An Arm for a Brevet: Phil Kearny’s Early Military Career

by Brett Schulte on July 5, 2012 · 1 comment

Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of guest posts by Greg Quinion.  In addition to being an avid history reader and world traveler, Greg works as a freelance travel and history writer and Information Analyst in Washington DC.  He holds a Bachelor’s degree in History from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA.  Many of his free hours are spent wandering Revolutionary, Civil War, and WW2 battlefields.  I hope you enjoy reading Greg’s articles as much as I did.

An Arm for a Brevet

Of the 300,000 Americans laid to rest in our nations venerated Arlington National Cemetery, only one is honored with an equestrian statue.  His likeness sits erect on a warlike horse, gazing with authority into the distance as if about to shout some urgent command.  His left sleeve is pinned to his chest, empty of an arm.  The inscription on the plinth reads:  “Gave his left arm at Churubusco, Mexico…1847…Gave his life at Chantilly, VA…1862.”

Major General Philip Kearny was many things; a millionaire, a law student, a world traveler, a graduate of Columbia University, a renowned horseman.  Above all he was a soldier.  None other than Commander-in-chief of the Army General Winfield Scott called him “the bravest man I ever knew” and “a perfect soldier”.  His honors and exploits included fighting with France’s famed Chasseurs d’Afrique in North Africa in 1840, leading General Scott’s escort from Vera Cruz to Mexico City in 1847, and becoming the first American to be awarded the prestigious Legion d’honneur after charging with Napoleon III’s Imperial Guard at the Battles of Magenta and Solferino in 1859.

Largely forgotten today, his service in the American Civil War earns him a lasting place among America’s heroes.  Throughout the Peninsula and Second Bull Run Campaigns of 1862 he led from the front, aggressive and fearless.  In his last battle, at Ox Hill near Chantilly Virginia, he would be shot from his horse while reconnoitering far in front of his own lines.  However it was in Mexico that he made his name, charging into glory at the front of his Dragoons, losing his left arm, and almost becoming the first American into Mexico City.

Born to be a warrior, Philip Kearny was once doomed to be a lawyer, a position more fitting to a man of his prestigious New York family.  The death of his wealthy grandfather changed things, transforming him into a millionaire overnight and freeing him to pursue his one true ambition; soldiering.  A military career was not new to his family, his uncle was none other than Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny, the famed frontier soldier who would later make history bringing New Mexico and California into the Union fold during the Mexican-American War.  With his uncle’s help, Philip was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the First Dragoons at Fort Leavenworth in 1837.  His reputation as a horseman grew, and by 1839 Kearny was among the lucky few US Army cavalrymen sent to France to learn tactics at the celebrated cavalry school at Saumur.

Kearny thrived among the greatest cavalry soldiers in Europe and was honored to join the Chasseurs d’Afrique, a light cavalry corps fighting Algerian resistance leader Emir Abd-al-Qadir in North Africa.  While some men quailed at the heat, violence, disease, and death all around them, Kearny thrived, remarking in a letter how “Every man must someday face death…I pray mine will come in the swirl of the fray.”  Riding into battle in the French style, “with his sword in one hand, his pistol in the other, and his reins in his teeth”, Kearny returned home with a nickname, “Kearny le Magnifique”.

Returning to the United States in 1840, Kearny spent the next few years writing of his cavalry experience with the French and finding himself frustrated with the boredom of garrison life.  He got married, and accompanied his uncle on an expedition into Sioux territory, but grew increasingly despondent.  Promotions in the 1840s US Army came slowly if at all.  Despite being named aide-de-camp to the Commanding General of the US Army, General Winfield Scott, it was combat he sought, not the capital city social scene.  Writing to a friend he lamented “It grows increasingly apparent to me that my function is not that of a soldier, but rather as the dispenser of elegant hospitality.”  General Scott, ever the judge of the character and potential of his men, understood his impatience, but knew his worth, remarking: “if ever a man were born to be a soldier he is Phil Kearny…Soldiers will follow him to the very gates of Hell.”  War broke out with Mexico soon after, and Scott would grant Kearny his chance to do just that.

He found himself promoted to Captain and given the opportunity to raise a company for his beloved First Dragoons.  He wasted no time, heading west to Springfield, Illinois where he set about recruiting the ablest riders and scouring the local horse dealers for gray horses on which to mount them.  He was assisted in the later task by an enthusiastic local attorney named Abraham Lincoln.  Among the young officers in his company was a Lieutenant of promise named Richard S. Ewell, later fated to oppose him on the battlefields of Virginia.

Landing with General Scott at Veracruz, his troop of Dragoons and their gray horses so impressed the General that they were chosen to serve as his personal bodyguard.  While his new role gave him an unprecedented view of battlefield command, it denied him the one thing he craved most, combat.  In camp one night he exclaimed “I would give my left arm for a brevet to major…”  Instead he led his troop in reconnaissance missions and escort duties.  It wasn’t until the battle of Cerro Gordo on April 18, 1847 that any chance for lasting glory presented itself.  General Scott, having just smashed the flank of Santa Anna’s army, was eager to pursue the broken Mexican ranks, and ordered:  “Kearny, ride after the enemy!  Smash him!…If possible bring in General Santa Anna!”  Reins in his teeth, he led his troop into the confused Mexican rout, prodding them in panicked retreat towards Mexico City.

General Santa Anna and the bulk of his army escaped pursuit, rallying at strong positions further down the road.  During the ensuing battle of Contreras on April 19-20th, Captain Kearny’s troop of Dragoons escorted Captain Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant P.G.T. Beauregard of the engineers as they crisscrossed topography of broken terrain and lava fields to coordinate a devastating flank attack upon the Mexican army.

With the Mexicans breaking once again, Kearny rode up to General Scott, eager to close with the enemy fleeing down the road.  Scott knew the road forked just ahead, with the left heading towards the Churubusco River, and the right leading around and behind Santa Ana’s lines to the village of San Antonio.  Down the left road, fierce Mexican resistance had flared up, centered at a fortified Franciscan convent. What awaited down the other road was unknown.  It could be heavily defended, or it could be open.  Seeing an opportunity, the proactive Scott sent Captain Robert E. Lee with Kearny’s dragoons to scout down the San Antonio road.  Behind them marched the Division of General Gideon Pillow, ready to exploit any opportunity.

Lee found the road open and they soon occupied San Antonio, nearly behind enemy lines.  By late afternoon the Mexican position near the convent was overrun, and General Pillow was eager to join the pursuit with his whole division.  Looking down a road jammed with retreating Mexicans, Pillow turned to Kearny and exclaimed “Captain, I’m turning you loose on that rabble.  Strike them with all your strength.”  Philip Kearny’s hour had come.

While infantry cleared the road of abandoned wagons, Kearny formed up his dragoons in pairs of fours and charged.  He had no more than 150 men, but the Mexicans were panicked and running in their haste to gain the San Antonio Gate and the safety of Mexico City’s walls.  In no time the dragoons were within the mob, cutting and slashing with their sabers, their momentum carrying them to the gates of Mexico City itself.  A half a mile beyond, fresh Mexican troops (and some accounts claim Santa Anna himself) stood behind a wide ditch and a barricade mounting two artillery pieces, awaiting the chance to swat aside the little band of horsemen.

To the Kearny’s great fortune, the terror struck Mexican infantry fled directly into the muzzles of their comrade’s guns, obstructing their field of fire.  Lieutenant Ewell recalled what happened next: “Without waiting for their own men to clear the way, Mexican gunners poured canister into the milling crowds.”  The ditch was full of wounded and dying men when Captain Kearny reached it.  As canister fire scoured the air around them, Kearny ordered his men to dismount and cross into the redoubt along side the panicked Mexican troops.  It was then he realized that his column had dwindled to a handful of officers and a scant dozen men.  Unbeknownst to him, General Scott was observing the charge and grew worried that an overzealous pursuit might cost him the entire force of dragoons.  Prudently, he had sounded the recall, and watched as the column of dragoons wheeled and turned towards American lines.

Throughout his life Kearny would repeatedly deny having heard the call for retreat.  Fighting hand to hand behind the artillery pieces, his dozen men either did not hear, or could not obey the trumpets call.  Formed in a circle, the Kearny’s small band fought with a tenacity belying their number.  He later wrote: “…Mexicans bawled, screamed and fell to their knees as though my men and I were super-warriors instead of mere soldiers…”  Lieutenant Ewell recalled: “Only a miracle saved Captain Kearny and myself.”  With Americans under the very shadow of their city gate, Mexican officers were finally able to rally their men to drive Kearny’s band from the redoubt.

Hard pressed, the dragoons scrambled for their horses, intent on making their escape before the Mexicans brought their recaptured cannons to bear.  A musket ball brought Lt. Ewell’s horse down from under him and he was forced to find another.  As the dragoons gained distance from the enemy, the artillery finally belched forth with a fusillade of canister.  Lt. Ewell’s new horse was struck in the neck but managed to keep moving.  Captain Kearny was not so lucky.  A canister ball struck him in his left arm, shattering the bone and leaving him unable to guide his horse.  Only with Ewell’s assistance was he able to reach safety.

“I would give my left arm for a brevet to major” Philip Kearny had said.  At the hospital at Churubusco he learned that he would lose that left arm.  As the surgeon moved to amputate, his head was cradled by General Franklin Pierce, the future President of the United States, who had himself been injured at Contreras earlier that day.  Kearny looked up at Pierce and muttered “Which arm have I lost General?”  To which Pierce replied: “The left.”   The unflappable Kearny then whispered: “I foresaw this.”  Later that night, General Scott visited him in the hospital and informed him of his brevet promotion to Major.

Phil Kearny’s charge on the gates of Mexico City earned him undying fame.  There were many who believed that if General Scott had reinforced rather than recalled his Dragoons, the city could have fallen that very day.  None other than Ulysses S. Grant later wrote: “The City of Mexico could have been entered without much further bloodshed.  In fact Captain Philip Kearney…rode with a squadron of cavalry to the very gates of the city…”  Though his Dragoons and their gray horses would escort the victorious Scott into Mexico City, Phil Kearny saw no further duty in the Mexican War.

In 1848 Major Kearny wrote to a brother Dragoon: “You would be surprised to find how little the loss of an arm incommodes me.”  And indeed all his life he would make light of his lost arm, never regretting how he had traded it for glory.  In 1862 after the battle of Fair Oaks, Kearny came upon Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard, his right arm recently amputated.  Seeing Howard’s anguish, Kearny told him: “General I am sorry for you, but you must not mind it; the ladies will not think the less of you!”  Howard, never known for his humor, replied: “There is one thing that we can do General.  We can buy our gloves together.”

Glory aside, the charge that cost his arm and changed his life had made no real contribution to the victory that day, never mind the war.  The battles of Contreras and Churubusco were already won, and Scott had no intention of storming the city that evening.  In fact, Kearny’s Dragoons had been recalled from the attack soon after it started.  This mattered little to Philip Kearny.  Later in his life, when asked yet again if he had heard the trumpets calling him away from the chase, he confessed that he indeed had, but remarked: “I was a Chasseur.  Those trumpets were not calling me.”

Greg Quinion
July 5, 2012

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