Philip Kearny (pronounced CAR-nee) was born on June 2, 1815, in New York, New York. He was the son of Philip Kearny, Sr., and Susan Watts Kearny. Kearny’s father, a wealthy financier, was a founder of the New York Stock Exchange, and his maternal grandfather, John Watts, was one of the wealthiest men in America. Kearny’s life took a tragic turn in 1823 when his mother died just before he reached the age of eight years. Following his mother’s death, Kearny’s grandfather played a prominent role in the boy’s upbringing.
At an early age, Kearny developed an interest in pursuing a military career, but his father and grandfather stymied the lad’s ambitions to attend the United States Military Academy. Instead, they sent Kearny to Columbia College, where he graduated with a law degree in 1833. The young barrister worked briefly in a New York law office, but he showed no passion for the profession.
U.S. Army Officer
Kearny’s life dramatically changed in 1836 when his grandfather died, leaving Kearny an inheritance that made him an instant millionaire. Kearny’s newly found financial independence enabled the unhappy young man to pursue his dreams of a military career. A year later, Kearny enlisted the help of his uncle, Colonel Stephen W. Kearny, to secure a commission as a second lieutenant in the United States Army. Young Kearny received an appointment with his uncle’s 1st U.S. Dragoons, stationed at Leavenworth, Kansas.
Kearny the Magnificent
In 1839, Colonel Kearny interceded on his nephew’s behalf again, when the young lieutenant received an assignment to study cavalry tactics at the French Cavalry School. While stationed in France, Kearny received permission to take part in combat with the French army in Algiers. His bravery and skilled horsemanship prompted members of the French Army to nickname him “Kearny the Magnificent.” Kearny’s performance was so remarkable that the French government offered to bestow the French Legion of Honor upon him, but he could not accept the award because he was an officer of the United States Army. During his assignment in France, Kearny developed an everlasting affinity for Paris.
Shortly after his return to the United States in 1840, Kearny’s father died, leaving the young officer a second fortune. Following a brief leave of absence to mourn his father’s death, the army stationed Kearny at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he published an account of his lessons in France and Algeria, titled Applied Cavalry Tactics Illustrated in the French Campaign.
In 1841, officials assigned Kearny to General Winfield Scott’s staff in Washington, D.C. While stationed there, he renewed his romance with Diana Bullitt, which had first blossomed while he served in the West. On June 24, 1841, the couple married. The marriage produced five children but ended in divorce because Kearny’s desire for a life of military adventure proved incompatible with his wife’s social aspirations.
Kearny’s wife relished her role as a prominent hostess in the nation’s capital. Kearny, however, found his staff assignment in Washington dull and unfulfilling. In 1844, he jumped at the opportunity to return to field duty in the West. When he departed for Fort Leavenworth, Mrs. Kearny remained behind.
Service in the West
To Kearny’s dismay, garrison duty in the West provided little more action than his staff assignment in Washington. Boredom with army life and the long separation from his family convinced Kearny to resign his commission on April 6, 1846. His wife’s elation quickly turned to disappointment when Kearny withdrew his resignation three weeks later after war erupted with Mexico.
The Mexican-American War provided Kearny with his long-awaited opportunity to achieve fame and glory on the battlefield. He promptly recruited a cavalry unit, but it dismayed him to learn that he and his men would serve as General-in-Chief Winfield Scott’s personal bodyguard instead of engaging the enemy. Despite being promoted to captain in December 1846, Kearny remained unhappy. In a spell of despair, he reportedly said that “I would give my arm for a brevet.”
On August 20, 1847, Kearny affirmed his assertion at the Battle of Churubusco. Leading a hell-bent-for-leather cavalry charge against Mexican forces, grapeshot severely wounded Kearny’s left arm, requiring amputation. Kearny later received a brevet promotion to major for his bravery.
Resignation from the Army
After the war, Kearny received a hero’s welcome after returning to New York, where he served as a recruiting officer for several years. While living there, his marriage deteriorated and his wife left him in 1849. Two years later, Kearny was in Oregon campaigning against the Rogue River tribe. Once again finding army life unfulfilling, Kearny resigned his commission in October 1851, and he left the United States for a tour of the world.
Divorce and Remarriage
Kearny’s travels eventually led him back to Paris, where he met and fell in love with Agnes Maxwell, another American from New York. For the next few years, the couple lived together in France. Highly embarrassed by her husband’s affair, Diana Kearny refused to agree to her husband’s request for a divorce. Undaunted, Kearny returned to the United States and built a mansion in New Jersey, where he and Agnes lived in open defiance of the mores of the time. In 1858, Mrs. Kearny finally consented to a divorce. Kearny and Agnes married in April of that same year. Their marriage produced three children.
Legion of Honor Percipient
Seeing an opportunity for more adventure, Kearny returned to France in 1859 and volunteered to fight against Austria during the brief Franco-Austrian War. In recognition of Kearny’s bravery, Emperor Napoleon III bestowed the Legion of Honor upon him, making Kearny the first American to receive that award.
Kearny remained in France until the American Civil War erupted in 1861. Upon learning about the outbreak of hostilities, he rushed home and offered his services to the Union. Despite Kearny’s extensive military experience, federal officials ignored his overtures. Perhaps Kearny’s unpredictable personality or his scandalous relationship with Agnes Maxwell tempered their enthusiasm for allowing Kearny to re-join the army.
Snubbed by regular army officials, Kearny secured a commission as a brigadier general in the volunteer army commanding the 1st New Jersey Brigade. Upon assuming command, Kearny immersed himself into the rigorous task of transforming raw recruits into a formidable fighting force. Kearny used funds from his private fortune to ensure that his soldiers were well-equipped and adequately fed and clothed.
Authorities assigned the 1st New Jersey Brigade to the 1st Division, 3rd Corps, of the Army of the Potomac, commanded by Major General George B. McClellan. Kearny found McClellan’s leadership to be far too cautious for his liking. Frustrated by McClellan’s failure to attack the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia, Kearny drafted a series of published letters criticizing his commander for dawdling.
The One-armed Devil
Despite Kearny earning the enmity of McClellan and other army officials, military authorities promoted him to command the third division of General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s 3rd Corps on May 1, 1862, after McClellan launched his Peninsula Campaign. A few days later, Kearny distinguished himself by leading a charge during the Battle of Williamsburg (May 5, 1862). Kearny’s daring on the battlefield prompted Rebel soldiers to call him “the one-armed devil.”
Kearny’s exploits were also gaining recognition from federal leaders. Following another outstanding performance at the Battle of Malvern Hill (July 1, 1862), the War Department promoted Kearny to the rank of major general on July 4. Kearny was also rumored to be a leading candidate to replace McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac after the latter’s Peninsula Campaign began to unravel in the face of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s aggressiveness.
During the Peninsula Campaign, Kearny ordered his officers to wear a piece of red cloth on the front of their caps to identify them as members of his division. Kearny’s rank-and-file soldiers quickly adopted the practice and began wearing “Kearny Patches” as a demonstration of pride in their commander and their division. Members of other units soon mimicked the procedure, which eventually evolved into the modern-day tradition of soldiers wearing divisional identification patches on the shoulders of their uniforms.
Second Battle of Bull Run
As McClellan retreated down the Virginia Peninsula, Lee turned his attention to Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia near Manassas, Virginia. To counter Lee’s Northern Virginia Campaign, federal officials began shifting troops from McClellan’s army to Pope’s command. On August 15, 1862, Kearny’s division left McClellan’s headquarters at Harrison’s Landing to reinforce Pope’s army. Kearny arrived in time to lead his forces in an unsuccessful charge against Stonewall Jackson’s division at Groveton on August 29, during the Second Battle of Bull Run. On the next day, Pope ordered his defeated army to retreat to Centreville.
Death at the Battle of Chantilly
Pope’s retreat prompted Lee to send Jackson’s division around the Union right flank in an attempt to cut-off Pope’s escape to the defenses surrounding Washington. On September 1, Jackson’s soldiers engaged Brigadier-General Isaac I. Stevens’ division of Pope’s 9th Corps near Chantilly Plantation. Outnumbered, Stevens requested reinforcements, and Kearny’s division came to his aid.
During a raging thunderstorm, Kearny rode out ahead of his men to investigate a gap in the Union lines. Inadvertently, he rode into the midst of a group of Confederate soldiers who ordered him to halt. Kearny swung his horse around instead and attempted to escape. As Kearny rode off, a minnie-ball fired by one of the Rebels entered his back, killing him almost instantly. On the next day, General Lee had Kearny’s body returned to Union lines to receive a proper burial.
Kearny’s body was taken to his mansion in New Jersey, where it lay in state before burial in the family crypt at Trinity Churchyard in New York. In 1912, Kearny’s remains were exhumed and re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1912, New Jersey Brigade veteran and Medal of Honor winner Charles F. Hopkins started a movement that led to Kearny’s remains being reburied beneath an equestrian statue of the general in Arlington National Cemetery.