General James Keenan

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GENERAL JAMES KEENAN was born in Youngstown, Pennsylvania, November 16, 1823. He was the son of Joseph and Isabella (Johnston) Keenan. His father died before his son had reached manhood, and the care of his widowed mother and her younger children devolved largely on him. His youth was filled with hardship and privations; all of which he met manfully. Doubtless the adversities of his young days fitted him to perform the stern duties which confronted him in after years.

He entered Mt. St. Mary's College at Emmittsburg, Maryland, but his course was cut short by the breaking out of the Mexican war, in which he enlisted as a private with the Duquesne Grays of Pittsburg. In this company was also Richard C. Drum, later adjutant general, U. S. A. Going to Mexico in 1846, Keenan returned in 1847 afflicted with a disease incident to the hot climate. On his partial recovery he was appointed a lieutenant in the Eleventh Infantry, U. S. A., and began to recruit for the service. In 1848, with his recruits, he returned to Mexico and remained in the service till the war ended and his commission expired. He had been a gallant and daring soldier in the war, and found himself a hero indeed when he returned home. In the fall of 1849 he was elected register and recorder of Westmoreland county, and was again elected in 1852, each time for a term of three years. He proved to be a methodical officer, and introduced many improvements in the office which were highly appreciated by its patrons.

An ardent Democrat, his effectual work for the party came to the notice of Governor Bigler, who on February 2, 1852, appointed him adjutant-general of Pennsylvania. In June of the same year, President Pierce offered him the appointment of consul to Hong Kong, China, which he held under advisement till October, 1853, when he resigned his office here and sailed for China. President Buchanan continued him in the Hong Kong consulate. In 1857 he returned to Greensburg and was united in marriage with Elizabeth Barclay, a daughter of John Barclay, and a young woman of highly cultivated taste and refinement. They sailed at once for Hong Kong. The duties of his position were burdensome, and the climate of China undermined his constitution. He filled the duties of the office, however, under President Lincoln till February 22, 1862, when he and his family sailed in the ship "Surprise" for the United States, arriving, in New York on May 16th. For many weeks he was confined to his berth on board the ship, and was with difficulty removed to a hotel in New York. He died at Blanchard's Hotel, May 22, 1863, in the thirty-ninth year of his age. His body was brought to Greensburg and buried in the old St. Clair cemetery, with one of the most largely attended funerals ever known there.

General Keenan was a man of unusual promise. He was fully six feet high and built in proportion, with dark eyes and black hair. Nature had endowed him with a fine intellect and this, with his noted physical strength, enabled him to push forward and surmount obstacles which would have overcome other men of less native power. No young man in Pennsylvania had a more brilliant future before him than he. From his youth his career had been steadily onward and upward. He was generous, intrepid and; courageous, yet gentle, kind and humane. He was noted for his courteous and graceful manners, not manners of the assumed kind, but those which resulted from a naturally generous and happy disposition. He had an unusually accurate knowledge of human character, and was seldom deceived in his estimates of men. In the danger of battle he was never excited, surprised or disconcerted, but only aroused to cool and intrepid action. He is said to have possessed many of the qualities of a great commander, and had he gone through the Civil war as was his desire, he would doubtless have distinguished himself as a leader of men in battle. Without the aid of fortune, or even of friends except those he won by the excellence of his character, he had come up step by step with-cut a single setback or defeat. The position which he filled in China became one of great importance in the Sepoy Mutiny and in other troubles in the east. He was with the United States marines when the English took Canton and the adjoining country.. Later he accompanied Admiral Perry on his memorable expedition to open the Japanese ports to American commerce.

He was the personal friend of General Lewis Cass, Simon Cameron, Governor Bigler, General Henry D. Foster and other well known Democratic leaders of that day.

Though he read law in Greensburg he never practiced or became known as a lawyer, but his correspondence with the State Department in Washington during the Sepoy and other kindred troubles in the East, gave him high rank as an authority on international law. Like his military career, his life as a diplomat was cut short, and we cannot know what he might have accomplished had he lived to maturer years and riper wisdom. He died at an age when most men are content if they have but won a fair start in public life.

Source: Page(s) 657-658, History of Westmoreland County, Volume I, Pennsylvania by John N Boucher. New York, The Lewis Publishing Company, 1906.
Transcribed August 2008 for the Westmoreland County History Project
Contributed by Nathan Zipfel for use by the Westmoreland County Genealogy Project (

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