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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5 Responses to About Phil Kearny on the Anniversary of His Death

  1. Kevin Milas says:

    A few days earlier Sigel’s attack on Jackson in the railway cut failed. Of the many reasons for the failure, which for a time seemed on the verge of a stunning success, was Kearney’s failure to support Schurz. Some speculate that Kearney’s nativism may have been the cause. Others attribute unclear orders. I wonder, since Kearney had served with French forces, if a Francophile attitude may have led him to avoid cooperating with “Germans.” Any further illumination of Kearney’s decision making process was lost with Kearney’s death.

  2. Dan Hurley says:

    John Hennessy’s book “Return to Manassas” I believe the opinion was a personal dislike of Sigel leaving him unsupported.

  3. Stefani Dicembrino says:

    We were just at Ox Hill Battlefield. My sons college is right there . He started us out in a quick tour so he showed me the plaque for The Battle of Chantilly. It’s smack center of a parking lot at a shopping mall near the Ox Hill Battlefield. Unfortunately we found it with graffiti and all . Not surprising with the current state of the nation but it a
    Still always hurts us . Ox Hill is a nice park in the middle of a busy shopping street . It’s got a tremendous amount of interpreted signs and information and if course the General’s stones Side by side . Thanks for the continued support and education from ECW …

  4. Henry Fleming says:

    Great profile and so interesting to know what the man in the street thought. August/Sept of 1862 was a meat grinder. General Jesse Reno who fought at Chantilly was dead at South Mountain shortly thereafter. Kearny was so “FOLLOW ME!!”, the numbers just caught up with Kearny and if not Chantilly then imo Antietam would have had his upside down cannon barrel.
    I wonder – after Heintzlemen, had Kearny lived through the day, if he would have gotten command of III Corps instead of Fighting Joe.

    • Ed Wenzel says:

      Hi Chris,
      This rumor of Kearny being shot in the anus was reported as fact in newspapers immediately after his death. The rumor is not true and the sensation caused the embalmers at Drs. Brown and Alexander in Washington D.C. to issue a statement on the cause of Kearny’s death. In part, the statement says:

      “Major General Kearny met his death by reception of a Minie rifle ball of large caliber which entered through the glutenous muscles at a point a little back of the articulation of the left hip joint. The ball, impinging on the bones of the pelvis, penetrated the os-innominata, whence it directed its course through the abdominal viscera, to the integument just above the umbilicus, sliding up between the skin and the sternum where it lodged, forming a distinct and discolored tumor just above the center of the breast…..”

      (Signed)
      Drs. Brown and Alexander, Embalmers of the Dead.

      [The establishment was at the corner of 12th and Pennsylvania Ave. NW in Washington.]

      See text of embalmer’s report in Styple, William B., The Civil War Letters of General Philip Kearny, p 181.

      Thanks,
      Ed

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