Summary

Conflict Period:
Civil War (Confederate) 1
Branch:
Confederate Army 1
Rank:
First Lieutenant 1
Birth:
01 Aug 1843 1
Kershaw County, South Carolina, 1
Death:
20 Sep 1863 1
Chickamauga, Georgia, 1
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Personal Details

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Full Name:
Richard Rowland Kirkland 1
Full Name:
Richard Kirkland 1
Also known as:
The Angel of Marye's Heights 1
Birth:
01 Aug 1843 1
Kershaw County, South Carolina, 1
Male 1
Death:
20 Sep 1863 1
Chickamauga, Georgia, 1
Cause: Killed during the Battle of Chickamauga. 1
Burial:
Old Quaker Cemetery Camden, South Carolina 1
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Civil War (Confederate) 1

Branch:
Confederate Army 1
Rank:
First Lieutenant 1
Service Start Date:
1861 1
Service End Date:
1863 1

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Stories

"The Angel of Marye's Heights",

1880
GEN. J. B. KERSHAW

The following is an account by Gen. J. B. Kershaw, originally published in the Charleston News & Courier, of how Richard Kirkland earned the title "The Humane Hero of Fredericksburg."

Richard Kirkland was the son of John Kirkland, an estimable citizen of Kershaw county, a plain, substantial farmer of the olden time. In 1861 he entered as a private Captain J.D. Kennedy's company (E) of the Second South Carolina volunteers, in which company he was a sergeant in December, 1869.

The day after the sanguinary battle of Fredericksburg, Kershaw's brigade occupied the road at the foot of Marye's hill and the ground about Marye's house, the scene of their desperate defence of the day before. One hundred and fifty yards in front of the road, the stone facing of which constituted the famous stone wall, lay Syke's division of regulars, U.S.A., between whom and our troops a murderous skirmish occupied the whole day, fatal to many who heedlessly exposed themselves, even for a moment. The ground between the lines was bridged with the wounded' dead and dying Federals, victims of the many desperate and gallant assaults of that column of 30,000 brave men hurled vainly against that impregnable position.

All that day those wounded men rent the air with their groans and their agonizing cries of "Water! water!" In the afternoon the General sat in the north room, up stairs, of Mrs. Stevens' house, in front of the road, surveying the field, when Kirkland came up. With an expression of indignant remonstrance pervading his person, his manner and the tone of his voice, he said: "General! I can't stand this." "What is the matter, Sergeant?" asked the General.  He replied, "All night and all day I have heard those poor people crying for water, and I can stand it no longer. I come to ask permission to go and give them water."  The General regarded him for a moment with feelings of profound admiration, and said: "Kirkland, don't you know that you would get a bullet through your head the moment you stepped over the wall?" "Yes, sir," he said, "I know that; but if you will let me, I am willing to try it." After a pause, the General said, "Kirkland, I ought not to allow you to run a risk, but the sentiment which actuates you is so noble that I will not refuse your request, trusting that God may protect you. You may go."

The Sergeant's eye lighted up with pleasure. He said, "Thank you, sir," and ran rapidly down stairs. The General heard him pause for a moment, and then return, bounding two steps at a time. He thought the Sergeant's heart had failed him. He was mistaken. The Sergeant stopped at the door and said: "General, can I show a white handkerchief?" The General slowly shook his head, saying emphatically, "No, Kirkland, you can't do that." "All right," he said, "I'll take the chances," and ran down with a bright smile on his handsome countenance.

With profound anxiety he was watched as he stepped over the wall on his errand of mercy -- Christ-like mercy. Unharmed he reached the nearest sufferer. 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. By this time his purpose was well understood on both sides, and all danger was over. From all parts of the field arose fresh cries of "Water, water; for God's sake, water!" More piteous still the mute appeal of some who could only feebly lift a hand to say, here, too, is life and suffering.

For an hour and a half did this ministering angel pursue his labor of mercy, nor ceased to go and return until he relieved all the wounded on that part of the field. He returned to his post wholly unhurt. Who shall say how sweet his rest that winter's night beneath the cold stars!

Little remains to be told. Sergeant Kirkland distinguished himself in battle at Gettysburg, and was promoted lieutenant. At Chickamauga he fell on the field of battle, in the hour of victory. He was but a youth when called away, and had never formed those ties from which might have resulted in a posterity to enjoy his fame and bless his country; but he has bequeathed to the American youth -- yea, to the world -- an example which dignifies our common humanity.

The Angel of Marye's Heights - NYTimes.com

All through the night of Dec. 13, 1862, the ambulance corps of the Union’s Army of the Potomac labored to remove their wounded brethren from the killing grounds at Fredericksburg. Compared with earlier battles – especially the twin debacles at Bull Run – the stretcher-bearers and hospital stewards did an exemplary job.

 

Nevertheless, they were unable to reach the men who had advanced the farthest against the Confederate “sheet of flame” that came from behind the stone wall at the base of Marye’s Heights. As dawn broke on the morning of the 14th, hundreds of these brave soldiers still lay where they had fallen, crying out for loved ones, for a mercy killing or just a drink of water.

Crouching on the other side of the wall, the Confederates who had inflicted such devastation on the unfortunate federals listened to their enemies’ piteous pleas. Some no doubt reveled in their grisly work, but most remained silent and grim-faced, knowing that the Yankees’ horrific fate could have easily been their own.

At last, the wounded men’s cries became too much for one rebel soldier to bear. Sgt. Richard Kirkland, Company G, Second South Carolina Infantry, left the lines and made his way to the nearby Stevens’ house where his brigade commander, Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw, had his headquarters. According to Kershaw’s later account, the young Kirkland said he could no longer stand to hear “those poor people crying for water” and asked permission to go over the wall with filled canteens to relieve their suffering.

Nathan Greene, © 2009, All Rights Reserved, Used By Permission“I Was Thirsty,” by Nathan Greene

Kershaw initially refused the sergeant’s request. “Kirkland,” he said, “don’t you know that you would get a bullet through your head the moment you stepped over the wall?” To which Kirkland replied: “Yes, sir. I know that; but if you will let me, I am willing to try it.” Moved by the young soldier’s compassion, Kershaw granted the request, but would not allow Kirkland to show a white handkerchief while on his mission. No truce had been declared between the opposing armies, and Kershaw knew it was not within his authority to initiate one.

Kershaw’s account goes on to describe what happened when Kirkland entered the deadly ground between the lines:

Unharmed he reached the nearest sufferer. 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.

By this time his purpose was well understood on both sides, and all danger was over. From all parts of the field arose fresh cries of ‘Water, for God’s sake, water!’ More piteous still, the mute appeal of some who could only feebly lift a hand to say, here, too, is life and suffering. For an hour and a half did this ministering angel pursue his labor of mercy, nor ceased to go and return until he had relieved all of the wounded on that part of the field. He returned wholly unhurt.

Kershaw’s recollections, titled “Richard Kirkland, the Humane Hero of Fredericksburg,” originally appeared in The Charleston News and Courier in January 1880 and was reprinted 12 days later in The New York Times. Later accounts, attributed to Kirkland’s fellow soldiers in the Second South Carolina, added new details, including that shouts went up from friend and foe alike in recognition of his brave deed. Other versions of the story contended that Kirkland was under fire throughout his errand, and at least one reported that he was wounded during its performance.

Regardless of the details, the legend of “The Angel of Marye’s Heights” blossomed. Near the turn of the century, the artist William Ludwell Sheppard painted the now-iconic scene of Kirkland giving water to a wounded Union soldier, and in 1908 the poet Walter Clark penned a moving tribute to the young South Carolinian. A year later, Kirkland’s remains were disinterred from the neglected, overgrown family plot and given a “more prestigious burial” beneath a large engraved stone in the town’s Quaker cemetery in Camden, S.C. In 1910 local school children financed a memorial fountain that was erected in Kirkland’s honor.

Until recently, the story of Kirkland’s noble mission of mercy at Fredericksburg was generally accepted as fact, even if some of the details were hazy and insupportable. However, several modern historians have looked more closely at the relevant documents and concluded that, even if a Confederate soldier did go over the wall to bring water to a prostrate federal, there is little evidence that it was Richard Kirkland, and even less that whoever it was spent more than a few minutes performing his act of kindness. There were, for example, thousands of potential eyewitnesses and few ever offered corroborating evidence. What such accounts do note, however, is that there was consistent skirmishing all day by both sides. If the shooting had indeed paused for an hour and a half, as Kershaw related, wouldn’t someone else have mentioned it?
Historians also note that Kershaw himself could not have observed details that he claimed to remember more than 17 years later. Perhaps, they suggest, Kershaw was more interested in helping to heal the nation’s wounds, or to bring a humane perspective to the Confederate cause, than he was in describing historical fact.

That said, the accounts of at least two combatants and a writer do discuss. But the accounts don’t jibe with Kershaw’s, or with each other. James Hagood, a colonel with the First South Carolina, noted how a Confederate soldier did in fact bring water to a wounded Union man, who raised his canteen to signal to his comrades that he was all right, causing all Union sniping to cease. Augustus Dickert, a captain with the Third South Carolina, cited the same incident but credited a Georgia soldier with the brave and kind act — and noted that he “then made his way back and over the wall amid a hail of bullets knocking up the dirt all around him.”

Six weeks after the battle, Walt Whitman, who was then working as a nurse and correspondent in a Washington hospital, recorded being told by a wounded Union soldier that, as he lay between the lines, “several of the rebels, soldiers and others, came to him at one time and other” and that one “middle-aged man” moved about the field, “among the dead and wounded for benevolent purposes.”

So, is the Richard Kirkland story true? Looking at the available evidence, it’s almost certain that a Confederate did risk his life to bring water to at least one wounded federal soldier, and if that “angel of mercy” must be identified, odds are probably better than even that it was indeed Kirkland. While Kershaw likely embellished his recollections of the incident for his letter to the News and Courier, it’s just as likely that he named Kirkland as “The Angel of Marye’s Heights” for no other reason than that he believed it himself.

Kirkland went on to fight at the battles of Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Chickamauga. At the last of these, he and two comrades advanced too far in front of their unit, and he was mortally wounded while trying to cover their retreat. Refusing his friends’ offers to assist him, he gasped: “I am done for. You can do me no good. Save yourselves and please tell my pa I died right.” Kirkland was barely 20 years old.

The Intelligencer, Anderson South Carolina 12 Feb 1880, Thu, First Edition

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