About Phil Kearny on the Anniversary of His Death

Today is the anniversary of the death of Maj. Gen. Phil Kearny, killed at Chantilly in the wake of Second Bull Run. Not too long ago, I came across a fantastic character sketch of Kearny by John Haley, a private in the 17th Maine. Haley had a wicked sense of humor and could turn a delightful phrase, and his memoir, The Rebel Yell and the Yankee Hurrah (Downeast Books, 1985), is one of the best soldier memoirs published.

Take a look at Haley’s description of Kearny and his retelling of Kearny’s ignoble end (there’s a good description of David Bell Birney in here for good measure, too):

Kearny’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery

Written October 7, 1862:

Phil Kearney, a name synonymous with daredeviltry and recklessness beyond equal. He was absolutely fearless and “longed for the fray.” Of Kearney, it could be said, “He feared not God, nor regarded the person of men.” Profanity was his vital breath; coarseness was his native air. He had wealth, but if he possessed culture nobody ever suspected it. A person who tried to be decent in his presence was almost certain to be overwhelmed by a torrent of billingsgate. He recognized all men as having the right to stand erect, and one must never approach him as a cringing suppliant.

It might be interesting to follow the life of such a character but we cannot for he didn’t live long. He was killed at Chantilly while reconnoitering the enemy’s picket line. Unknowingly, he had penetrated the enemy line and was ordered to surrender. He replied with a curse, put the spurs to his horse, threw himself forward on the neck of his mount, and galloped off. The Rebel fired and Kearney fell to the ground, dead, remaining in their lines until morning, when he was identified and sent into his own line under a flag of truce. How he came to his end was a mystery, as no blood, bruise, or even contusion could be found. The surgeon was about to relinquish his search when he discovered the slightest protuberance just below the ribs. An incision was made and the bullet found. It had entered the body rearward, without so much as breaking the skin, something for which medical history furnishes no parallel.

Kearney was succeeded by General Richardson, who was killed at Antietam, and General Birney raised to the command, If there was a painful lack of dignity in his predecessors, it is fully met in General Birney, for a more dignified individual never mounted a charger. He reminds me of a graven image and could act as a bust for his own tomb, being utter destitute of color. As for his countenance, it is as expressionless as Dutch cheese.

For the sake of clarity (for anyone who doesn’t know the story), when Haley wrote that the bullet that kill Kearny “entered the body rearward,” the bullet reportedly went up Kearny’s anus because he’d been bent over his horse so low in an attempt to reduce his profile as a target. Kearny was literally shot in the ass. As the story goes, doctors initially couldn’t find the wound that killed him.

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