With five of his great-grandchildren in attendance, the Town of Kearny celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Brig. Gen. Philip Kearny, for whom it was named, last Monday, June 1, in the Kearny Museum.
Civil War historian Bill Styple talked about the colorful and often stormy life of the twice-married cavalry officer who was killed in the Battle of Chantilly (Ox Hill) in Virginia in the fall of 1862.
The general’s grave can be found in Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place for thousands of other veterans who gave their lives for their country.
Styple, a Kearny native who runs Belgrove Publishing Co. and is a recipient of the Civil War Roundtable Award for his book, “The Little Bugler: The True Story of a Twelve- Year-Old Boy in the Civil War,” told the audience that military history has always been his passion, particularly stories “told to my dad and passed down to me” by Civil War veterans who lived in the old New Jersey Home for Disabled Soldiers & Sailors in Kearny that was phased out in 1932.
But the one historical figure who stood out among the rest – because of his ties to the author’s hometown – was Philip Kearny. “I’ve spent 55 years researching his life,” Styple said.
Styple offered this account of his hero’s life:
Philip grew up privileged.
His grandfather was wealthy and the family took up residence in downtown Manhattan at 3 Broadway, next door to the governor’s house, and Philip’s dad was one of the founders of the N.Y. Stock Exchange.
Philip Jr. longed to attend West Point and become a soldier but, pressured by his family to pursue a more practical trade, he enrolled in Columbia College and got a law degree in 1837.
However, when his grandfather died soon after, Philip inherited $1 million and, with this new-found independence, he enlisted as a second lieutenant in his uncle’s Army regiment: the 1st U.S. Dragoons, a then-fledgling cavalry unit at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where Philip brought a billiards table for the officers’ recreational use.
Because the Army had no cavalry training manual, the then-U.S. Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett in 1839 sent Philip – who spoke fluent French – and two other officers to France as observers at France’s famed Cavalry School. But Philip, who, Styple said, “craved mortal combat,” was not content simply to watch; he wanted in on the action so he joined France’s Chasseurs d’Afrique Regiment as they fought the Arabs in Algiers and learned how to execute a classic cavalry charge: one hand grasping a gun, the other a sword, while holding the reins in his teeth. When he returned to the U.S., Philip wrote a training manual held in high esteem but Poinsett took credit for it.
In 1841, Philip married Diana Bullitt, a woman of wealth, and the couple took up residence in a small Dutch cottage along the Newark-Belleville corridor and had a child. But the lure of the battlefield beckoned and, when the Mexican War broke out in 1846, Philip wangled a position on the staff of Gen. Winfield Scott and was assigned as captain of an essentially dormant military unit with raw troops and no budget.
He then traveled to Springfield, Ill., to consult with a lawyer named Abe Lincoln on how to go about outfitting the unit but ultimately ended up dipping into his inheritance to pay for uniforms and equipment for his troops, only to have the company snatched away by Scott as his personal escort. And the government never reimbursed him for his expenses.
On Aug. 20, 1847, at the Battle of Churubusco, while pursuing Mexican troops in retreat, Philip was hit in his left elbow by a cannon discharge. A fellow officer was similarly injured. Army surgeons concluded they needed to amputate and Philip offered to go first, a diary entry from his colleague noted. But the doctors found a way to save the other officer’s arm so Philip’s amputation may have been unnecessary.
While recuperating stateside, Philip was promoted to major and placed in charge of recruitment in New York’s infamous Five Points section. After nearly dying of smallpox, Philip resumed active military service and “this desire for combat caused strife at home,” Styple said, prompting his wife to leave him.
Now, Styple said, Philip “became a wanderer,” traveling the world in search of conflicts and adventure. Over the next decade or so, he battled Indians in California, fought in the Italian War – where he was the first American to be awarded the French Croix de Guerre – and saw action in the Crimea.
Back in the States, Philip – who had previously socialized with the American artists’ colony in Paris – purchased 100 acres of undeveloped land along part of what is now Belgrove Drive in Kearny and built a mansion, filling it with paintings by the Hudson River School artists.
In 1854, while attending a Paris ball for visiting Americans where he was asked to wear his military uniform, he was introduced to the daughter of Hugh Maxwell, the ex-Collector for the Port of New York. So captivated was she, Agnes, that she swooned at the sight of Philip and the couple quickly became an item – much distressing her parents, since Philip was still a married man and Diana refused to give him a divorce.
Riding his horse in New Jersey, Philip was thrown and “he gets busted up pretty badly,” Styple said, and, “Agnes ran away to nurse him back to health.” The couple’s mutual infatuation “became the scandal of the century,” he said, and they fled to Paris in April 1856. The following year, Diana agreed to the divorce in New York, conditioned on Philip not re-marrying. Philip and Agnes got around that caveat by sailing across the Hudson to Jersey City where they were wed.
But the taint of the scandal lingered to the extent that when the Civil War erupted, Philip’s efforts to get a commission in the Union Army were squelched by New York’s powerbrokers … until now- President Lincoln, recognizing his combat-tested experience, put Philip – as a brigadier general – in command of a New Jersey regiment which he led in several battles during the Northern Virginia Peninsula Campaign.
On Sept. 1, 1862, Philip led the 1st Dragoons through a downpour in support of Federal forces fleeing the Confederacy’s Stonewall Jackson at Chantilly in Fairfax County, Va., into a line of blue which, unfortunately, turned out to be members of a Georgia regiment disguised in Union uniforms. He tried to escape but was shot in the spine and killed.
Five days later, Philip was laid to rest in the family vault at Trinity Church in New York.
In 1912, veterans who served under the general successfully pressed a drive to move Philip’s remains to Arlington National Cemetery. “Tens of thousands” filed past his coffin as it lay in state in New York and a parade – filmed by Pathe – was held April 12 in the general’s honor before he was re-interred in Arlington. Two years later, an equestrian statue of Philip on his mount was dedicated at the gravesite.
Among Philip’s great-grandchildren in the audience last Monday was Anne Kennard, a Point Pleasant resident, who remembers being in Kearny when a bust of the general was presented to the town. She was 6 at the time.
Maury Mangan, another great-granddaughter, recalls that the general “was presented to me by my family as a great heritage and we had a responsibility to live up to that somehow.”
Mayor Alberto Santos noted that the Town of Kearny’s Memorial Day parade forms up along Veterans Row on Belgrove Drive – not far from where Philip’s mansion (known as the Belle Grove) once stood: “All of us are heirs to the general,” he said.