American Civil War: Major General Philip Kearny

Philip Kearny
Major General Philip Kearny at Chantilly.

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Major General Philip Kearny, Jr. was a renowned soldier who saw service with US and French Armies. A native of New Jersey, he distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War where he lost his left arm and later served in Emperor Napoleon III's forces during the Second War of Italian Independence. Returning to the United States after the outbreak of the Civil War, Kearny quickly gained a position of prominence in the Army of the Potomac. A tenacious fighter who relentlessly trained his men, he earned the nickname "One-Armed Devil" from the Confederates. Kearny's career ended on September 1, 1862, when his was killed leading his men at the Battle of Chantilly.

Early Life

Born June 2, 1815, Philip Kearny, Jr. was the son of Philip Kearny, Sr. and Susan Watts. Leading one of New York City's richest families, the Harvard-educated Kearny, Sr. had made his fortune as a financier. The family's situation was bolstered by the immense wealth of Susan Watts' father, John Watts, who had served as New York City's last Royal Recorder in the years before the American Revolution.

Raised on the family's estates in New York and New Jersey, the younger Kearny lost his mother when he was seven. Known as a stubborn and temperamental child, he showed a gift for horsemanship and was an expert rider by age eight. As patriarch of the family, Kearny's grandfather soon took responsibility for his upbringing. Increasingly impressed with his uncle's, Stephen W. Kearny, military career, the young Kearny expressed a desire to enter the military.

Into the Army

These ambitions were blocked by his grandfather who desired that he pursue a career in law. As a result, Kearny was compelled to attend Columbia College. Graduating in 1833, he embarked on a tour of Europe with his cousin John Watts De Peyser. Arriving back in New York, he joined the law firm of Peter Augustus Jay. In 1836, Watts died and left the bulk of his fortune to his grandson.

Freed from his grandfather's constraints, Kearny sought assistance from his uncle and Major General Winfield Scott in obtaining a commission in the US Army. This proved successful and his received a lieutenant's commission in his uncle's regiment, the 1st US Dragoons. Reporting to Fort Leavenworth, Kearny aided in protecting pioneers on the frontier and later served as an aide-de-camp to Brigadier General Henry Atkinson.

Kearny le Magnifique

In 1839, Kearny accepted an assignment to France to study cavalry tactics at Saumur. Joining the Duke of Orleans' expeditionary force to Algiers, he rode with the Chasseurs d'Afrique. Taking part in several actions during the campaign, he rode into battle in the style of the Chasseurs with a pistol in one hand, a saber in the other, and the reins of his horse in his teeth.

Impressing his French comrades, he earned the nickname Kearny le Magnifique. Returning to the United States in 1840, Kearny found that his father was terminally ill. Following his death later that year, Kearny's personal fortune again expanded. After publishing Applied Cavalry Tactics Illustrated in the French Campaign, he became a staff officer in Washington, DC and served under several influential officers, including Scott.


In 1841, Kearny married Diana Bullitt whom he had met earlier while serving in Missouri. Increasingly unhappy as a staff officer, his temper began to return and his superiors reassigned him to the frontier. Leaving Diana in Washington, he returned to Fort Leavenworth in 1844. The next two years saw him become increasingly bored with army life and in 1846 he decided to leave the service. Putting in his resignation, Kearny quickly withdrew it with the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in May.

Mexican-American War

Kearny was soon directed to raise a company of cavalry for the 1st Dragoons and was promoted to captain in December. Based at Terre Haute, IN, he quickly filled the ranks of his unit and used his personal fortune to purchase it matching dapple gray horses. Initially sent to the Rio Grande, Kearny's company was later directed to join Scott during the campaign against Veracruz.

Attached to Scott's headquarters, Kearny's men served as the general's bodyguard. Unhappy with this assignment, Kearny prophetically lamented, "Honors are not won at headquarters...I would give my arm for a brevet (promotion)." As the army advanced inland and won key victories at Cerro Gordo and Contreras, Kearny saw little action. Finally on August 20, 1847, Kearny received orders to take his command to join Brigadier General William Harney's cavalry during the Battle of Churubusco. Attacking with his company, Kearny charged forward. In the course of the fighting, he received a severe wound to his left arm which required its amputation. For his gallant efforts, he was given a brevet promotion to major.


Returning to New York after the war, Kearny was treated as a hero. Taking over the US Army recruiting efforts in the city, his relationship with Diana, which had long been strained, ended when she left him in 1849. Having adjusted to life with one arm, Kearny began to complain that his efforts in Mexico had never been fully rewarded and that he was being ignored by the service due to his disability. In 1851, Kearny received orders for California. Arriving on the West Coast, he took part in the 1851 campaign against the Rogue River tribe in Oregon. Though this was successful, Kearny's constant complaining about his superiors along with the US Army's slow promotion system led to him resigning that October.

Back to France

Leaving on an around-the-world trip, which took him to China and Ceylon, Kearny finally settled in Paris. While there, he met and fell in love with New Yorker Agnes Maxwell. The two openly lived together in the city while Diana became increasingly embarrassed back in New York. Returning to the United States, Kearny sought a formal divorce from his estranged wife.

This was refused in 1854 and Kearny and Agnes took up residence at his estate, Bellegrove, in New Jersey. In 1858, Diana finally relented which opened the way for Kearny and Agnes to marry. The following year, bored with country life, Kearny returned to France and entered the service of Napoleon III. Serving in the cavalry, he took part in the Battles of Magenta and Solferino. For his efforts, he became the first American to be awarded the Légion d'honneur.

The Civil War Begins

Remaining in France into 1861, Kearny returned to the United States following the outbreak of the Civil War. Arriving in Washington, Kearny's initial attempts to join the Union service were rebuffed as many remembered his difficult nature and the scandal surrounding his second marriage. Returning to Bellegrove, he was offered command of the New Jersey Brigade by state officials in July.

Commissioned a brigadier general, Kearny joined his men who were encamped outside Alexandria, VA. Stunned by the unit's lack of preparation for battle, he quickly commenced a rigorous training regime as well as used some of his own money to ensure that they were well-equipped and fed. Part of the Army of the Potomac, Kearny became frustrated by a lack of movement on the part of its commander, Major General George B. McClellan. This culminated in Kearny publishing a series of letters which severely criticized the commander.

Into Battle

Though his actions greatly angered the army leadership, they endeared Kearny to his men. Finally in early 1862, the army began moving south as part of the Peninsula Campaign. On April 30, Kearny was promoted to command the 3rd Division of Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman's III Corps. During the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5, he distinguished himself when he personally led his men forward.

Riding ahead with a sword in his hand and his reins in his teeth, Kearny rallied his men yelling, "Don't worry, men, they'll all be firing at me!" Ably leading his division throughout the doomed campaign, Kearny began to earn the respect of both the men in the ranks and the leadership in Washington. Following the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1, which ended the campaign, Kearny formally protested McClellan's orders to continue withdrawing and advocated for a strike on Richmond.

One-Armed Devil

Feared by the Confederates, who referred to him as the "One-Armed Devil", Kearny was promoted to major general later in July. That summer Kearny also directed that his men wear a patch of red cloth on their caps so that they could rapidly identify each other on the battlefield. This soon evolved into an army-wide system of insignias. With President Abraham Lincoln tiring of McClellan's cautious nature, the aggressive Kearny's name began to surface as a potential replacement.

Leading his division north, Kearny joined in the campaign that would culminate with the Second Battle of Manassas. With the beginning of the engagement, Kearny's men occupied a position on the Union right on August 29. Enduring heavy fighting, his division almost broke through the Confederate line. The next day, the Union position collapsed following a massive flank attack by Major General James Longstreet. As Union forces began fleeing the field, Kearny's division was one of the few formations to stay composed and helped cover the retreat.


On September 1, Union forces became engaged with elements of Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's command at the Battle of Chantilly. Learning of the fighting, Kearny marched his division to the scene to reinforce Union forces. Arriving, he immediately began preparing to assault the Confederates. As his men advanced, Kearny rode forward to investigate a gap in the Union line despite his aide urging caution. In response to this warning he allegedly replied, "The Rebel bullet that can kill me has not yet been molded."

Encountering Confederate troops, he ignored their demand to surrender and attempted to ride away. The Confederates promptly opened fire and one bullet pierced the base of his spine and instantly killed him. Arriving on the scene, Confederate Major General A.P. Hill exclaimed, "You've killed Phil Kearny, he deserved a better fate than to die in the mud."

The next day, Kearny's body was returned under a flag of truce to the Union lines accompanied by a letter of condolence from General Robert E. Lee. Embalmed in Washington, Kearny's remains were taken to Bellegrove where they laid in state before being interred in the family crypt at Trinity Church in New York City. In 1912, following a drive led by New Jersey Brigade veteran and Medal of Honor winner Charles F. Hopkins, Kearny's remains were moved to Arlington National Cemetery.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Philip Kearny." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, February 16). American Civil War: Major General Philip Kearny. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Philip Kearny." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).