Major General Philip Kearny

Born on 1 June 1815 in New York City, Philip Kearny, also known as “The One Armed Devil,” and called “the bravest man I ever knew” by LTG Winfield Scott, lived a life that not only straddled continents, but also the line between genius and insanity. He lived in New Jersey for much of his childhood and was shaken by his mother’s death in 1822 when he was just seven years old. Military service ran in Kearny’s family. His uncle was LTC Stephen Watts Kearny, who earned fame for his service in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. Kearny’s father and grandfather, however, did all they could to steer the young boy away from his dream of an Army career and forbade him from entering West Point. Instead, Kearny enrolled in Columbia University to study law.

In 1836, Philip Kearny’s life changed forever. His grandfather passed away and left him an inheritance that made the 22 year old a millionaire. He announced his intentions to join the Army, and there was little anyone could do to dissuade him. With the help of his famous uncle, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant of Cavalry and reported to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to join the 1st Dragoons, his uncle’s regiment. After a few years, Kearny went on an assignment in France and ended up traveling to North Africa, where he saw action with the Chasseurs d’Afrique. Kearny was offered the French Legion of Honor, but since he was an officer of the United States, he was obliged to turn it down. He returned home in 1840.

Always ready for action, Kearny grew restless while posted in Washington, DC, and later at Fort Leavenworth. In 1846, however, war broke out with Mexico, and soon his life took a dramatic turn. On 20 August 1847, during the Battle of Churubusco, Kearny was badly wounded in the left arm. BG (and future president) Franklin Pierce held him down as a surgeon amputated his arm. For his valor, Kearny was promoted to major.

Even the loss of his left arm hardly slowed Kearny down as he rehabilitated himself by re-learning how to ride a horse by holding the reins with his teeth and his sword in his right hand. His military career, however, stalled. As a result, he left the Army and traveled the world.

Kearny returned to battle in 1859 in France’s campaign against Austria. He was once again offered the French Legion of Honor and accepted it this time, becoming the first American to do so. Kearny continued to live in Paris until the Civil War broke out in the United States in 1861. He immediately returned home to join the Union Army and was named brigadier general of the First New Jersey Brigade. Kearny quickly earned the respect and admiration of his troops as he ran them through the tough drills that earned him his nickname, “The One Armed Devil.” The brigade joined MG George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac and took part in the Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862. Kearny was soon promoted to major general and given command of a division in III Corps. He also developed what became known as the “Kearny patch” for his division, which became the forerunner of the corps badges used later in the war.

Kearny faced his last battle on 1 September 1862 at the Battle of Chantilly (Ox Hill) after the Union defeat at Second Bull Run. It was a rainy day, and Kearny’s famous temper was running on overdrive as he yelled at his troops and became more and more frustrated. As the sky darkened and visibility dropped, Kearny rode off into a cornfield ahead of his division to scout for enemy troops. At first, he heard nothing but silence. Then, listening carefully, Kearny heard some movement. He called out “What troops are here?” and received the fateful reply: “the 49th Georgia.” Kearny, realizing that he had run into Confederate lines calmly replied “All right.” It was too late. One of the officers spotted him and yelled “That’s a Yankee officer!” Kearny almost got away in the hazy night, and witnesses recall hearing him say, “They can’t hit a barn!” just before he was shot and killed by a single bullet.

Kearny’s body was transported under a flag of truce back to Union lines and he was laid to rest at Trinity Church in New York City. His body was later moved to Arlington National Cemetery in 1912.