My Favorite Historical Person: General Philip Kearny

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Frank Jastrzembski

My first knowledge of General Kearny came about ten years ago, around the age of nineteen. My grandmother purchased for me a reissued copy of Ezra J. Warner’s excellent Generals in Blue, which quickly emerged as one of my all-time favorite American Civil War books. Of the hundreds of fascinating generals featured in this 680 page compendium, I could not stop turning back to the bio of the officer featured on pages 258-59. Something about Kearny’s hawk-like portrait oozed gallantry and daring, and the text further supporting my evaluation by mentioning the loss of a limb during a reckless charge and his tragic death in battle. The saga of Phil Kearny continues to fascinate me to this day.

I concluded these six reasons behind why I admire Kearny:

  • His loss of a limb: Kearny’s left arm was crushed by a Mexican cannonball in a reckless cavalry charge at the Battle of Churubusco. General Franklin Pierce (the 14th President of the United States) held Kearny’s head still as the surgeon sawed off his shredded left limb. He may have lost an arm, but this did not soften Kearny or rob him of his energy. His pinned-up uniform sleeve instead became an emblem of the Kearny myth.
  • His chivalric style: Though he inherited a million dollars at the age of 21, Kearny turned away from living out the rest of his life in luxury, instead embracing hardship by obtaining a commission to serve his country. Fear didn’t exist in Philip Kearny’s vocabulary, and I always felt he was better suited fighting as one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table or during the Crusades. While charging the enemy, he clamped down on the leather bridle of his horse with his teeth, also wielding a massive saber and a revolver in each hand (until he lost his left arm, only then carrying the saber with his right hand).
  • His aggressive and bold leadership: Few senior generals in the Army of the Potomac exhibited the aggressive fighting style he exhibited early in the war, most notably during the Peninsula Campaign when others were plagued by indecision, incompetence, and lost opportunities. I have always wondered how he would have influenced the outcome of the later campaigns of the Army of the Potomac from 1863-65, and how his skills would have been channeled by Burnside, Hooker, Meade or Grant.
  • His heroism on foreign battlefields: He was awarded the Legion of Honor on two separate occasions (declined on the first occasion), while serving with the French in North Africa and against the Austrians at the Battle of Solferino.
  • His death on the battlefield: I am interested in generals who paid the ultimate price for their service in the war (the more obscure, the better). Kearny was shot and killed on September 1, 1862, when he attempted to escape back to friendly lines after stumbling into a Confederate picket line.
  • The respect he received from both Blue and Gray: As General Ambrose P. Hill watched as Kearny’s lifeless body was being carried from the field, he soberly uttered, “Poor Kearny! He deserved a better death than that.” Robert E. Lee, as a show of respect, ordered Kearny’s body to be taken back to Union lines under a flag of truce. General Winfield Scott went so far as to state that his loss was “a national calamity.”

I am convinced that Kearny would have been a godsend to the Army of the Potomac had he lived past 1862. I sometimes even like to speculate that Lincoln could have found his fighting general as early as 1862 if he had given Kearny a chance to command the Army of the Potomac (assuming his promotion above the heads of his fellow ranking officers wouldn’t have generated too much controversy). It is possible that Kearny could have easily turned out to have been another Ney, Benedek, or even Hood – promoted way above his ability. Then again, Philip Kearny could have defied his critics and proved them all wrong.

As much as I admire and am inspired by Kearny, I am not too sure if I would have necessarily liked him on a personal level. He was not without his flaws, and at times could be a braggart and a cantankerous subordinate. (I think I would get along best with Grant). But I would take my chances if I could travel back in time to meet the man I still revere the most among all of the American Civil War generals.

9 Responses to My Favorite Historical Person: General Philip Kearny

  1. Kearny’s chance would have come with Hooker’s elevation to CG of the Potomac Army. The two were close comrades in the III Corps, both hyper-critical of McClellan. I can see him elevated to III Corps or XI Corps command by Hooker, but am not certain that he would have lasted long under General Meade and Chief of Staff Humphreys, both old McClellan men and no friends of Hooker’s old comrades.

  2. Would Kearny have even wanted to be promoted within the Army of the Potomac, a vipers nest of back-biting and jealousies? Only the Army of Tennessee had more fissures than the Army of the Potomac.

  3. This is a nicely-done article. As a guy who admires Kearney, however, I have never seen him as somebody who would have excelled above division command, and especially at the level of commanding an army. I think he lacked the requisite “political” instincts (in the sense of working with and tolerating diverse subordinates) which even them was an important attribute.

  4. Love Kearny too! Your right he would have been one of Lincoln’s generals to lead the Ao P. Though his death was foolish and embarrassing he is remembered fondly with a beautiful equestrian statue at Arlington.

  5. I don’t have a great depth of knowledge about Kearny, but I’ll always remember his reaction to McClellan’s order to his army to withdraw from Malvern Hill after its decisive Seven Days Battles victory over the Army of Northern Virginia there on July 1, 1862: “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.”

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!