U.S. Army Officer
Born: June 1, 1815, in New York City
Killed in Action: September 1, 1862, in Chantilly, Virginia
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2016: Public Service
Philip Kearny was the very picture of a 19th-century military leader, fearlessly riding his horse into battle, sword in hand, reins clutched in his teeth. His bravery in the face of the enemy would cost him an arm, and later his life, but it earned him the respect of his men and a lasting place in American history.
Kearny was born into wealth, thanks to his grandfather, a successful New York businessman and investor. Kearny spent much of his boyhood at the family homestead in Newark. Kearny’s mother and father (a financier and a founder of the New York Stock Exchange) died when Kearny was young. The job of raising him fell to his grandfather, who insisted that Kearny study to become a lawyer.
The young Kearny earned a law degree at Columbia College, but after the death of his grandfather decided to pursue his dream of a career in the military. In 1837, at the age of 22, Kearny was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 1st Dragoons, his uncle’s regiment. He was sent to France to study cavalry tactics and saw his first action with the French in Algiers.
Returning to the U.S., Kearny served as a captain in the Mexican-American War. During the battle of Churubusco, he led a daring cavalry charge and was wounded in his left arm. The arm later had to be amputated. Kearny returned to duty, and when the U.S. Army entered Mexico City the following month, he was said to be the first soldier through the gates.
Kearny resigned his commission in 1851, travelled the world and eventually settled in what is now Kearny, New Jersey. In 1859, he returned to France, distinguished himself at the Battle of Solferino, and was awarded the French Legion d’honneur, the first U.S. citizen to receive such recognition.
When the Civil War broke out, Kearny was commissioned a brigadier general and placed in charge of the First New Jersey Brigade. He soon was promoted to major general and given command of a division. While in command of the division, Kearny developed the concept of corps badges, which eventually were adopted by the entire army and evolved into the shoulder patches of today’s military.
Kearny led his division at the battles of Williamsburg and Fair Oaks and throughout the Peninsula Campaign. While in retreat after the Union loss at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Kearny’s division engaged the pursuing Confederate forces at the Battle of Chantilly. According to the American Battlefield Trust, Kearny was scouting Confederate positions at Chantilly when he rode too close to enemy lines. He was shot and killed while attempting to escape.
Kearny’s remains were returned to the Union side under orders from Confederate General Robert E. Lee to ensure that the widely revered Kearny receive a proper burial. He was initially interred at Trinity Churchyard in Manhattan but his remains were later exhumed and re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery, where there is a statue in his honor. Equestrian statues of this New Jersey hero also stand outside the Kearny Post Office; in Newark’s Military Park; and inside U.S. Capitol.