THE ONE-ARMED DEVIL
GENERAL PHILIP KEARNY
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There is fine line between bravery and foolishness, one that Civil War hero General Philip Kearny consistently straddled during his career. His heroics have made him the stuff of legends, but he was flesh and blood, and subject to the same temptations, weaknesses and fears as the rest of us. His record on the field of battle was unblemished, but off the field was another story entirely. Here now is the true story of New Jersey's most famous fighter, General Philip Kearny.
Philip Kearny was born on June 1, 1815, at 3 Broadway on Manhattan Island. His parents were Philip Kearny, a well-to-do financier, and Susan Watts Kearny, the daughter of the immensely wealthy John Watts. Although born a New Yorker, Phil Kearny may well have been conceived in the state that he later became more closely associated, New Jersey. The suburban Kearny Homestead owned by his father and used on many weekends by the couple was located on another Broadway, this one in Newark.
Phil Kearny's early life was one befitting his family's status. Small in stature as a child, he was blessed with a strong intellect and maturity, although he could often be stubborn and showed flashes of the violent temper that would vex him throughout his life. At the young age of seven, he was touched by tragedy when his mother died after a lingering illness. He was devastated by this loss of his closest and dearest confidant, especially since his father was extremely aloof and reserved even with his son. It took time, but eventually Kearny overcame his grief and became his personable self again.
One of Kearny's early talents was horsemanship. Even at the early age of eight he could ride better than most adults. He delighted in racing his horse over the rocky and hilly terrain of his grandfather's estate in Upstate New York where he spent considerable time. His recklessness in the saddle caused his father much consternation and worry, but no amount of punishment could control him. Before long his neighbors in the area began referring to the young rider as, "A perfect horse killer."
Perhaps it was Kearny's success in the saddle, or perhaps he was influenced by his famous uncle, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny, but he gradually began to consider a career in the military. He wanted to prepare for the exam for entry to West Point Academy, but when his father and grandfather heard of his intentions, they flatly refused to consider them. They intended for Phil to study for a career in law and would not accept any other arrangement. Kearny, feeling that he had no other recourse, reluctantly accepted their decision, along with a yearly payment of $1500.00 intended to mollify him.
Kearny studied for the law, but never gave up his ambition to enter the military. He graduated in 1834, and after a whirlwind tour of Europe with his cousin John Watts De Peyser, he entered the law firm of Peter Augustus Jay in New York City.
Kearny le Magnifique
If Phil Kearny's father and grandfather hoped to extinguish his yearning for the military, they were unsuccessful. And on September 3, 1836, grandfather John Watts made a fatal error. He died at the age of 87. In his will he made the 22 year old Kearny a millionaire in his own right. He was now a legal adult with no financial worries and his father's control over his life was a thing of the past. So when junior Kearny announced he was joining the army, there was nothing the senior Kearny could do.
Kearny called on the assistance of his uncle, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny, as well as the even more prestigious General Winfield Scott, who he had met and impressed while in school. The newly commissioned second lieutenant reported to his uncle at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, on June 10, 1837, and served with the First Dragoons for the next two years protecting settlers and pioneers traveling west.
Kearny was a popular, if eccentric officer. He was, of course, a fine horseman, and was quick to praise and reward those under his command. His fellow soldiers could never understand why someone of his wealth and background would volunteer for the rigors of army life, but they enjoyed the benefits of serving with him, as he often used his tremendous wealth to ensure his unit was the best outfitted and supplied one in the United States Army. After a few years in the field he was assigned as an aide-de-camp to the military district commandant, Brigadier-General Henry Atkinson. Kearny may not have been too happy about his new assignment, but it did have one important benefit; the commandant's beautiful sister-in-law, Diana Bullitt.
There was an instant attraction between Diana and Phil, and soon the two were inseparable. The assumption by most was that a marriage would soon occur. Kearny, however, had other plans. To the shock of everyone (including Diana) he accepted an assignment overseas.
At that time France was considered to have the finest cavalry in the world. The United States government decided to send three young officers there to study cavalry tactics the French forces. Kearny was one of those chosen, perhaps due to the fact that his uncle Stephen made the selections. He arrived in France in 1839, just in time to join the Duke of Orleans Expeditionary Force to Algiers. At last Kearny had the chance he had been waiting for; the chance to actually go to war and fight. With the permission of the Secretary of War, Kearny traveled to North Africa where, of course, he performed brilliantly, earning the nickname 'Kearny le Magnifique.' He was offered the French Legion of Honor, but he was forced to decline the award because he was an officer of the United States Army. In 1840 he took what lessons and tactics he had learned home with him (along with many honors and gifts) to resume his military career.
I Would Give My Arm for a Brevet
Upon his arrival, Philip Kearny's return to the army was delayed but an unhappy task. His father was desperately ill and the younger Kearny stayed with him in New York until his passing. With the death of his father, he inherited a second fortune and was now one of the richest men in America. When he returned to active service, fresh from the excitement of Algiers, he requested a field assignment out west, but was instead sent to Washington D.C. Diana Bullitt must have forgiven him for his abrupt departure, for they resumed their romance and on June 24, 1841, they were married in a lavish ceremony.
As Diana settled more and more into Washington society, relishing her role as the national capital's leading hostess, Kearny became more and more despondent at his role. He described it as, "A highly placed flunky." Not even the birth of three children (the first of whom died at nine months of age) could improve his disposition. The violent temper of his youth reappeared and was directed not only at the army, but at his wife as well. Finally, his superiors tired of his temperament and behavior and in 1844 transferred his to his old outpost at Fort Leavenworth. As thrilled as Phil was with the new assignment, his wife was just as appalled. She had no intention of leaving the comfort of Washington for the rigors of frontier life, especially with two young children to care for. When he departed for the West, he left his family behind.
Kearny found the next two years as unfulfilling as the previous ones spent in Washington. He won no major battles or accolades and his dissatisfaction with the army grew. Not even the birth of his first son in 1845 could raise his spirits or heal the widening rift with Diana. Finally in 1846, he decided he had had enough with army life and decided to settle down in New York City. Diana was ecstatic and confided to a friend, "I have won back my husband." Her victory was short lived. When war broke out between the United States and Mexico Kearny withdrew his resignation. He was "gloriously overjoyed" to fight again in a real war. Diana was crushed by his decision. She wrote her sister, "I want for nothing except the love of father and husband." Phil was unmoved by her distress. "Wife, children, home ties, were merely leaden weights hobbling Kearny, the warrior," wrote Cortland Parker, his attorney.
To his utter despair Kearny once again found himself attached to headquarters, this time in Mexico under the command of General Winfield Scott. "Honors are not won at headquarters," he complained, adding, "I would give my arm for a brevet (promotion)." Just a few weeks later his wish would be granted.
It was at Churubusco that the legend of Philip Kearny began. On August 20, 1847, General Scott confronted the enemy at this heavily fortified village, a suburb of Mexico City. Kearny and his men were finally allowed to fight. Leading about 100 cavalrymen across a causeway he slammed into the retreating enemy at the very gates of the city. Although vastly outnumbered, Kearny and his men fought valiantly. He charged into the thick of the Mexican forces swinging his saber like a madman. A bugle sounded retreat and many of his men gave way, but Kearny and a few dozen continued the fight. Finally they were overwhelmed and Kearny raced back over the causeway on foot and quickly mounted a rider less horse. The enemy fired at the now retreating cavalry, and one bullet found its mark on Kearny. His left arm was badly wounded and later that day, as Brigadier General Franklin Pierce (later President) held him down, his arm was amputated. "I forsaw this," Kearny told him. Kearny received his brevet at a terrible cost, and was granted a battlefield promotion to Major.