Kearny gallantly leading his men from horseback in a charge on the Confederates.Philip Kearny is remembered as a gallant soldier and beloved countryman but few remember his restlessness and disregard for his superiors.
Born in 1815 in New York City, his father was one of the founders of the New York Stock Exchange and his mother’s father was John Watts, a very wealthy man in New York.  Philip lived the life of a wealthy child, knowing little of want until his confidant and mother died after a long illness before he was nine years old.  He got over her death eventually and quickly learned he had a way with horses.  He loved racing his horse over the hills of New York and no amount of punishment from his father could control young Philip Kearny.  His love of wild riding and his admiration of his officer uncle made him long for the soldier way of life but his grandfather and father would not hear of it.  The choice was to go to Columbia College with a generous yearly allowance to study law or be cut off from the family and the money he was used to.  Feeling he had no choice, Kearny finished college with honors, took a quick tour through Europe, and settled down as a clerk in a law office he would slowly rise the ranks in.  Before he had the chance for promotion, Kearny’s grandfather died, leaving him a huge inheritance.  No longer dependent on family for his allowance, the twenty-one year old finally got to join the army.  His first commission was under his admired uncle at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas in 1837.  Quick to reward his troops as well as an excellent horse rider, Kearny often used his wealth to provide anything the Army didn’t have the money to provide.  Although his men couldn’t understand why such a wealthy man wanted to join the Army, they didn’t complain as they benefited from his wealth.  It was while serving in Kansas that he met Diana Bullitt.  They courted and the society in the area believed a marriage was just a matter of time but Kearny had other plans.
Everyone was shocked when he took a position overseas in France.  Since France had the best cavalry in the world, the American government decided to send three officers to learn tactics from them.  Kearny was one of the three chosen and he arrived in time to join the Duke of Orleans in his trip to Algiers.  There he fought with the Chasseurs who fought with a sword in one hand, a pistol in the other, and their reins in their teeth.  Combined with his love of wild horse back riding in his youth, this style of riding to war quickly became his own style.  He was offered the French Legion of Honor but because he was an American officer, he was forced to decline the honor.  In 1840 he returned to the states to care for his ailing father.  It wasn’t long before the father died and Philip Kearny became one of the richest men in America with his inheritance.  Kearny tried to return to active duty but the Army sent him to Washington, DC as aid to General Scott.  He soon married Diana Bullit and she settled in as one of the richest wives in the Capitol while Kearny grew less satisfied with his desk job when he wanted to fight.  Eventually Kearny gave into her persistent nagging and resigned from the Army.
In 1846 the Mexican War broke out and Kearny hurried to join again, against his wife’s desires.  Eager to fight, he raised a cavalry troop, supplied most of the horses and gear himself, and was allowed to head to Mexico.  Near Mexico City Kearny led his men on a valiant charge.  Usually the first in the fight and the last of his men to leave it, he was shot in the arm and it had to be amputated.  As a result he was promoted to Major and sent home to New York to recover.  Officially the chief of recruitment in those parts, he worked hard to recover in order to fight again.  Soon after Diana had their fourth child, she packed up and took their children back with her to her native Kentucky, causing a scandal she no longer cared about.  Her husband was soon sent to California to quell Indian uprisings there.  He did so and thought he had earned more awards although he got more.  He became increasingly hostile to his superiors, openly questioning their orders and qualifications to make the decisions.  In 1841 he submitted his resignation and was upset that no one asked him to stay or questioned the resignation.  Looking for something to take his mind from battle, he decided to travel the world, alone.  At this point he thought little of his distant family although providing for them put very little strain on his bank account.
His tour ended in his beloved Paris where he met the betrothed Agnes Maxwell, the daughter of the customs collector in the port of New York City.  She was twenty; he was thirty-six and married.  They soon forgot their previous promises and moved in together in Paris.  It caused a stir in the states and in 1854 Kearny asked his wife for a divorce.  She refused and in 1855 Agnes and Philip returned to New York anyway.  They soon moved into his mansion in what is now Kearny, New Jersey and in 1858 Diana finally agreed to a divorce as long as the paperwork said he could never remarry while she lived.  Eager to get the paperwork signed, Kearny agreed, then set his lawyers to work finding away around the stipulation.  They decided that the stipulation was only legal in New York so the couple could be married legally in New Jersey.  They married but had to avoid New York for a time in fear of being arrested for bigamy.  For a time the couple and their children were happy traveling between their various residences overseas and in the states.  Eventually Kearny heard the call to battle again and joined the French in the Italian Wars.  This time he accepted the French Legion of Honor, the first American to receive it, and stayed in Paris until 1861 when war broke out in America.
Kearny hurried back to offer his services to the war.  Not surprisingly the Confederacy offered him a position but Kearny could not give up his American citizenship so he waited for the Union to put him to use.  However, the Union remembered his bitterness and the scandal he had caused by living with a woman while married to the sister-in-law of a beloved officer and then divorcing her to marry illegally and let him wait.  He tried to enlist as a common soldier but his missing arm put him out of the running so he went back to his mansion, Bellegrove disappointed.  In July 1861 New Jersey commissioned him as a Brigadier General in the militia and stationed him near Alexandria, Virginia.  He found the volunteers under him to lack any discipline and training.  Constant drilling changed that and although he was a tough taskmaster, he still used his wealth to provide for his men and he was quick to reward good work.  McClellan‘s slow planning of the Peninsula Campaign grated on Kearny until he published some letters openly criticizing the general.  The army leadership was outraged but his men loved him they too wanted battle and in March 1862 McClellan finally started the campaign.  After a few battles Kearny decided to do something about the confusion on the battle field.  With so many men from different regiments in battle, it was easy for a leader to give orders to those not under his command.  Kearny ordered his men to sew a diamond shaped piece of red flannel on their covers so he could easily locate them in battle.  The idea of a “corps-badge” quickly spread throughout the Army and is still used today to distinguish soldiers of different commands.
The Peninsula Campaign came to an end when McClellan retreated and Kearny again protested.  Although promoted to Major General, he didn’t get the position he believed he deserved and he despised the retreat.  His disappointment wouldn’t last long as the Battle of Chantilly was coming.  By nighttime on September 1862 the rain was falling heavily and Kearny decided to do some scouting for himself as he often did.  He rode into an ambush and was told to surrender himself.  Knowing he had gotten out of similar situations before, Philip Kearny refused and whirled his horse around.  However, his luck ran out when a rifle ball struck him in the spine and he fell from his horse, dead before he hit the ground.
The next day his body was returned to the Union under a flag of truce and the body was sent to Washington, DC for embalming, then to Bellegrove for the visitation, and then paraded through New Jersey before going by ferry back to New York to be buried in the family crypt in Trinity Church.  He would be reburied in Arlington in 1912 under a huge memorial.  In 1863 a medal was created which became known as the Kearny Cross for those that distinguished themselves in battle.
He died in battle for his nation, as he always wanted and his legend was written by the men who loved him, not the officers who had to deal with him.  The scandal of his divorce and remarriage has been forgotten in history as has his restlessness for war and disrespect of his superiors, but maybe it doesn’t matter.  Does the reality of a person’s personality matter when his legend continues to inspire courage and bravery under fire for soldiers today?  Does the imperfection of humanity have a place in the inspiration of future generations?

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