Imagine you are 19 (again?). What is your plan for your life? Was your answer earning a statue and eternal fame?
Well, to be honest, if he was asked that same question on the morning of December 13, 1862, it is likely Sergeant Richard Rowland Kirkland wouldn’t have answered that way either. The 19 year old was in the 2nd South Carolina Infantry and positioned behind a stone wall that fronted a sunken road called the Telegraph Road near the top of Marye’s Heights. Below him, he would have seen an empty field gradually sloping from his position to the edge of the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia, and beyond it, the Rappahannock River. From across the river, lines of blue-clad troops tromped across pontoon bridges and up through the streets of the town.
As they reached the edge of the empty field, Union soldiers moved into line of battle and began their march toward the strong defenses anchored by the four foot stone wall in front of 9,000 Confederate troops, the 2nd South Carolina and Richard Kirkland among them. Kirkland would have seen 14 separate attacks come up the plain and falter hundreds of feet from their goal of the stone wall, the Union troops cut down in rows by the withering infantry and artillery fire. It turned out that Confederate artillerist E. Porter Alexander’s prediction had been true. “A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.”
Not a chicken, or very many men. The most successful of the repeated charges only came within 40 yards of the stone wall before breaking.
That night, thousands of Union soldiers lay on the slope, some dead, some dying, and many wounded. Those who were still alive were cold. Those who could still grip their weapons were taking shots at the Confederates who remained behind the wall and who were returning their fire in measure.
There was moaning, crying and prayers going up from the men on the field. Men begged for water, and peace.
The cries were not easy to ignore for young Sergeant Kirkland. They continued all night and into the next day. By the afternoon of December 14, Sergeant Kirkland had had enough. He approached his brigade commander, General Joseph B Kershaw to ask permission to give the suffering Union wounded water. Kershaw attempted to dissuade him by pointing out the possibility—rather, the likelihood—of getting shot for his efforts, but Kirkland persisted. He asked if he could take a white handkerchief with him on his errand but was denied. He chose to go anyway.
Kirkland stepped over the wall, and reached the nearest wounded soldier. “He knelt beside him, tenderly raised the drooping head, rested it gently upon his own noble breast, and poured the precious life-giving fluid down the fever scorched throat. This done, he laid him tenderly down, placed his knapsack under his head, straightened out his broken limb, spread his overcoat over him, replaced his empty canteen with a full one, and turned to another sufferer.” (Kershaw, Humane Hero of Fredericksburg, Letter to Charleston News and Courier, January 2, 1880).
Once soldiers understood his purpose, they ceased their fire. For an hour and a half, Kirkland ministered in this way to the fallen enemy before returning to his lines.
Kirkland survived the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg before being sent to north Georgia with the rest of Longstreet’s Corps in September 1863. He arrived on the battlefield at Chickamauga too late to participate in the first day’s action, but was heavily involved in the second day’s route of the Federal army from the field. He was shot on Snodgrass Hill and killed.
In 1965, the National Park Service installed a statue to Richard Kirkland along the stone wall and sunken road at the Fredericksburg battlefield near the site where he gave so much comfort to the wounded enemy. It is called The Angel of Marye’s Heights.
There has been recent scholarship that calls into question the accuracy of this story. Did it happen the way General Kershaw told it? Did it happen at all?
There is no mention of the act in the after action reports. None of his fellow soldiers mention seeing it. There does not appear to have been the hour and a half cease fire during which Kirkland carried out his mission. Does this mean it didn’t happen?
The story came to the attention of the general public when, in 1880, General Kershaw, Kirkland’s brigade commander, recorded Kirkland’s daring acts in a letter written to, and published in, the Charleston News and Courier.
Kershaw’s letter was written during Reconstruction, a time when the country was being put back together piece by piece. It is possible that his intention in writing his letter was to demonstrate a friendship and mercy between the two sides that illustrated the hope of the mending country. The erection of the statue by the National Park Service in 1965 may also be symbolic of a desired peace between enemy combatants that was missing during the height of the cold war.
Read Richard Kirkland, The Humane Hero of Fredericksburg and Is the Richard Kirkland Story True?
1. Do you think the story of Richard Kirkland is true as Kershaw presents it? Is Kershaw’s tale an embellishment? A fabrication? Why?
2. What lesson can be learned from the story of Richard Kirkland? Does that lesson change if the story is exaggerated or fabricated?
3. Have you ever been in a situation, or known of someone in a situation, where they risked personal safety to provide comfort to someone? Under what circumstances, if any, could you imagine yourself doing so?
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.