The bloodthirsty soldiers savagely attacked their adversary, employing bayonets and repeatedly shooting the wounded with new guns that fired conical "minié balls"—the spiral barrel of the rifle afforded greater accuracy. Along with this new weaponry and ammunition, novel tactics such as communication via telegraph and the transportation of troops by rail would be utilized—later to be seen in the Civil War. The French Zouaves, who would perform heroic deeds during this campaign, also would be discovered by Americans and lionized—evidenced by the scores of Zouave regiments that would fight in the Civil War, styled after their French counterparts. (See the article about Duryée's Zouaves at the Battle of Second Manassas.)

In the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino, a total of 40,000 French, Austrian, Italian casualties littered the countryside. From the horrors of this battle the International Red Cross would be born, founded in 1864 by Swiss businessman (Jean) Henri Dunant, eyewitness to the slaughter. This organization would serve as a model for the American Association of the Red Cross, established by
Clara Barton in 1881.

As for Philip Kearny, the great warrior arrived home two days before the emperor's return on July 14th. Kearny wrote of his battle experience to cousin John Watts DePeyster:

Paris, July 14, 1859

My two months have been all that a Military Man would have desired—a school of such grandeur as rarely occurs, even here in the Old World—and the Drama has been complete.

I have roamed about everywhere, and in the day of Solferino, I was not only present with the line of our cavalry skirmishers, (but) as well in every charge that took place. That day I was mounted from six in the morning till eleven at night—scarcely off my horse even for a few minutes—depend on it, he was a good one. The cavalry of the guard came up some sixteen miles in full trot and rapid gallop to take our places, under fire; for there was a gap we had to stop. The night before the battle I had a miraculous escape, having been inveigled by false guides into the midst of the Austrian masses.

For Kearny's superb conduct in the campaign—particularly at Solferino—General Morris initiated the process for France to recognize his services. On February 17, 1860, Emperor Napoleon III accorded Kearny the Cross of the Legion d'Honneur (Legion of Honor), France's highest military accolade. He would be the first American to receive the Cross for military service.


The village of Solferino is situated south of Lake Garda between Milan and Verona in northern Italy. The Solferino battlefield is located along the Brescia to Mantua highway (N. 236), at a point 6.4 km southeast of Castiglione delle Stiviere. There is an excellent museum and memorial in the village of Solferino.

Above right: A view of the area today in which the Battle of Solferino was fought, photographed from the point where the Austrians were positioned. Bottom left: Philip Kearny in Paris, 1859.

Thanks to Bill Styple for sharing this information and these photos.


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