Letters from the Peninsula by General Philip Kearny


Book Review by Ryan Diamond


When you want to get to know a Civil War general like Phil Kearny, but the only biographies are uncritical hagiographies, you have no choice but to go direct to the well - in this instance the Civil War Letters of General Philip Kearny as edited by William B Styple.

After a brief introduction and a contemporary tribute, we follow Kearny's letters from camp at Alexandria, through his advance on Manassas, the Peninsula Campaign, back to Manassas, and finally to the night before Chantilly. These letters are primarily to his wife Agnes and to his friend and lawyer Cortlandt Parker. We do not have the other side of the conversation in the form of their correspondence so occasionally references and responses in Kearny's letters lack context. Crucially these are only a selection of his letters and I suspect Styple has held several back for his much-anticipated biography of Kearny.

Interspersed with the correspondence are various official reports of engagements and anecdotes of Kearny's war. While these anecdotes are some of the most engaging elements of the book, this is also where frustration with the editor begins. There are no notes or references in the book at all and so the reader is left in the dark as to where the editor found these stories and even on occasions who is telling them. Nonetheless there is a lot to be learned from Kearny's letters.

Kearny rates his own Mexican and European military experience highly and has grave doubts about those who do not have comparable experience, at least in Mexico, to command large bodies of volunteers. He is particularly scathing about the preponderance of former engineers among the early Civil War generals given their lack of command and combat experience.

The leads us to Kearny's bête noire - George Brinton McClellan. Forget the most critical biographies of McClellan you've read. No one has a worse opinion of McClellan than Kearny. Furthermore, Kearny's attitude manifests itself from early in his appointment. The decision not to press the rebels following their retreat from their supply base at Centreville; the decision to reorient the advance on Richmond to the Peninsula; the conduct of the campaign in the Peninsula; the promotion, in every sense, of incompetents and mediocrities (in Kearny's expert opinion); all these Kearny declares are signs that McClellan is at best a fool and at worst, and in Kearny's opinion more likely, a traitor.

Kearny's dissatisfaction manifests itself, unexpectedly if you've read the hagiographies, in whining and complaint: about his lack of promotion; his lack of credit in the press and amongst politicians; about the content of McClellan's official reports; in criticism of his superiors, comrades and elements of the army; and in constant threats to resign. Often his frustrations boil over into the ridiculous, at one point declaring Pennsylvania the most cowardly state!

Oddly, we also see that in many ways his sympathies ought to have lain with the South. He declares himself Southerner by education and inclination. His friends are Southerners - Magruder, Ewell, Lee, Beauregard, Joe Johnston, and Roberdeau Wheat. However, Kearny detests slavery and rebellion and those are the deciding factors for his allegiance notwithstanding his obvious contempt for "Northerners". In fact, while we would find Kearny's views of race deplorable now, they seem remarkably forward thinking for the time given his sympathies, especially early in the war. He proposes the incorporation of freedmen into the army for all non-combat roles, and ultimately acknowledges that the Army should experiment with armed and disciplined regiments of freedmen.

However, his views are driven by his European experiences with 'native' troops. He thinks that European officers or sergeants with experience in the West Indian regiments might be required to make regiments of freedmen effective.

We see the circle of Kearny's friends in the army (even if he doesn't always respect their abilities): Hooker, Sickles, John J Peck, Butterfield, David Birney, Hiram Berry and, of course, the French Princes on McClellan's staff. We see Kearny and his division become the emergency response unit for the eastern armies: at Williamsburg, at Fair Oaks, at Glendale, at Second Manassas and finally at Chantilly. Kearny argues that he is not 'rash', as he fears many perceive him (described wonderfully as commanding in the "French style"), but rather that a good general ought to be at the front to direct events unlike, yes you guessed it, George McClellan.

In the end we see a much more nuanced version of Kearny than can be found in his biographies. His vanity, his professional self-pity, his grief, his sense of humour, his courage and professionalism all shine through his letters and the anecdotes to provide a much more rounded picture of the man. For those with an interest in Philip Kearny this book is an essential acquisition, but be prepared for the irritation of having to trace the sources for the most interesting elements of the book yourself.