Tracing Kearny statue’s history …

The statue of Philip Kearny out in front of the Midland Ave. Post Office.

By Ron Leir

With statues of U.S. historical figures representative of the Civil War prominently in the news these days, this might be an appropriate time to focus on one such monument close to home.

Standing in front of the Kearny Post office is a statue of Brig. Gen. Philip Kearny, who lost his left arm fighting in the Mexican War and, while leading the N.J. Brigade, was killed by Confederate soldiers during the Battle of Chantilly, Va., on Sept. 1, 1862.

The man Confederate soldiers liked to call “the One-Armed Devil” had occupied, with his wife, a mansion known as Belle Grove in an area that was then still part of Harrison.

It wasn’t until 1867 – five years after Kearny’s death – that a big chunk of Harrison broke away and incorporated as a separate municipality, taking the name of the late general.

According to an account in the National Register of Historic Places, a statue of Kearny was commissioned by the State of New Jersey in 1868 and was intended for display in Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

That sculpture was designed and cast in bronze by Henry Kirke Brown, already well-known for his previous renditions of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, both placed in Union Square, N.Y., and of Brevet Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, erected in Washington, D.C.

Completed in 1873, the 800-pound statute was initially exhibited at the State House in Trenton before being placed in storage – where it was apparently forgotten until it was discovered in 1879.

At that point, a committee of Civil War veterans successfully petitioned the state Legislature to have the sculpture brought to Newark where it was unveiled at the south end of Military Park – the first such public display in the Brick City.

Among the dignitaries attending the dedication in 1880 were Civil War Gen. (and by then, former U.S. President) Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. (and the then-New Jersey Gov.) George McClellan.

And there the statute remained; in 1925, it was shifted to the north end of the park to make way for a “Wars of America” bronze group sculpture designed by Gutzon Borglum, who – two years later – began his famous Mt. Rushmore creation.

Years later, following the statue’s refurbishing after it had been, once again, put into storage during the construction of an underground parking garage, then-Kearny Mayor Joseph Healy chided Newark for repositioning the general to face west – away from Kearny.

“But it’s not the same General Phil,” Healy was quoted as telling then-Newark Mayor Leo Carlin. “He used to be headed east on the way to back to the town he loved and where his homestead, Kearny Castle, was a landmark for years. [It was torn down in 1926.]

“Now you have him facing west, turning his back on us. In fact, he’s headed toward Kearney, Neb., which was named for his uncle Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny, who was born on Broadway, Newark, but they never got around to properly spelling the name.

“Phil Kearny was born at 1 Broadway, New York City, which is another reason he should be facing east.”

Over time, town officials would press Brick City officials to consider moving the statue to Kearny, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.

In 1993, Kearny resident William Styple, a Civil War authority, was driving along Broad St. in Newark past Military Park and was shocked to find the general knocked off his pedestal, lying on the ground with his sword gone.

That proved to be the turning point.

The Gen. Philip Kearny Memorial Committee was formed its members were Styple, Kearny Postmaster Howard Hull, Kearny Federal Savings Bank President Matthew McClane, Kearny attorney Frank Jablonski and Union County Clerk Walter Halpin — and they reached an agreement with Newark that would allow the town to make a duplicate statue, with Newark supplying the new sword.

To that end, the Kearny community raised $25,000 for the undertaking and Sept. 3, 1994, that replica statute was dedicated in front of the Kearny Post Office, highlighted by a performance by the 28th Pennsylvania Brass Band and a Civil War re-enactment by 100 “soldiers.”

Styple, who edited “Letters from the Peninsula, the Civil War Letters of General Philip Kearny,” pronounced the post office lawn an appropriate location for the statue because, as reported by The Star-Ledger, an eagle is imprinted on the front of the building and the general’s face was said to resemble “a bird at prey.”

“He was one of the brave men in the Union Army and he did not have any fear,” Styple said.

There are other tributes to the general: a statue of him represents New Jersey in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol – its originally intended destination; a small monument in Ox Hill Battlefield Park in Fairfax County Va., commemorates his death; a bas-relief on the 1st New Jersey Brigade monument at Gettysburg pays homage to his leadership; a bust of the general, also designed and cast by Henry Kirke Brown, was donated by his descendants to Kearny and sits in the Kearny Town Hall lobby.

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.