After a half-century of research and reflection, Kearny native William Styple has achieved a literary milestone and a lifelong goal.
An acclaimed Civil War scholar who has authored, co-written or edited some 25 tomes on the subject, Styple has completed an exhaustive study of his longtime hero, from whom the town takes its name, with his latest work, “General Philip Kearny, A Very God of War; The Life and Letters of Gen. Philip Kearny,” due for public distribution next month.
“I remember sitting in my second-grade classroom at Roosevelt School with the portraits of Washington, Lincoln and Kearny on the wall behind me and that was in 1967, the same year as the centennial of General Kearny,” Styple recalled.
Even then, he said, most people over 40 who lived in town could remember the general’s house, Belgrove (also known as King’s Castle), and, later, the Home for Civil War Soldiers, which stood across the street on the site of the present-day Veterans’ Field, until its closure in 1932.
The reputation that Kearny built, both as a veteran of five wars and as a civilian attorney and fine arts connoisseur, “inspired me to study the general’s history all my life,” Styple said. “I collected files and letters about him, articles in magazines, biographies, personal effects, anything I could find.”
He also drew material from letters written by the general to his wife, relatives and friends and from military order books contained in the national archives in Washington, D.C.
Reflecting the volume of labor the author dedicated to the project, the book runs 880 pages at nearly one million words, with 1,000 footnotes, and weighs in at six-and-a-half pounds, Styple said.
Among the few prior Kearny biographies, two written by relatives who don’t touch on the subject’s personal life, and another, written in the 1960s, was aimed at a children’s audience, according to Styple.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Kearny was “the most combat-experienced soldier” around, Styple noted, but the battle-scarred veteran and Northern advocate had to wait for a chance to prove his merits as a field commander in the service of his country.
Trained as a New York lawyer, the 21-year-old Kearny forsook the courtroom in favor of enlisting as a 2nd lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Dragoons in 1837, serving on the frontier.
Two years later, he was sent to France to study cavalry tactics which he learned first-hand by accompanying the Chasseurs d’Afrique in the Algeria campaign of 1840. While in France, Styple noted, Kearny “kept a diary in which he described the architecture, the people, the markets. It was almost like a National Geographic special.”
Returning home, Kearny was tasked with organizing a cavalry troop, which he did, using part of the personal fortune he’d inherited to do so, then was promoted to captain in late 1846 and named to the staff of Gen. Winfield Scott. He married and started a family but, after several years, returned to his regiment and explored the West.
It was during the Mexican War that Kearny was wounded in his left arm which had to be amputated. Undeterred, he initially served as a recruiter before being promoted to major and, returning to the frontier, skirmished with Indians in Oregon
But he soon returned to active duty, and, ultimately, to the frontier where his unit skirmished with the Sioux in Oregon.
By 1859, Kearny, now living in Paris with his second wife, New Yorker Agnes Maxwell, rejoined his old French outfit, the Chasseurs d’Afrique, in their fight against Austrian forces in Italy, culminating in the ferocious Battle of Solferino, in which the number of casualties approached 50,000 in a single day. The carnage led to the formation of the International Red Cross.
For his actions on the battlefield, France awarded Kearny the Legion of Honor, making him the first American to be so recognized for military service.
When the Civil War erupted, Kearny itched to see action again on behalf of the North but, as Styple discovered, “his divorce (in 1858) had tainted him as a soldier. He couldn’t get a command.”
Two key factors ultimately led to a reversal of fortune for the frustrated soldier, Styple discovered.
One was the perilous state of the North. Just one week after the first Battle of Bull Run, the Northern forces had been routed and the rebel army was just 20 miles outside Washington, with only a mob of uncontrolled U.S. Army soldiers in the streets standing between the rebels and the capital.
The other, Styple said, was the personal intervention by a close friend, Newark attorney Cortlandt Parker and Washington insider, who had access to President Lincoln and persuaded the president to entrust Kearny with a command post.
In spring 1862, Lincoln promoted Kearny to brigadier general and placed him in charge of the 1st New Jersey Brigade, which, according to Styple, came to be “rated the finest in the Army of the Potomac.”
Ultimately, he was named to command a division, comprising three brigades. In charges, Kearny clenched the reins of his horse in his teeth and sword in his one arm, while urging on his men, shouting, “I’m a one-armed Jersey son-of-a-gun, follow me!.”
“The Confederates feared him and called him a ‘one-armed devil’ and he often became the target of Confederate riflemen,” Styple said.
Kearny, by now a major general, led the Division during the Second Battle of Bull Run and for a brief time, he was assisted by a young staff officer named George Armstrong Custer, who later wrote admiringly of Kearny, crediting him with teaching him the art of soldiering.
It was during the Battle of Chantilly in Virginia, on Sept. 1, 1862, while checking a gap in the Union lines during a driving rainstorm, that Kearny was confronted by rebel soldiers who ordered him to surrender. He refused and tried to race away, but was killed by a shot fired by an enemy musket.
Kearny’s body was turned over to Northern forces and he was buried in Trinity Churchyard in New York. His remains were later moved to Arlington Cemetery in 1912 where a statue by Edward Clark Potter marks his grave, one of only two such statutes at Arlington.
One revelation in Styple’s book – based on letters he sent to friends during the war – was that Kearny suspected Maj. Gen. Robert McClellan, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, was secretly negotiating with the South through a staff officer, Col. Thomas M. Key (a cousin of national anthem author Francis Scott Key), who favored emancipation with compensation – a tactic Key and McClellan reportedly believed would persuade the South to call off hostilities with little resulting bloodshed.
Part of Styple’s extensive profile of Kearny includes an examination of his life as a civilian and, in particular, the time and money he invested in his home, Belgrove, built to contain his fabulous arts collection – a wide assortment of statutes, oil paintings, watercolors, etchings and engravings, many illustrative of the Hudson River Artists School.
The property was sold off in parcels to various thread works plants that were built off the Passaic River and the mansion house itself was sold in 1926, with its art pieces largely ending up in mostly in private collections.
The mansion itself was razed in 1927, as youngsters in nearby Washington Elementary School watched that part of their town’s history disappear.
“General Philip Kearny, A Very God of War” will be available for sale through Amazon beginning next month. A hardcover edition is priced at $45.
Learn more about the writer ...
Ron Leir | For The Observer
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 WHATCo. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, New York