Monday, September 2, 2019

Book News: Major General Philip Kearny

Way back when during my earliest Civil War reading, General Philip Kearny stood out to me as a brash and promising figure whose outward aggressiveness contrasted starkly with the inertia-bound eastern theater Union high command depicted in the popular literature. Though a well-known officer almost always positively portrayed as the 'anti-McClellan,' modern biographical coverage remains pretty scant. Dying early in the war in 1862 didn't help his case when it came to attracting chroniclers of his military career, but as far as I can tell there are still only two major studies, neither of which is recent. From what I gather (I haven't seen or read either one), Irving Werstein's Centennial-era Kearny the Magnificent: The Story of General Philip Kearny, 1815-1862 is not a scholarly biography and Kearny cousin John Watts De Peyster's much earlier Personal and Military History of Philip Kearny, Major-General United States Volunteers (1869) is highly hagiographical in nature. Also keeping it in the family is a 1937 joint biography the content of which I am also unfamiliar with, grandson Thomas Kearny's General Philip Kearny, Battle Soldier of Five Wars, Including the Conquest of the West by General Stephen Watts Kearny.

I would say we are due for an updated treatment of Kearny's life and Civil War career, and perhaps Robert Laven's upcoming book Major General Philip Kearny: A Soldier and His Time in the American Civil War (Spring '20) will suit our purposes.

From the description: "A talented field commander, Union General Philip Kearny began his career as a lieutenant with the 1st U.S. Dragoons. He studied cavalry tactics in France and fought with the Chasseurs d'Afrique in Algeria, where his fearlessness earned him the nickname "Kearny le Magnifique." Returning to America, he wrote a cavalry manual for the U.S. Army and later raised a troop of dragoons--using his own money to buy 120 matching dapple-gray mounts for his men--and led them during the Mexican War, where he lost an arm.

One of the most experienced officers at the outbreak of the Civil War, he commanded a division in the Army of the Potomac, famously leading a charge at the Battle of Williamsburg, saber in hand and reins in his teeth. He disliked and sometimes disobeyed General George McClellan, once protesting an order to retreat as "prompted by cowardice or treason." Kearny was on the verge of higher command when he was killed in action in the Battle of Chantilly in 1862.

Expanding on that last sentence above, multiple authors have maintained that Kearny was destined for greater things, with one or two even predicting that he would have eventually led the Army of the Potomac. I don't know about that. He always struck me as someone who didn't play well with others, and I could imagine him just as likely getting himself involved in career-damaging kerfuffles with corps and army superiors if he'd lived. Regardless, I am looking forward to seeing the book.


  1. Drew: Do you know anything about the author and hos credentials? Kearney is definitely in need of a solid, modern biography. I've always been skeptical of the notion that he would have succeeded at a level above division command. You cite some of the reasons. He also clearly was a "lead from the front" guy and showed no affinity for organization, logistics, etc. in short he may have been a US version of A.P. Hill or Hood.

    1. No more than his author bio, which says he's a defense analyst and former military officer. I haven't read his recent book "A Burned Land: The Trans-Mississippi in the Civil War" or his earlier 7th Wisc. regimental history.

  2. I have read and own the book "Kearny the Magnificent: The Story of General Philip Kearny, 1815-1862" and enjoyed it for what it was.
    It was a short biography about Kearny. His was a well-known influential family so I expect his family papers would be intact but this biography was short for his Civil War years as Kearny was killed in his first major engagement.
    I don't recall much from the book except that General Jackson sent his body across enemy lines under a white flag because of his respect for his service in Mexico, where Kearny lost an arm.


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