“He Has Essentially Stopped the Entire American Civil War in Virginia”

Update #2: I haven’t seen any kind of review of the movie in the local Fredericksburg papers, but Michael Aubrecht posted a few comments on his blog.  As I stated below, I have not seen the movie, but plan to do so at some point.  Regardless of the movie’s interpretation I am pleased to read that the premiere was well attended.  The folks involved put a great deal of work into this production and it’s always nice to see hard work rewarded.

Update: I want to make it perfectly clear that my comments should not be read in any way as a critique of this movie.  I HAVE NOT SEEN IT.  My comments should be understood as more general critique of the story’s continued popularity in our collective memory of the Civil War.  The movie may, in fact, take a completely different approach to understanding Kirkland’s actions and its broader meaning than what passes as the standard interpretation.  I am not even suggesting that people not attend this premiere.  If I were in the area I would love to see what Aubrecht and Ross have come up with.  More than likely I will order a copy of the film for analysis in my Civil War class.

Michael Zitz’s article on the premiere of the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” – a film about Sgt. Richard Kirkland – along with my interview, appeared in today’s Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.  It looks like both Clint Ross and Michael Aubrecht were asked to respond to my concerns about the veracity of the story.  Unfortunately, nothing that was said challenges the core problem with this story, which is a lack of wartime sources.  Aubrecht actually suggests that skeptics prove a negative:

All I can say at this point is that every historian involved with this project, both in front of and behind the camera, to include the Fredericksburg National Park Service who are the custodians of Kirkland’s memory, have found no evidence that disproves this story.

I don’t know how anyone would go about trying to prove that it didn’t happen given the lack of evidence and it is dishonest to paint the NPS in Fredericksburg as somehow united in their belief that the Kirkland story is true.

Ross also fails to add anything constructive:

I spent time at the Fredericksburg National Park Service researching the event, and discovered several legitimate facts and names surrounding Kirkland.  As I dove deeper into the story, I was lead to names and organizations such as The Daughters of Confederacy–The Kershaw Chapter, Mac Wycoff, Donald Pfanz, [and] Michael Aubrecht. These guys had done their research and committed years to the subject of Kirkland and the Civil War.

If there is an argument here as to why the postwar accounts ought to be accepted than make it.  Anything else is nothing less than a distraction.  There is also nothing on the website for the film that would support a specific reading of the evidence.  As Ross makes clear, however, “This film is not as much about proving the validity of the story as much as it is, well, simply telling the story.”

It’s about telling the kind of story that Americans want to hear about their Civil War.  We want to think of ourselves and even our Civil War as a reflection of our exceptionalism as Americans, that even in the heat of battle we can transcend the worst form of violence to discover our true character.  We want to believe that “Kirkland and his comrades were trying to sleep” as the Union soldiers lay trapped and wounded on the slopes below Marye’s Heights.  We want to believe that Kirkland’s “conscience took over” and that the cries of the wounded “touches his heart” even if there is absolutely no reliable evidence as to what he felt and believed.

Aubrecht sums it up beautifully in one of the trailer videos when he suggests that for one hour Kirkland “has essentially stopped the entire Civil War in Virginia.”  There is something very comforting in that thought, but it is also disturbing and inaccurate on a number of levels.  Whether it was one hour or fifteen minutes is irrelevant.  It obscures the fact that the battle of Fredericksburg extended beyond the confines of the Sunken Road at Marye’s Heights.  It ignores the suffering of the civilians who were displaced from their homes as a result of the Union bombardment and sacking of the town.  Beyond Fredericksburg, it ignores the suffering of Virginia farmers and civilians who had to deal with the hardships of war for over a year and it ignores the dangers faced on the part of many slaves, who risked their lives to escape to Union lines.  More importantly, such a claim tells us little about Kirkland, who we are to believe stands above this culture of death and suffering.  The narrative reinforces such a view in the continued resistance that Kirkland faced from his own officers when the idea of aiding his enemy was first suggested.  I want to know how many Union soldiers Kirkland killed before and after this incident, not because I am attracted to bloodthirsty stories of killing, but because he was a soldier in a horrible war.  And don’t tell us that Kirkland and his comrades had trouble sleeping following the battle without discussing the fact that there were surely soldiers in the ranks who slepped just fine and even believed that the Union soldiers deserved their fate.

In short, this story makes the war palatable for many and allows us to celebrate it without having to come to terms with its horrors.  We don’t need more of this, we need less of it, especially at a time when we have thousands of men and women in uniform fighting in Afghanistan.  We need stories that remind us of the physical and psychological effects of war rather than stories that give us a reason to celebrate war and ourselves.

19 responses... add one

Kevin:

I’m an agnostic on the factual truth Richard Kirkland story. You’re correct in that it too conveniently conforms to postwar memes of reconciliation and charity — hands across the wall and all that — and that in itself should give one pause. And the film’s producers falling back on the “you can’t prove it didn’t happen” argument is de facto acknowledgment that strong evidence is lacking.

But I am concerned about what seems to be a larger, inferred point, that events that are only recorded long after the war without direct, contemporaneous evidence should be discounted. That would seem to exclude a huge chunk of first-person material, often in the form of memoirs written decades after the event, that cannot be directly corroborated elsewhere. I’m sure that’s not quite what you meant, but it can be construed that way. Can you elaborate on that, maybe here or in another post?

Andy,

That’s a great question. No, I don’t necessarily discount postwar sources, but I do think we need to careful as historians with how we use them. I would love to hear how others handle these sources. I am not necessarily suggesting here that we discount the postwar sources concerning Kirkland; however, we need an argument beyond the silly assertion that you can’t prove that it didn’t happen. That gets us nowhere. My concern here is that so many of these sources wax poetic about what motivated Kirkland and what he was thinking at the time. I would suggest that we tread very carefully when trying to discern motivation. It’s difficult enough when you have written sources by the individual in question.

One of the things that I try to do in these cases is look for accounts that were written independently from one another. That is at least a start. I am going to give this some more thought, but I do want to hear what others think. Thanks again, Andy.

Thanks for the quick response. You’re entirely correct about the way many secondary accounts simply go too far in ascribing motivations or thoughts to historical figures, based on nothing at all. That’s something I’ve had to continually remind myself in looking at my own family’s CW history — beyond a handful of contemporary service records and family stories — filtered through several generations’ worth of edits/revisions/restructuring — there’s still very little we know about them as individuals.

I’m increasingly convinced that that is what separates serious historical analysis from purely “heritage” or hobbyist work — both work from the same sources, often with the same diligence, but the former understand just how far the sources can take them, and no further. The latter blow right past the road sign that says “Now Entering Speculationville” without ever noticing it.

As a historian I wanted to know what motivated Kershaw to tell the story of Richard Kirkland and why he waited so long to tell the story. I did not expect to find an answer to my questions, but I did. The answer was found in the South Carolina newspapers of 1880. It turns out that a reporter for a newspaper was told by a member of the 2nd South Carolina (Kirkland’s unit) that a member of his unit had performed a noble act of giving water to Union soldiers at the Battle of Fredericksburg. The veteran told the reporter that he could get more details from General Joseph Kershaw, the original commander of the 2nd South Carolina and brigade commander at Fredericksburg. The reporter wrote the story and asked if Kershaw could provide details. Kershaw’s article appeared in the newspaper six days later telling the story as we know it today. Kershaw’s motivation was simply he had been asked to do so. Over the next few years, several members of the 2nd South Carolina confirmed the details of Kershaw’s story and the name of Richard Kirkland. It is signficiant that not a single member of the 2nd South Carolina challenged the veracity of the story which became quiet well known in South Carolina by 1900. Kershaw was a prominent figure in South Carolina politcs after the war so had naturally developed some political opponents. Not one of them challenged Kerhaw’s statement about the Kirkland incident. The details of my research on Kirkland including the 1880 newspaper articles and the statements by other members of the 2nd South Carolina are in the Kirkland file in the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center.

Mac,

Thanks once again for chiming in on this fascinating subject. Few people have spent more time than you in researching this story. First, let me be clear that I’ve never denied that an act along the lines of what is described in Kershaw’s letter never took place. In fact, I’ve even suggested that perhaps it occurred more than once at Fredericksburg. As you may know I write mainly about historical memory and I am finishing up a manuscript on the how the battle of the Crater was remembered throughout the postwar period. My natural stance when dealing with postwar sources written so long after the fact tends to be one of skepticism. You yourself raise a number of interesting facts about Kershaw life after the war that may have influenced the way he remembered the war. That is not to suggest that the event in question did not happen, but it does leave room for serious doubt about some of the details. I find it interesting that the confirmations you reference were among the veterans of the unit. What about sources from the Federal side? Can you point me to the earliest account?

As I’ve said along, in the end I am not so concerned about whether the story is true. I am much more interested in what our obsession with this story tells us about the way we choose to remember our Civil War. Once again, thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

Here is a link to Kershaw’s 1880 letter for those of you not familiar with it: http://ehistory.osu.edu/uscw/features/regimental/south_carolina/confederate/KershawsBrigade/MHs.cfm

Thanks for the link to the letter, and to Mac for the explanation. Is there a published work that goes through all the sources and permutations of the story?

I wonder if Kershaw’s letter is the original (only?) source for kirkland’s promotion, as it’s not reflected in his service file.

I have a question. Are there any Union accounts—wartime or postwar—that describe Kirkland or someone like him aiding the wounded on Marye’s Heights? Are all the accounts from Confederate sources?

Hi Timothy,

I asked the very same question in my last comment to Mac. Let’s hope we can get an answer to that one.

“In short, this story makes the war palatable for many and allows us to celebrate it without having to come to terms with its horrors. We don’t need more of this, we need less of it, especially at a time when we have thousands of men and women in uniform fighting in Afghanistan.”

So we should not watch this movie because it shows support for the war in Afghanistan?

“We need stories that remind us of the physical and psychological effects of war rather than stories that give us a reason to celebrate war and ourselves.”

As one who deals with the psychological, but thankfully less of the physical, effects of war on a daily basis, I’m concerned about the misappropriation of those issues here. Perhaps it is not what you meant to do, but the last paragraph in your post comes across that way.

Hi Craig,

Thanks for the comment. As to your first question I was suggesting that these kinds of stories distance us from the physical and psychological challenges of war. I don’t think I am saying anything along the lines that you are suggesting. Perhaps you can clarify your second point for me since I am not sure what point you are making. Thanks.

Kevin,
I’m not taking issue with your stance on the Kirkland story. I’m always open to interpretations, on that subject or others. So let me set that straight.

But in your rush, it seems to me you are evoking those mentioned effects of war as a prop. Maybe you don’t want stories that glorify and celebrate war. I’m with you there in most regards. But on the other hand, casting the physical and psychological effects as afflictions to be showcased as some hideous warning, is just as bad.

Craig.

Craig,

Not a problem. I guess I don’t see how I am doing what you are suggesting I am doing. My concern is that we are much too attracted to stories that romanticize war rather than trying to understand the hardships and horrors of battle. A few weeks ago I had a chance to view Pamplin Park’s new movie. Perhaps my thoughts concerning it will help you to better understand where I am coming from: http://cwmemory.com/2010/07/01/war-so-terrible/ Thanks again Craig.

Yes, I read that post too. I found “War So Terrible” far removed from my personal experience. “Gorefication” of war is just as bad as glorification. Must we educate by shock effect? (“Twilight” has made more than “Blade,” after all)

I have not seen “Angel of Marye’s Heights,” so I can only comment on the clips that Aubrecht has posted. It certainly does not look like a “Sands of Iwo Jima” movie.

Craig,

I would hope that a Civil War battle is far removed from your experience. I guess we have a different view of that movie as I didn’t see it as “Gorefication”.

Kevin-

Tony Horwitz, who has been a war correspondent, said that one of his biggest problems with Civil War reenactments was that they were too neat and clean and that real war is neither.

I’ve actually met Hodge a couple of times, through a mutual friend. Unfortunately, neither of the occasions was appropriate for a demonstration of that unique skill.

I live nearby and was there. I got in the first showing just before they closed the doors and the theater was all done up with lights and they were projecting pics on big screens. The film was shot beautifully and very well done and I would never have guessed that it was a first work. They show how fruitless the battle was and show the story without cheerleading. After the movie Ross and Aubrecht gave speeches. They wrote the thing together and tied it all in with preservation and education which was good. I could have done without so many re-enactors wandering around the after party but it was a fine showing. I met some of the cast who were signing posters. According to Ross they need cash to fund the DVD and hope to have this available to the public by the end of the year. It’s gonna show in the museum here now. They have a bunch of screenings set up. I know they did interviews for History TV and CW News, so maybe there will be a review for you there. Anyway this is not really a review, but the audience liked it alot.

Thanks so much for the comment. I’m not surprised that the audience enjoyed the movie. We can all agree that it is an appealing story. I look forward to seeing it at some point.

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