- The Washington Times - Friday, May 13, 2005

To be liked and admired by both sides in an increasingly bitter struggle was a singular honor reserved for very few.

Robert E. Lee was loved by his own men and respected by Union troops, as much for his humanity as for his formidable fighting qualities. It says much for Phil Kearny, courageous and somewhat flamboyant, though never a dandy like J.E.B. Stuart, that he, too, commanded both affection and respect during his years as a soldier and after his tragic end toward the close of a battle.

Of Philip Kearny, born in 1815, the military historian John C. Ropes, writing after Chantilly, said: “He was a man who was made for the profession of arms.” That was not an opinion with which Kearny’s parents would have agreed. They were utterly opposed to his military aspirations, and their son became a lawyer, a career for which he must have been quite unsuited.

His family members were wealthy New Yorkers, and his grandfather especially so. The death of the latter made the young man a millionaire. Free now to take whatever path he chose, he naturally joined the Army (in 1838) and was soon wearing the uniform of a lieutenant of dragoons.

He was sent to France, where he enrolled at the prestigious Cavalry School at Saumur, now an armored vehicle training college. There he studied for some months.

He was presumably permitted to remain in France, for instead of returning home afterward, Kearny offered his services to that country, serving with the Chasseurs d’Afrique in Algeria and awarded the Legion d’Honneur.

Back in the States, he became a staff officer with Gen. Winfield Scott (who had a high regard for him) and, with the rank of captain, fought in the Mexican War, losing his left arm at Churubusco.

Europe called to him, however, and in 1851 he resigned his commission. He saw service in the Crimea and then with the army of Napoleon III in his Italian campaign, distinguishing himself at Magenta and Solferino. When the Civil War began, Phil Kearny was needed at home.

As a division commander in the Army of the Potomac, he acquitted himself well, but expressed his disapproval of George McClellan in heated language after Malvern Hill, because his supreme commander, with his habitual caution, would not press on to Richmond.

Kearny had led his men at Williamsburg and Seven Pines, taking steps to ensure instant recognition of them by designing the Kearny Patch, diamond-shaped and bright scarlet, for them to wear. He himself sported a kepi and kept his beard trimmed to a point. Very French. He had his cavalry mounted on dapple-gray steeds.

The Peninsula Campaign was a disaster, being recognized as such by “Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker and Kearny. Hearing it described as a success, Kearny voiced his contrary opinion to assembled newsmen at the headquarters of Brig. Gen. James Wadsworth, who was fated to die of a head wound in a Confederate field hospital during the Battle of the Wilderness.

The Battle of Second Manassas was another disaster for the Union forces, led by John Pope, who, having failed to make good his boasting, blamed everyone but himself. It was then that fate intervened for Kearny.

During a rear-guard action at Chantilly, he inadvertently entered enemy lines, became suddenly aware of the danger he was in, and beat a hasty retreat. Too late. A volley from the 55th Virginia killed this brilliant soldier on Sept. 1, 1862.

The Confederates showed their respect for a gallant adversary. Their divisional commander, Ambrose Powell Hill, himself a gifted soldier, expressed his regret at the manner of Kearny’s passing.

He did more than that. Under a flag of truce, Kearny’s body was handed over to Union troops. Later, Robert E. Lee arranged for Kearny’s widow to receive his horse and equipment.

In addition to his military achievements, Phil Kearny’s contribution to the war was recognized by the creation of the Kearny Medal and the Kearny Cross, awarded to officers and men who had served with distinction under his command. He was also honored by a poem, probably written not long after his death.

Kearny had led a charge of the 3rd Michigan at the Battle of Fair Oaks (also known as Seven Pines) in June 1862, supported by the 5th Michigan and 37th New York.

This charge, in conditions of great danger from opposing fire, was celebrated by “Kearny at Seven Pines,” the work of Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833-1908) in which occur the lines: “How he strode his brown steed! How we saw his blade brighten / In the one hand still left — and the reins in his teeth.”

It is not a very good poem — not many inspired by the Civil War were of great merit — but the admiration expressed therein was genuine enough and a fitting tribute to the memory of a man who had served his country well at a time when its need was acute.

Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.

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