ABOVE: The back face of the Richard Kirkland Monument at the Fredericksburg Battlefield (M. Aubrecht)
Following the release of our documentary Clint and I arranged for several members of the local National Park Service to attend a private screening online. None of these gentlemen were directly involved with the project and we were very anxious to get their unbiased critiques. All of them obliged us and we are very grateful for their compliments and validation. Several of these historians are high-ranking authorities and their positive reviews left us with a tremendous sense of satisfaction (and relief).
In addition to their praise, they also offered up some constructive criticisms. One recurring issue that we were kindly, but consistently pinged on was the closing statement that Richard Kirkland had perished in combat as a lieutenant. This is wrong. As an ongoing debate over the validity of the story of "The Angel of Marye's Heights" is a hot-button topic (see Mysteries & Conundrums 3-part series), I thought that I would comment on this particular error.
Richard Kirkland was NOT a lieutenant - and Yes - I am the one who said so on camera. I believe my line goes something like: "Kirkland, who was a lieutenant at the time, was leading a group of men forward in battle when he accidentally advanced further ahead than his lines, putting himself in imminent danger." I said this when describing Kirkland's untimely demise at the Battle of Chickamauga. I've been saying it for years in both my presentations and tours.
Most of our critics agreed that this common mistake has been repeated for well over a century and that it was understandable that I would cite the fact in my own writings and commentary. This error was first stated in the 1880 Kershaw interview and it is also engraved on the back of the Kirkland Monument on the Fredericksburg Battlefield.
That said, I was still wrong and immediately wondered how such an apparent error could be so widespread and propagated for 130 years. I did a little research on the subject and have identified the following sources (including those penned by my own hand) to share. I do this not to defer or excuse my own error, but to illustrate how history must constantly be re-evaluated for accuracy and that none of us are perfect.
EXHIBIT 1: is taken directly from the Gen. J.B. Kershaw interview that was printed on page 1 of The News and Courier, Camden, S.C., January 2, 1880. In it Kershaw states that: "Little remains to be told. Sergt. Kirkland distinguished himself in battle at Gettysburg and was promoted to 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 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." (Note: The Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. VIII. Richmond, Virginia, No. 4 reprinted the article in April of that year.)
EXHIBIT 2: Mrs. Harold Hough, a historian for the John D. Kennedy Chapter of the UDC, Camden, SC, Kershaw County Historical Society cited Kirkland as a lieutenant in the opening line of her study entitled "A Rebel Against Injustice Richard Kirkland, Young Humanitarian of Kershaw County, South Carolina." She stated: "On September 20, 1863, Lieutenant Richard Kirkland, died in an unsuccessful spearhead attack before victory at Chickamauga. His last words, ‘Save yourselves, men and tell Pa I died right,' exhibited the same pattern of unselfishness he had shown less than a year before at Fredericksburg when he became known as the ‘Angel of Marye's Heights.'"
EXHIBIT 3: Cut to years later...my own take on the matter quoted from the lecture "Great Lives That Touched Fredericksburg During the Civil War: The Angel of Marye's Heights" which was delivered to the FCWRT at Mary Washington University. In the section titled "Gettysburg" I state, "By the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, Kershaw had been promoted to a brigadier general in McLaw's Division of Longstreet's Corps. His regiments (including Kirkland's 2nd) fought in the woods and fields of the George Rose farm as well as the infamous Wheatfield. It is said that Kirkland performed with great courage and distinguished himself in battle. He was enthusiastically promoted to the rank of Lieutenant."
EXHIBIT 4: Perhaps the most telling of all when examining how inaccurate history can be forever preserved and propagated is the rear inscription on the actual Richard Kirkland Monument which stands as perhaps the most recognized and significant statuary on the entire Fredericksburg Battlefield. In a summary of Kirkland's life it states: "Born Kershaw County, S.C., August, 1843 • Sergeant at Fredericksburg, December 1962 • Lieutenant at Gettysburg, July, 1863 • Killed in action at Chickamauga, September 1863."
Mac Wyckoff, a retired NPS historian and the leading authority on Richard Kirkland and the 2nd South Carolina recently penned a piece as part of an upcoming book that offers an explanation of how and why this happened.
In "Appendix B: THE ANGEL OF MARYE'S HEIGHTS CONTROVERSY" Mac states that: "The last controversy concerning Kirkland is his rank at the time of his death. As noted above, Kershaw stated that Kirkland was promoted from sergeant to lieutenant for gallantry at Gettysburg. There is no evidence to support this statement. At Gettysburg the captain of the Kirkland's company was killed and two lieutenants wounded, one seriously. It is therefore logical that as 1st sergeant, Kirkland became acting lieutenant and if he had lived longer would have been promoted. But the wheels of bureaucracy move slowly often taking many months before promotions became official. Kirkland's Compiled Service record at the National Archives clearly shows 1st sergeant as his rank when killed at Chickamauga. An article in the Camden newspaper listing the local soldiers killed at Chickamauga shows Kirkland's rank as sergeant."
Kirkland's obituary, printed on October 16, 1863 also correctly stated that he: "Fell, in the battle of Chickamauga, Sergeant R. R. Kirkland, in the 23d year of his age," and the Camden Volunteers post-war roster lists Kirkland as, "Sergeants: Richard Rowland Kirkland - Angel of Mercy promoted in the summer of 1862 - died at Chickamauga."
So Kershaw, Hough, DeWeldon and I all contributed in our own way to the propagation of this error by keeping it alive through our own works. A number of recent Civil War books have also quoted Kirkland at a higher rank and we all likely used the same sources in our research. Although I feel somewhat vindicated to be in such good company, I've said in the past that poor research leads to poor history and that our writings will be someone else's sources.
This is a perfect example of what happens when we assume things to be completely factual, simply because those who came before us did. Now as the producers of a documentary on Richard Kirkland, we can acknowledge his true rank when we have the opportunity and educate our audience beyond the film.
Our first review
Richard Williams, a renowned author, film producer, and historian has posted the first review of our film. We thank Richard for his very kind words about our production. READ HERE. (PS. I will have some special photos and insights from a recent trip to the Kirkland monument as well as an interesting commentary on an error. Stay tuned.)
An expert's analysis
ABOVE: Mac Wyckoff leading a tour at the sunken road. (NPS website)
“I just watched your Kirkland movie and was super impressed. Very well written and accurate script, use of historians, the graphics were excellent. Overall a very professional looking production. Great job!” - Mac Wyckoff
Mac Wyckoff is a retired historian from the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania National Military Park Service and THE leading professional authority on Richard Kirkland. Mac was responsible for researching and assembling the majority of source materials that were used in writing this film. We are honored to have Mac’s support and I am truly sorry that he retired and moved to the West Coast before we had a chance to film him for this documentary. His intellectual contributions to this project have been crucial and he continues to provide us with resources. I continue to quote him.
Mac is in the process of writing a book on the 2nd South Carolina (due to be released this winter) and generously sent us the copy from his Appendix B titled “The Angel of Marye’s Heights Controversy.” Our NPS friends over at Mysteries & Conundrums are posting an enhanced version of this study as a series: PART 1 – PART 2 – PART 3.
'The Angel' in Civil War News
Below is a transcript of the first ‘post-premiere article’ on The Angel of Marye’s Heights. (READ PDF) We thank Civil War News and Scott Boyd for their attention. We are also looking forward to the first formal review of the movie to come later this week courtesy of Richard Williams. For more details on upcoming screenings, the DVD status, and the latest news, visit www.theangelmovie.com.
Richard Kirkland Documentary Premieres In Fredericksburg
by Scott C. Boyd (Civil War News, Vol. XXXVI, No. 8, September 2010)
FREDERICKSBURG, Va. – The movie “The Angel of Marye’s Heights” premiered on July 24 in the city where its hero, Richard Kirkland, earned that nickname during the Battle of Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862.
The 30-minute documentary, full of dramatic scenes from the Kirkland’s life, played to a standing-room-only crowd of 200+ at the theater in the Central Rappahannock Regional Library’s downtown branch.
“When was the last time Fredericksburg had a world premiere of a film?” master-of-ceremonies Terry Thomann asked the crowd before the film began. “This is fantastic!”
Thomann is director of the National Civil War Life Museum and Foundation in Fredericksburg and a sponsor of the film.
Following the standing ovation at the end, the movie’s two principals, director Clint Ross and co-producer Michael Aubrecht, spoke about the project behind the film.
Ross traced the genesis of the film idea back to a magazine article he read eight years earlier about Kirkland, a sergeant in Co. G of the 2nd South Carolina Infantry Regiment.
After the horrific slaughter by the Confederates of Union troops assaulting the stone wall along Sunken Road at the foot of Marye’s Heights ended, Kirkland took pity on the enemy wounded he heard crying out in pain as they lay cut down in front of the wall. He risked his life to carry water to comfort the wounded men.
The film served as Ross’ thesis for his master’s degree in film and television from the Savannah College of Art and Design. For the short story film students were required to create, Ross said that he harkened back to the story of Richard Kirkland.
He originally proposed the film as a narrative, but his faculty advisors suggested that he do it as a documentary, and he took their advice. It took Ross and a group of collaborators 18 months to create. In addition to his directorial duties, he portrayed Kirkland as an adult.
His first collaborator was historian and writer Michael Aubrecht. When he Googled Richard Kirkland, Aubrecht’s name came up first. Ross said he was “blown away by Michael’s skill as a wordsmith.”
In thanking everyone and dedicating the film back to them, Ross said, “It is my prayer that this film honor my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and the message that it carries.”
“Kirkland wasn’t born a hero. He was a simple Southern boy from Camden, S.C., who fought in a war and fought in a horrific battle and came to a point where he made a decision that somebody else’s life was more important than his own,” Ross said.
“This film is really a tribute to the common citizen willing to take a risk for something that is greater than themselves,” Ross concluded.
Aubrecht told a tale about how the movie’s “bible” or “playbook” containing all the most minute details about the film was accidentally left behind at a shooting location after the film crew headed to the next site.
A man who remained anonymous found the binder, called the cell phone number he found inside and before long it was back with the production crew.
“That guy’s pretty much responsible for this entire film being completed,” Aubrecht said. “We’re going to have to add ‘The Binder Guy’ in quotes at the bottom of the credits because his contribution was second to none.”
The audience included many of the people associated with the film who had on-screen roles, like Fredericksburg National Park Service historian Don Pfanz, storyteller Megan Hicks, historian John Cummings and Richard Warren II, who portrayed Kirk-land as a young boy.
Richard’s parents attended with their son. “It’s very exciting and makes us very proud and thankful that he wanted to be a part of that,” his father, Rick Warren, said.
Kathleen Warren said young Richard’s involvement began with a homeschool project where he made a video of himself portraying Kirkland.
“Since I got the information on Kirkland from Mike Aubrecht, I sent him a copy of the video and he loved it,” Kathleen said. Aubrecht suggested she post the video on YouTube, which led to Ross seeing it and wanting to include young Richard in the film.
“It was a big thrill,” according to Richard who said he would like to do more acting.
“I was really amazed,” Cummings said. “The Lord has blessed us. We had a full room. It’s a fantastic product — a great story to tell as well.”
Although he has been in documentaries before, this film was “the first one I’ve been in as a ‘talking head’ to that length,” Cummings said.
“Our motto for our museum is, ‘We drank from the same canteen,’” Thomann said. “What better way of illustrating that motto than the story of Richard Kirkland.”
The movie is shown daily at the National Civil War Life Museum at 829 Caroline St. in downtown Fredericksburg. Hours are 10-5 Monday-Saturday and 12-5 Sunday. The admission of $5 for adults and $2.50 for children includes the movie. For information, (540) 834-1859, www.civilwarlife.org, www.theangelmovie.com.