Throughout the Civil War, there are stories that get told over and over again until they take on a life and validity of their own. Some facts may be stretched, exaggerated, or obscured by its constant retelling, but the essence of it remains intact through the decades. The story of The Angel of Maryes Heights is one of them.
Bear with me as I tell you how I first heard about Sgt. Richard Kirkland. We were visiting the Virginia Museum of the Civil War in New Market this past August. There are two levels to the museum experience. The top level explains the general events that unfold during the Civil War and the bottom level is dedicated to telling about the battle that occurred in New Market. On the top level, at the Fredericksburg section, there was a little diorama set into the wall. You push the button and the speaker overhead gives you the “low down” on the battle. But the diorama intrigued me. The figurine inside showed a Confederate soldier giving water and aid to a wounded Union soldier at the base of Maryes Heights. The narrator gave a brief (maybe a couple of sentences) explanation about Sgt. Richard Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina and how he braved the risk of being shot down by snipers to distribute water to the dying enemy.
I took a picture of the display and made a mental note that I would need to find out more about this guy. Why did he do this? Who all bore witness to this great act of mercy and heroism? What did he do after the war? My research disappointed me.
Kirkland gives no personal testimony for his behavior. Only one general gives any claim to having seen Kirkland do these things. And then Kirkland died long before he could see the end of this bloody and costly war, having been shot at the battle of Chickamauga in September of 1863.
But despite this lack of contemporary evidence of Kirkland’s acts, his name has been immortalized in history books about the battle of Fredericksburg and there’s a monument to him on the battlefield. If you haven’t heard of Kirkland, let me give you an overview.
Richard Kirkland was born in Flat Rock, South Carolina in August of 1843. He had a typical upbringing, education, etc. When the war broke out in 1861, he enlisted and was mustered into Company E, 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, but was later transferred to Company G of the same regiment. He worked up through the ranks to Sergeant (whether 1st through 4th is unsure) and fought in many of the major engagements with the Army of Northern Virginia. Manassas, Seven Days, Antietam, and now he found himself in Fredericksburg in December of 1862.
Though Antietam was the bloodiest single day of the war, the fighting along Maryes Heights would prove to be one of the most horrific experiences for soldiers on both sides. The futile attempt of the Federals to charge the stone wall, coupled with the hail of musket fire poured down by the entrenched Confederates made for a total killing zone. For many, it was too much to bear.
The story is that Sgt. Richard Kirkland went to his general at the Stephens House (situated just about halfway along the stonewall in front of Cobb’s Legion) and pleaded with him, “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 was flabbergasted by the request and reminded the sergeant that if he tried to do that, he would be shot down. This was on December 14th, the day after the slaughter, and both sides kept up a constant picket, shooting at anything that moved. If Kirkland jumped the wall, he’d be shot for sure.
“Yes, sir,” he said in response, “I know that; but if you will let me, I am willing to try it.”
Seeing the 19 year old’s eagerness, the general finally consented, but told him not to make any show of surrender or truce. No white flag. No white handkerchief. He was on his own.
Some details vary after this point, whether Kirkland took only one canteen or collected canteens from those of his regiment who were willing to spare it for a generous cause. He took the water and went straight to the nearest Union soldier who was still alive near the wall. If we can cross-reference this with the reports given after the battle, that meant Kirkland would have had to cross at least forty to fifty yards of open ground before reaching his first patient. The bullets that the general was sure would find Kirkland were never fired, as both sides realized what the man was trying to do.
For a reported hour and a half, Kirkland trekked across the field in front of Maryes Heights – as far as he dared – and gave water to the wounded and dying men that he and the Georgians had shot down the day before. When he returned, sniper fire resumed. Kirkland would earn the nickname of “The Angel of Maryes Heights”.
There are several flaws with this story, but the single fact rings out that the only account of this heroic deed comes from General Joshua Brevard Kershaw and was written for publication by “Charleston News and Courier”, several years after the war in 1880. Not a single letter, memoir, or official report mentions Richard Kirkland by name as being The Angel of Maryes Heights. Not even in “The War of the Rebellion, the official records of the Union and Confederate Armies”, published by the War Department between 1880 and 1891 – which can be considered the best primary source available for battle accounts – was Richard Kirkland mentioned. There are accounts of chaplains and medics tending to the wounded after the battle, but none of them were Kirkland.
One account, given in in Augustus Dickert’s 1899 book, “History of Kershaw’s Brigade” mentions a Georgian who does something similar to Kirkland, narrated in pages 196-197.
“In one of the first charges made during the day a Federal had fallen, and to protect himself as much as possible from the bullets of his enemies, he had by sheer force of will pulled his body along until he had neared the wall. Then he failed through pure exhaustion. From loss of blood and the exposure of the sun’s rays, he called loudly for water…. To go to his rescue was to court certain death… But one brave soldier from Georgia dared all, and during the lull in the firing leaped the walls, rushed to the wounded soldier, and raising his head in his arms, gave him a drink of water, then made his way back and over the wall amid a hail of bullets knocking the dirt up all around him.”
Again, this is one account and is substantiated no where else. However, could these be the same men? In an article written by Michael Schaffner in 2009 titled “Is the Richard Kirkland Story True?”, he gives the suggestion that they might be. Or, at least this Georgian might have been the origin of Kirkland’s parable and General Kershaw embellished it. The 2nd South Carolina did fall in behind the Georgians along the wall. And given the tiered system of firing implemented during the battle (four rows of alternating shooters), it is probable that the above account was actually a South Carolinian and not a Georgian.
Richard Kirkland was shot at Chickamauga on September 20th, 1863, less than a year after his immortalized deed at Fredericksburg. He was taken back to his hometown where he was buried in the Quaker Cemetery in Camden, South Carolina. His grave marker proclaims his notoriety as the Angel of Maryes Heights. General Kershaw, the man who breathed life into his myth, was also buried in the same cemetery after his death in 1894.
Shaffner, in his article, goes on to further “debunk” the legend of Richard Kirkland and theorize that though it’s inconclusive whether Kirkland did the deed or not, it’s the spirit of the story that matters. There are countless other stories of acts like this upon the battlefield. Confederate surgeons giving aid to Union soldiers, Union civilians giving shelter to Confederate troops, soldiers on both sides trading tobacco, coffee, water, newspapers, etc.
Richard Kirkland serves as a tangible reminder that mercy has its place in war. That human beings can still exhibit compassion and kindness in the middle of so much destruction and hatred. It shows that the soldiers did have hearts and free wills to give charity. Even if Richard Kirkland didn’t do these things, history uses him as a tool to remind us of our humanity and obligation to our fellow man.
J.B Kirkland, “Richard Kirkland, The Humane Hero Of Fredericksburg”, Charleston News and Courier Newspaper, January 1880. https://civilwarhome.com/kirklandhero.htm (Accessed September 1st, 2019)
Michael Shaffner, “Is the Richard Kirkland Story True?”, Civil War Memory, The Online Home of Kevin M. Levin, December 22nd, 2009. http://cwmemory.com/2009/12/22/is-the-richard-kirkland-story-true/ (Accessed September 1st, 2019)
Photos of the Monument from: http://stonesentinels.com/fredericksburg/tour-battlefield/stop-one/kirkland-monument/
Richard Kirkland, Find-A-Grave, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/4063 (Accessed September 1st, 2019)