Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Favorite Civil War general

I am taking my cue from a posting on Eric Wittenberg’s blog, Rantings of a Civil War Historian here that his favorite general is John Buford, the Union cavalryman who was instrumental to the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, which ended 150 years ago today. Wittenberg is also writing a biography of Buford. My favorite Civil War general is Philip Kearny, the one-armed Union soldier killed at Chantilly, Virginia on September 1, 1862. Kearny is best remembered for his critical comments of George B. McClellan’s ponderous Peninsula Campaign.

The scion of very wealthy family and nephew of famed frontier soldier Stephen Watts Kearny, Philip joined the Army against his father’s wishes and obtained a commission without attending West Point. The younger Kearny lost an arm at Churubusco in the Mexican War. Afterwards he served as an army recruiter in New York City where he thrashed some young punks with his one arm when they jeered him and his recruits, and on the staff of General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. In addition to fighting on the frontier and during the Mexican War, Kearny rode with French troops against rebels in Algeria, and again later in Italy at the Battle of Solferino in 1859. He was a colorful figure on these and American Civil War battlefields later on, as he charged through the smoke waving his sword with his one arm, and clenching the reigns of his horse in his teeth. For more information on Kearny, the source remains Irving Werstein, Kearny the Magnificent, which was published in 1962. Here is a good internet biography.

Kearny is not my favorite general solely due to his interesting life, but because in the process of writing a graduate level term paper on him at St. John’s University, I examined a personal manuscript collection for the first time. His papers are housed at the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark, New Jersey. Kearny’s own letters were a mess. His handwriting is even worse than mine. With only one arm, he had no ability to hold the paper and write, so the sentences tended to move in a circular pattern as he scribbled. In addition to his letters, I read the handwritten letter of condolence from President Abraham Lincoln to Kearny’s widow, as well as letters from other important historical personages, including one from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton informing Mrs. Kearny that her husband was scheduled to have received the command of a corps before he was killed. It is interesting to ponder the possibility of Kearny leading a corps or even army. I am not sure if army command would have been possible had he lived. On the one hand he had experience, a willingness (one might even say desire) to fight, and he was a War Democrat, a valuable commodity to the Lincoln Administration. On the other hand, Kearny was known to criticize his commanders and he was uncomfortably close to newspapers, particularly in New Jersey, hostile to the administration. In the parlance of the 21st century, he “leaked” unfavorable information to the press.

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