This week marks the 150th anniversary of The Battle of Fredericksburg. As a Fredericksburg resident and local historian, I have had the pleasure of writing several books, dozens of articles and blog posts, four lectures, and multiple tours presenting the tragic events of December 11-15 of 1862. Of all the projects that I have been involved in, none has given me a greater sense of pride and purpose than this one…
(And here is a BONUS associated lecture that I presented on the 123rd PA Volunteers who may have recieved aid from Richard Kirkland on that fateful day.)
Every Civil War writer has quoted either Union General William T. Sherman's statement of "War is all Hell," or the Confederacy's supreme commander, Robert E. Lee, when he said "It is well that war is so terrible-lest we should grow too fond of it." Both of these men were among the greatest generals ever to set foot on a battlefield, yet their obvious distaste for the very acts that made them legendary resonates from these lines. As a historian, one must always be careful not to "over-romanticize" war and to be constantly aware of the cold, sometimes harsh realities of the people and times that they portray. This is a dilemma that has plagued military critics for centuries, resulting in both revisionist and apologist histories being written again and again.
However, for every heartbreak in wartime there has also been heroism, and for every tragedy, there has also been triumph. This is what makes the history of warfare worthy of our attention and justifies the energy we spend to preserve its memory for future generations. It is the good stories, the ones that reflect life (not death), the ones founded on courage and mercy that demand our interest. This is the side of war that truly needs to be commemorated as it reminds us all what it means to be human.
One such incident is the story of Sergeant Richard Rowland Kirkland, otherwise known as "The Angel of Marye's Heights." Perhaps remembered as the most compassionate and heroic character in Civil War memory, this lone Confederate soldier's conduct has become one of the most touching and inspirational subjects ever to come out of the War Between the States.
By the winter of 1862, Gen. Robert E. Lee's forces had claimed several key battlefields in the Eastern Campaign. One of the biggest and most "one-sided" southern victories took place during the Battle of Fredericksburg. In retrospect, the term slaughter would perhaps be more appropriate for this affair. Early in the morning on December 13, 1862, Union forces began a desperate and doomed assault on a fortified position, known today as the "stone wall at the sunken road."
After crossing the Rappahannock River and taking possession of Fredericksburg, the Federal Army of the Potomac set its sights on taking the surrounding area where the Army of Northern Virginia had withdrawn. Perhaps a little too confident after experiencing only minor skirmishes in the town, the Union commanders failed to realize the brilliant tactical deployments established by Lee's lieutenants. By intentionally leaving the town to the enemy, Confederate forces were able to fortify their positions in anticipation of the arrival of the Federals. The most impenetrable of these positions was a long stone wall at the base of a sloping hill known as Marye's Heights. Overlooking the field stood another "virtual" wall of Confederate artillery, cavalry and support troops that extended for miles in both directions. An attack would be a suicide mission.
In order to reach the enemy, Union soldiers had to ford a canal ditch and then cross a vast open field with little or no cover. As soon as they left the tree line, a massive artillery barrage, joined by almost uncountable rifle fire, rained down upon the advancing men. Those that were able to escape the cannon were slowed by a slope that led to a fortified stone wall lining a sunken road. Behind the wall, soldiers knelt two and three ranks deep, with the front line firing and the rest reloading musket after musket. The result was a continuous hail of fire that cut rows and rows of men down before they could even get into position.
Wave after wave of Union soldiers left the safety of the canal ditch and were slaughtered. The death toll was staggering. In just one hour the Federals suffered more than 3,000 dead. After fifteen unsuccessful charges, the fighting ceased for the night, leaving the field littered with thousands of bloody bodies. Around midnight, Federal troops ventured forth under cover of darkness to gather what wounded they could find, but many were too close to the Confederate line to retrieve. Throughout the night, screams and cries of the wounded penetrated the peaceful silence of the cease-fire.
A Confederate soldier stationed at the wall later stated that it was "weird, unearthly, terrible to hear and bear the cries of the dying soldiers filling the air -lying crippled on a hillside so many miles from home-breaking the hearts of soldiers on both sides of the battlefield."
One soldier, Richard Rowland Kirkland, an infantry sergeant with the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, struggled to rest amidst the horrid sounds of suffering that echoed across the field. A combat veteran, he was accustomed to the dead and dying, having seen action at Manassas, Savage Station, Maryland Heights and Antietam. By the morning of the 14th, he could take it no longer and requested permission to aid the enemy.
Initially, his commanding officer General Joseph B. Kershaw was reluctant, as Kirkland would likely be shot dead by Union sharpshooters when he cleared the wall. He later granted the persistent soldier his request, but forbid him to carry a flag of truce. Determined to do the right thing and with total disregard for his own safety, Kirkland grabbed several canteens and leaped over the fortification. Instantly several shots rang out as the Union soldiers thought their wounded were under attack. Realizing the sincerity of Kirkland's effort, the Federal marksmen lowered the barrels of their rifles. Thus, the fatal shot never came and both sides looked on in amazement as the sergeant moved from one wounded man in blue to another. Going back and forth over the wall for an hour and a half, Kirkland only returned to the safety of his own lines after he had done all he could do.
A fellow soldier in Kirkland's company later recalled the incident in part of a short narrative entitled "The Confederate Veteran" that was published in 1903. He wrote, "The enemy saw him and supposing his purpose was to rob the dead and wounded, rained shot and shell upon the brave Samaritan. God took care of him. Soon he lifted the head of one of the wounded enemy, placed the canteen to his lips and cooled his burning thirst. His motivation was then seen and the fire silenced. Shout after shout went up from friend and foe alike in honor of this brave deed."
In the end, this soldier's action resulted in much more than a moment of mercy. It was a moment that stopped the entire Civil War and reminded those around him that, regardless of their circumstances, one should always strive to show compassion for his fellow man.
Kirkland's final fight would come during the bloody battle at Chickamauga. Here he would fall, yet be remembered in the same heroic fashion as he was after Fredericksburg. According to one account:
"In September of 1863, [Sergeant Richard Rowland] Kirkland would find himself fighting in the western theater as a detachment from Lieutenant General [James] Longstreet's Corps moved west to support Confederate General Braxton Bragg's efforts to stop Union Major General William Starke Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland. They would do just that during the Battle of Chickamauga, which would produce both a Southern victory and 34,600 casualties. Sadly, the valiant sergeant ranked among those killed during this colossal battle. Mortally wounded in a failed charge, Kirkland exhorted his comrades to, 'Save yourselves' adding 'Tell Pa, I died right.'"
In 1965, a monument was sculpted by the artist Felix DeWeldon and unveiled in front of the stone wall on the Fredericksburg battlefield where Kirkland performed his humanitarian act. The inscription on the statue reads: "At the risk of his life, this American soldier of sublime compassion brought water to his wounded foes at Fredericksburg. The fighting men on both sides of the line called him the Angel of Marye's Heights."
For more, visit GREAT LIVES THAT TOUCHED FREDERICKSBURG DURING THE CIVIL WAR Richard Kirkland, "The Angel of Marye's Heights" by Michael Aubrecht