General Phil Kearny: 'The One-Armed Devil'

Unlike most other Irish and Irish-Americans who fought in the American Civil War, Philip Kearny was born into a prominent and affluent family in New York City on June 1, 1815. The Kearny name, quite appropriately, came from the Gaelic "O Catharnaigh," derived from the word "cearnach," meaning "warlike" or “victorious.” His father, also Philip, went to Harvard and was one of the founders of the New York Stock Exchange. His mother’s family, Watts, owned ships, factories, and banks in the city. His uncle was Stephen Kearny, who served in both the War of 1812 and more famously as a general in the Mexican War and he also had another uncle, George Watts, who served on the staff of General Winfield Scott in the War of 1812.

Philip, who greatly admired his uncles, wanted to join them in a military career but was pressured into studying the law by his maternal grandfather. To make matters worse for him, he attended a secondary school in Garrison, NY, just across the Hudson from West Point. Looking across at it and hearing the drum and bugle calls could have only made his longing to go there more intense. Instead, he attended Columbia College (now University) in New York City, attaining a law degree, graduating with honors.

When his grandfather died in 1836, leaving Philip independently wealthy, a lesser man may have simply become a man of leisure, enjoying all the better things in life. That's not what he had in mind, however, now he was free to pursue something far removed from a life of leisure: a military career. Later events would prove it was the correct career path for him. As he began that career he adopted a personal motto from Roman poet Horace's Odes: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” - it is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country. He would be true to it.

'The Most Perfect Soldier'

Young Philip's first military assignment was as a 2nd lieutenant with his uncle Stephen’s 1st U.S. Dragoons. Philip was had begun riding very early in life and was an expert horseman, so he was prepared for that part of job. The adjutant of the regiment at the time was Jefferson Davis, later to be president of the Confederate States. In 1839, with his superior officers beginning to recognize the outstanding military qualities he would demonstrate throughout his service, Philip’s military career then took a foreign turn as he was one of the officers selected by the Secretary of War to be sent to France to study cavalry tactics at the famous military school in Saumur.

Once in France, French officers also began to take note of this outstanding soldier and he was given an assignment as an aide-de-camp and officer in the 1st Chasseurs d'Afrique (Huntsmen of Africa, shown in battle, right), one of the best regiments in the French Army. When the French became engaged in the Algerian War, Kearny accompanied them to Africa and saw combat for the first time. There he learned the skill of riding with the reins in his mouth with a pistol and saber in his hands, a skill that would prove crucial to him in the future. And he took to heart the Chasseurs “never retreat” credo.

He proved fearless in combat and became a very popular figure among his new French comrades in arms, who bestowed on him the sobriquet "Kearny le Magnifique.” He was also popular because the independently wealthy young soldier was fond of holding lavish parties with little thought to their expense. France would remain like a second home to him for the rest of his days. He had a joie de vivre that would endear him to many through his life.

On his return he found garrison life in the peaceful U.S., serving on the staff of General Scott, as had his uncle George, less than satisfying to his adventurous nature. He entered into what would become an unhappy marriage with Diana Moore Bullitt, who urged him to leave the service, which he did. However, when the war broke out with Mexico in 1846 there was nothing that could stand in the way of his return to the army.

Rejoining his old unit, the 1st U.S. Dragoons, Kearny took advantage of his wealth again to organize a new company in the regiment, buying 120 dapple-gray horses to mount them. General Scott (left), commander of the U.S. forces in Mexico choose Kearny’s group to be his personal bodyguard, but that did not keep them out of combat. They fought in the battles of Contreras and Churubusco.

At the later battle, during a cavalry charge, Kearny led twelve troopers directly through the Mexican lines and captured a battery of artillery. But in a later charge, never retreating when most had, like the Chasseurs d'Afrique, he lost his left arm when it was shattered by grapeshot. However, just a month later he was back; his expert horsemanship and ability ride with the reins in his teeth now being invaluable to him.

After the surrender of Mexico City, General Scott gave him the honor of being the first through the gates of the city. That U.S. force was full of officers who would one day command large formations in the Civil War on both sides, like the young officer who helped save him that day, Richard Ewell, later a Confederate general, and none could have failed to be impressed by this extraordinary soldier. General Scott, who served in the U.S. Army from 1808 to 1861, commanding troops in the field in the War of 1812, the Seminole War, the Black Hawk War, the Mexican War and would later be the supreme commander of all U.S. forces at the start of the Civil War, and personally knew most of the top generals who commanded troops in that war, later said of Kearny, “He was the bravest man I ever knew, and the most perfect soldier.” Scott brevetted Kearny to major for his Mexican service.

Following the war, Kearny had a little excitement when he was sent to the northwest to help suppress the Rogue River Indian uprising, but he felt he was being passed over for promotion and once again left the army. His wife, along with their five children, had left him, so Kearny decided to travel the world. Over the next few years, he visited nearly every part of the globe. He probably had many an adventure but left little information behind about those years.

Back in Paris once again, he met and fell in love with Agnes Maxwell, 16 years his junior, who was an American from New York and the daughter of the customs collector at the port of New York City. He would divorce Diana and marry Agnes in 1858, but he and Agnes were living together before that happened, which was a scandal in New York society at the time. He built a mansion for them, called Bellegrove (right), in New Jersey. The town is now named Kearny after him. At this point, you’d think Kearny was ready to settle down and simply enjoy his money and his new marriage, but he was a soldier to his soul. The far off bugles were calling to him again.

(Below: Napoleon III at Solferino.)

This time the war was once again being fought by his “adopted” country, France. The French and the Kingdom of Sardinia were fighting Austria in the 2nd Italian War of Independence. Kearny hurried to France and immediately delighted his old friends there with a grand ball before being placed on the staff of the commander of the Imperial Cavalry. He fought at the battles of Montebello, Magenta, and Solferino. At the later he observed the Chasseurs d'Afrique charging the Austrians and got permission to ride with them. This he did with reins in his mouth once again, giving him now one free hand to fight. He fought so well, in fact, that he was awarded the French “Legion of Honor” by Napoleon III; the first American to ever win it.

Home to Fight Friends

Kearny, as one might expect, returned home when the war drums of the coming Civil War began, knowing that this war would be like no other he had fought. On the other side would be many officers with whom he had served in Mexico and the American West. Though he was living in New Jersey, being born and raised in New York, he offered his services to that state. He was rejected by them, probably because of the “scandal” of his divorce and remarriage, absurd as that may seem today. His adopted state of New Jersey welcomed his service, however, and gave him the rank of Brigadier General of volunteers, and command of their first infantry brigade. Given the number of totally inexperienced politicians who were getting high rank, it was well deserved. With the time lost attempting to get a command in New York, Kearny was not commissioned in New Jersey until after the first major battle of the war at Bull Run in July 1861.

This brigade would be the largest force he had ever commanded, as would be the case with so many officers who would be given high commands in the rapidly expanding armies of both sides. Kearny was 46 as he entered Civil War service and was imminently prepared for high command. He had fought with the French in North Africa, with the U.S. army against Mexico, against Indian tribes in the American west, and with the French again in Italy. And especially in that last action in Europe, he had been witness to the movement of very large units in battle. He probably had more actual combat command experience than any senior officer on either side of the war, perhaps only excluding the soon to retire General Scott.

(Right: A drawing of Kearny in his Civil War general's uniform.)

As had been the case during the Mexican War, Kearny dipped into his own finances to help provide the New Jersey Brigade with needed equipment. With Kearny’s vast first-hand knowledge of what was coming for these raw recruits, he drove them hard and molded them into what would be one of the best, hardest fighting brigades of the Army of the Potomac. He would leave them shortly though, as he was promoted to command of the 3rd division of the 3rd corps, as McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign began in the spring of 1862, but so great was his influence on the formation of the brigade, and on the men in it, that it was often referred to as "Kearny's Brigade" or "Kearny's Own." 

(Below: Kearney at Battle of Williamsburg, 1862. A drawing by Alfred R. Waud.)

Kearny would command his division with all the impetuosity and dash he had already shown as a small unit commander on three continents. At the battle of Williamsburg on May 3, 1862, Kearny brought his division up to support Hooker’s line (Hooker was another close friend from the Mexican War), which was holding the left flank and in danger of being overrun by Longstreet. Encountering part of the 2nd New Jersey Brigade of General Patterson, broken and leaderless, he rallied them to accompany his division into the fight shouting “I am a one-armed Jersey son-of-gun, follow me.” They did and assisted Kearny’s division in stopping the rebels in their tracks and saving the Union left. One of Hooker’s men recalled looking back to see them coming up, at their head General Kearny, flourishing his sword in his one arm and holding his reins in his teeth said, "Never were our eyes more gladdened than at this sight.” He was becoming something of a legend in the Union army.

He was also, however, becoming more and more disillusioned with the overly cautious commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George McClellan. While McClellan seemed to feel that slow, steady and cautious brought victory, Kearny, the old cavalryman, saw speed and boldness as the key elements to success. They were oil and water. When McClellan, believing Confederate forces to be about double their actual number, eventually retreated from the outskirts of Richmond to his base on the James following the Battle of Seven Pines, where Kearny had once again swiftly led his division into battle to check a Confederate breakthrough on the Federal left flank, he was livid. In a meeting at McClellan’s headquarters to discuss the retreat, he let loose with a tirade that some there thought would get him court-martialed.

He later told his staff in private, "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.” Had he said that to McClellan, he’d almost certainly been court-martialed. And he had a new nickname for the man the press called “The Young Napoleon." He called him, “The Virginia Creeper.”

It was around this time that Kearny made a contribution to the US military that would live on to this day. He designed a division patch for his men, a red clothe diamond, to put on their caps so he could recognize his troops through “the fog of war.” Kearny’s friend Joe Hooker would later expand the practice to the entire Army of the Potomac, and it is still seen today in a wide variety of unit patches worn by US troops.

(Right: A GAR item displaying the numerous Civil War Union army corps badges that Kearny's original idea morphed into.)

Kearny and his division performed well during McClellan’s retreat to Harrison’s Landing on the James River, especially at the Battle of Glendale. At that battle it was said that “He was everywhere directing all movements, imparting, by his presence and clearsightedness the most determined courage to his men; wherever the danger was greatest.” His performance did not go unnoticed, and on July 4th he was promoted to Major General. Nor had he gone unnoticed on the field by the Confederates, who had dubbed him "The One-Armed Devil."

Shortly after this his division was one of the first shifted from the peninsula to Pope’s Army of Virginia, north of Richmond. Kearny did not mourn his departure from the command of McClellan.

'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori'

Kearny’s division reached Pope’s army in time to take part in the catastrophic 2nd Battle of Bull Run on August 29th and 30th, holding the right flank of the Federal forces. After Longstreet’s attack on the Federal left flank nearly destroyed the army, Kearny’s division was part of the rear guard covering the retreat.

On September 1st Jackson attempted to flank them and cut it off Pope's retreat near Chantilly Plantation. His entire corps of about 17,000 would be confronted by the approximately 6,000 Federals of the divisions of Isaac Stevens and Kearny. As Jackson was delayed by the division of Stevens, another Mexican War comrade of Kearny, he sent word back requesting help. With a tremendous storm pouring down rain, Kearny spurred his division in, declaring, “By God, I will support Stevens anywhere.” Alas though Stevens’ division fought on, the man himself was already dead, shot as he grabbed the flag of the 79th NY and led them forward. Kearny would soon follow his old comrade into both the battle and to the grave. 

(Left: Stevens falls fatally wounded in a painting by Alonzo Chappel.)

After getting his division in line, Kearny made the fatal decision to attempt to reconnoiter the situation to the right of his line and hopefully find Federal units who could reinforce on his right which was "in the air," i.e. unsupported. Moving forward through the crashing thunder, flashing lightning, with drenching rain obscuring his vision, he suddenly found himself surrounded by Confederates. Had he simply surrendered he likely could have been exchanged without spending much time in a Confederate prison, but surrendering was simply not an option for this fearless warrior.

For many, the situation would have appeared hopeless, but Kearny, with his impetuous hard-charging nature that often resulted in him being within or behind enemy lines, had been in similar “tight spots” in Mexico and during his service with the French and escaped. He wheeled around and spurred on his horse, bending low along its neck, in the manner he’d seen plains Indians ride, but this time his luck had run out. His refusal to every retreat or surrender had cost him an arm in Mexico, now it cost his life. A bullet hit his spine and traveled up near his heart. He fell into the mud and was said to have kicked just once and was dead.

(Below, right: A fictional depiction of Kearny's last minutes at Chantilly, with reins in his teeth. There were no Federal troops around him when he was killed.)

In their final acts, however, Kearny and his old comrade-in-arms Isaac Stevens had halted Jackson’s advance and perhaps saved Pope’s army. Stonewall Jackson, who knew Kearny in Mexico, arrived shortly and seeing the body said, "My God, boys, do you know who you have killed? You have shot the most gallant officer in the United States army. This is Phil Kearny, who lost his arm in the Mexican War.” He then removed his hat and bowed his head in tribute to him, as did all the Confederate soldiers around him.

General Ewell, who had once help save Kearny’s life in Mexico, one of the cruel realities of this "brother against brother" war, accompanied Kearny’s body off the field, as did A.P. Hill, another Mexican War comrade. Seeing Kearny’s mud smeared body Hill said, "Poor Kearny! He deserved a better death than that!" Another friend of Kearny’s from the Mexican War, General Robert E. Lee, saw to it that his body was sent through the lines to be returned to his family. It was a terrible blow for the Federal army and the nation, for he was a real "fighting general" if there ever was one. If he had lived few would doubt that he would have risen to at least Corps command, and possibly even command of the Army of the Potomac, in spite of not being a West Pointer. Such was his reputation in the army at the time of his death.

Kearny 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. (Dedication photo below)

Though he was one of the most famous soldiers in the history of our country when he died, few outside of historians and Civil War buffs remember him today. Memorials to him abounded for a time. A fort was named for him near Washington DC during the war, and later another in Wyoming. A statue of him still stands in the Military Park in Newark, NJ, and a grammar school was named for him in Philadelphia in 1921. It is still a statue of Kearny that represents New Jersey in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol. There is also a monument to him at the spot he fell on the battlefield of Chantilly.

But perhaps the tribute that would have meant the most to him was “The Kearny Cross.” (left) It was a medal with Kearny’s motto, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” on it that was first awarded to officers in his division, and later awarded to Union soldiers who had displayed meritorious, heroic, or distinguished acts. 

Kearny had lived a life so full of adventure that many movie producers would probably reject a script of it as too outlandish for anyone to believe. He was born to wealth and could have lived a very safe and comfortable life simply enjoying the riches our system had allowed his family to accumulate, but he chose service to that country instead and left behind a military record that few can match. He had been true to his motto, and his death, though perhaps not a "sweet" one, as A.P. Hill had observed, had surely been an honorable one. He had died as he would have wished, in the saddle fighting for his country.


Gen Phil Kearny Body Removal NYC Trinity Church April 11, 1912

Personal and Military History of Philip Kearny by John Watts De Peyster

(Right: Photo from the reinternment of Kearny.)

Kearny The Magnificent The Story Of General Philip Kearny 1815 1862 by Iriving Wersteev

Battle of Williamsburg

Battle of Seven Pines

Battle of Glendale

Battle of Second Manassas

Battle of Chantilly

General Phil Kearny - Wikipedia


Kearny at Seven Pines 

 by Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833-1908)

So that soldierly legend is still on its journey,— 
That story of Kearny who knew not to yield! 
'Twas the day when with Jameson, fierce Berry, and Birney, 
Against twenty thousand he rallied the field. 
Where the red volleys poured, where the clamor rose highest, 
Where the dead lay in clumps through the dwarf oak and pine, 
Where the aim from the thicket was surest and nighest,— 
No charge like Phil Kearny's along the whole line.

When the battle went ill, and the bravest were solemn, 
Near the dark Seven Pines, where we still held our ground, 
He rode down the length of the withering column, 
And his heart at our war cry leapt up with a bound; 
He snuffed, like his charger, the wind of the powder,— 
His sword waved us on and we answered the sign; 
Loud our cheer as we rushed, but his laugh rang the louder, 
"There's the devil's own fun, boys, along the whole line!"

How he strode his brown steed! How we saw his blade brighten 
In the one hand still left,—and the reins in his teeth! 
He laughed like a boy when the holidays heighten, 
But a soldier's glance shot from his visor beneath. 
Up came the reserves to the melee infernal, 
Asking where to go in—through the clearing or pine? 
"O, anywhere! Forward! 'Tis all the same, Colonel: 
You'll find lovely fighting along the whole line!"

O, evil the black shroud of night at Chantilly, 
That hid him from sight of his brave men and tried! 
Foul, foul sped the bullet that clipped the white lily, 
The flower of our knighthood, the whole army's pride! 
Yet we dream that he still,—in that shadowy region 
Where the dead form their ranks at the wan drummer's sign,— 
Rides on, as of old, down the length of his legion, 
And the word is still Forward! along the whole line. 

Views: 4120

Tags: American Civil War, Military History

Comment by Patrick Francis Deady on August 23, 2016 at 4:17am

Thanks, Joe.  Can't beat History !!

Comment by The Wild Geese on June 4, 2018 at 12:57pm

“Kearny the Magnificent" by Irving Werstein


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