Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Gen. Phil Kearny (June 1, 1815-Sept. 1, 1862)
Kearny, Philip, and William B. Styple (ed.). Letters from the Peninsula: The Civil War Letters of General Philip Kearny. Kearny, N.J.: Belle Grove Pub. Co., 1988.
Phil Kearny was an American soldier who entered the U.S. Army from civilian life as a 2d lieutenant of the 1st Dragoons in 1837. A lawyer by profession, he had inherited fabulous wealth but yearned for nothing more than a soldier’s life and had obtained his commission through the influence of his uncle, Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny. In 1839, he was posted as a student to the French cavalry school (Saumur) to study tactics. He subsequently served as an observer with the Chasseurs d’Afrique during the French conquest of Algeria (1840) and in the U.S.-Mexican War (in which he lost his left arm in a cavalry charge at Churubusco). Resigning his commission, he traveled to France and served as a staff officer in the French army during the War of France and Piedmont-Sardinia with Austria (1859), participating heroically in the battles of Magenta and Solferino, for which he was awarded the Legion of Honor.
With the outbreak of Civil War, Kearny returned to the United States and his native state, New Jersey. His initial command was the 1st New Jersey Brigade, which he trained to a high level but never led in battle. During the Peninsula campaign, he commanded the 3d Division, III Army Corps (Heintzelman) and participated in the battles of Williamsburg (May 4-5, 1862), Seven Pines (May 31-June 1), and several of the Seven Days’ battles (June 25-July 1). He had the utmost contempt for army commander General McClellan and several of his compeers and was outspoken in his views. Nonetheless, he was promoted brigadier general, U.S.V. (May 17, 1862) and major general, U.S.V. (July 4). He led his division at Second Manassas (August 29-30) and at Chantilly (Sept. 1), where he was KIA when he rode into the Confederate ranks during a tremendous thunderstorm and refused a summons to surrender. He was mourned by many high-ranking officers of both armies, including Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Kearny’s life and character are much-illumined by the book shown at the head of this sketch. The late (and much-missed) Brian C. Pohanka wrote the foreword, which in measured and sympathetic terms perfectly captures the essence and allure of Kearny’s dashing, volatile personality. Editor and compiler Styple’s Introduction provides a concise biography of Kearny, whose life was flamboyant and at times even Flashman-esque. The bulk of the book contains Kearny’s wartime letters to his wife, Agnes, and his friend and political ally, Cortlandt Parker. In terms of back matter, there is a brief but wholly adequate bibliography. Unfortunately, there is no index, which would have added much to the book’s value as a resource.
Below is a list of other books that might be consulted for information about Kearny and the 1st New Jersey Brigade, “Kearny’s Own.”
Baquet, Camille. History of the First Brigade, New Jersey Volunteers, From 1861 to 1865. Trenton, N.J.: MacCrellish & Quigley, state printers, 1910.
De Peyster, John Watts. Personal and Military History of Philip Kearny, Major General United States Volunteers. New York: Palmer, 1870.
Gottfried, Bradley M. Kearny's Own: The History of the First New Jersey Brigade in the Civil War. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005.
Kearny, Thomas. General Philip Kearny: Battle Soldier of Five Wars. New York: Putnam, 1937.
Werstein, Irving. Kearny the Magnificent: The Story of General Philip Kearny, 1815-1862. New York: The John Day Co., 1962.