Richard Kirkland, "The Angel of Marye's Heights"

On Wednesday, May 28th, 2008 I had the honor and privilege of speaking to the Fredericksburg Civil War Roundtable at the Jepson Alumni Center at Mary Washington University. The FCWRT is one of the oldest in the country and was founded in 1952. The overall theme of my presentation was the life, death, and legacy of Confederate Infantry Sgt. Richard Rowland Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers. My focus went beyond this extraordinary soldier's life story to show how the memory of his humanitarian act here at Fredericksburg became so important to the country when commemorating the war in later years. The transcripts of my lecture are below:


Thank you Jim. Good evening folks. It is certainly an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to speak to you tonight. When Mr. Ford contacted me, he initially requested a presentation on 'Stonewall' Jackson. However, when I heard that the theme of this year was "Great Lives that Touched Fredericksburg during the Civil War," there was perhaps no greater choice of topic in my opinion than that of Sgt. Richard Rowland Kirkland.

Like many of you, I have been a longtime admirer of the story of the 'Angel of Marye's Heights' and this presentation forced me to further research what is truly an extraordinary life.

It was no surprise that I was able to retrieve some great sources for this evening's talk. Mac Wycoff of the National Park Service has done a wonderful job compiling and publishing information on Sgt. Kirkland. I was able to find a variety of materials in the bound volumes at Chatham, as well as in a short biography written by a novice historian named Les Carroll. I was also able to get transcripts of Kirkland's personal letters from Susan Sweet of the Orange County Round Table out in California.

Although I had previously published an essay on Kirkland, as well as a chapter in my devotional titled "The Southern Samaritan," I still believe that I have just begun to scratch the surface of this remarkable man's story, which has inevitably touched me.

As a result, I am now in the process of trying to develop a walking tour that will feature Kirkland's story from a Christian perspective called 'Battlefield Blessings.' If anyone is interested in discussing that venture, please feel free to contact me after this talk.

So let's begin this evening with a couple simple questions: What is so special about this man and the act of humanity that he exhibited amidst the madness of war? And how did a young man from South Carolina leave such an indelible mark not only on Fredericksburg, Virginia, but ultimately on the rest of the country?

Well for one, Kirkland's legacy is based first and foremost on a true story. It is an inspirational story. It is an uplifting story. Even in some respects it is an unbelievable story. But it is both amazing, and true.

Now I'll be the first to admit that much of our Civil War history is far too often mired in folklore and myth. We historians are guilty at times of romanticizing things that should not be romanticized and idolizing people who shouldn't be idolized.

Yet this single incident that occurred here in Fredericksburg is revered because it is as profound and inspirational as it sounds. It is one of those rare instances when reality reads like a Hollywood script and remains reality.

I was amazed while browsing through the NPS archives by the number of accounts from eyewitnesses that repeatedly corroborate the story of the 'Angel of Marye's Heights.' Time and time again, memoirs repeated the same story over and over.

So it leaves little doubt in my mind. We are NOT propagating a legend. However, we must also acknowledge that the telling of this tale has been embellished and marketed over and over in a variety of capacities through the years. Tonight I will show both sides.

While researching Kirkland's history I was fascinated with the monumental efforts that were put forth during the Civil War Centennial to commemorate the event by everyone from the Confederate Veteran's Association to the U.S. House of Representatives.

I will be quoting a number of those sources, along with excerpts from my own book and memoirs from those who knew the man himself.

Ultimately there is perhaps no other single event here in Fredericksburg that has captured the hearts and minds of both citizens and soldiers like this one. It is after all, the largest marker on the field near the stone wall and therefore the Kirkland Monument is essentially the identifying 'universal' symbol of the battlefield.


Additionally, the 'character' of Sgt. Kirkland has become a historical 'pop-icon' of sorts as the likeness of his deed has become forever frozen through the marketing of statues, figurines, paintings and toys. These are just a few of the items I was able to find. In essence, he has become a souvenir, maybe even a brand... a 19th-century "Good Samaritan" if you will.


Of course Kirkland has also been cast in sculpture. One adorns the field here in Fredericksburg, while another sits in the courtyard at the National Civil War Museum up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I think that speak volumes. Of all the significant subjects to choose from, the country's national museum selected this event and this likeness for their site too.

Honestly, I can't think of any other action by an enlisted man during the Civil War that has been more celebrated than this one.

So it is with that premise that I present to you tonight the life, death, and legacy of Sgt. Kirkland. It is my hope that you will leave here with a greater appreciation not only for an act of charity that momentarily stopped the war, but for the entire life of the man who was more than just the 'Angel of Marye's Heights.'