Best of 2009

Once again, thanks to all of you for making Civil War Memory part of your daily Online travels.  There were plenty of good books published in the field of Civil War history in 2009 and 2010 looks to be just as good.  Listed below are a few of my favorite titles from the past year.  I hope all of you are enjoying the Holiday Season.

Best History Blog: American History Now This was the easiest pick of the year.  Those of you well versed in the historiography of Civil War memory studies may be familiar with Jim Cullen’s book, The Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past.  Somehow between his many publications and teaching, Jim has managed to maintain what is in my mind one of the best history/teaching blogs.  He blogs about all things American history and culture and his ongoing series about a fictional history teacher is a must read.  This is intelligent and creative blogging at its best.

Best Civil War Blog: Gettysburg Daily Can’t get to Gettysburg?  The next best thing is a regularly updated blog that is packed with beautiful photographs, panoramas, and tours with Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guides.  A great deal of work goes into each post, which leaves one wondering how they are able to maintain the site on a regular basis.  Well, however they do it, I just want to say that it is appreciated by this Civil War enthusiast.

Best History Book of 2009: Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1798-1815 (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Best Overall Civil War History: Marc Egnal, Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War (Hill and Wang, 2009).

Best Campaign Study: William Shea, Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

Best Biography: Joan Waugh, U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

Best Confederate Study: Barton Myers, Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Community, 1861-1865 (Louisiana State University Press, 2009).

Best Union Study: Stephen Ramold, Baring the Iron Hand: Discipline in the Union Army (Northern Illinois University Press, 2009).

Best Slavery Study: Lacy Ford, Deliver Us From Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Best Memory Study: Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape (University of California Press, 2009).

Best Edited Collection: Lee Ann Whites and Alicia P. Long, Occupied Women: Gender, Military Occupation and the American Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2009).

Best Social History: Jeffrey McClurken, Take Care of the Living: Reconstructing Confederate Veteran Families in Virginia (University of Virginia Press, 2009).

Some good things to look forward to in 2010: Shearer Davis Bowman, At the Precipice: Americans North and South During the Secession Crisis (UNC Press and the Littlefield Series, June 2010); William W. Freehling, Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union (University of Virginia Press, April 2010); Kenneth W. Noe, Reluctant Rebels: Confederates Who Joined the Army After 1861 (University of North Carolina Press, April 2010); Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Harvard University Press, April 2010); C.S. Manegold, Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North (Princeton University Press, January 2010); Larry Logue and Peter Blanck eds., Race, Ethnicity, and the Treatment of Disability in Post-Civil War America (Cambridge University Press, June 2010).

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Does It Matter Whether the Richard Kirkland Story is True?

Angel of Marye’s Heights by Mort Kunstler

Note: For additional commentary, check out Tim Abbott’s post on Kirkland at Walking the Berkshires.


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Is the Richard Kirkland Story True?

The following guest post by Michael Schaffner examines the wartime evidence for the Kirkland story.  It is a thoroughly researched essay and is well worth your time.  I should point out that Mr. Schaffner did not set out to write a piece debunking this particular story.  Like many of us he was curious about the origin and veracity of Civil War stories.

In 1965, a group comprising among others the states of South Carolina and Virginia, Collateral Descendents of Richard Kirkland, and the Richard Rowland Kirkland Memorial Foundation, erected a statue at Fredericksburg to the memory of Sergeant Kirkland of the Second South Carolina Volunteers.  The inscription 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.’”

The exact deed for which Kirkland received this accolade was first and most extensively described by J. B. Kershaw, commander of the brigade in which Kirkland served, in a letter to the Charleston News and Courier dated January 2, 1880.

In brief (see Appendix A for the entire letter), after providing some background on Kirkland’s family, Kershaw describes the scene on December 14 at his head quarters in the Stevens’ house by the sunken road and stone wall at the foot of Marye’s Heights.  The previous day, a series of failed Union assaults had left thousands of casualties.  As Kershaw surveys the carnage he is interrupted by a sergeant in his brigade, who asks permission to carry water to the wounded Union soldiers, whose cries have moved him since the previous evening.  Due to the danger from a day-long “murderous skirmish” with Syke’s regulars, Kershaw only reluctantly approves the young man’s request.  Even then he refuses Kirkland permission to show a white flag or handkerchief to lessen the danger.  Despite this, Kirkland goes over the wall and gives water to the nearest wounded Yankee, pillows his head on his knapsack, spreads his overcoat over him, replaces his empty canteen with a full one, and goes on to the next.  The firing ceases as his purpose becomes clear.  Other wounded soldiers cry out to him and for “an hour and a half” Kirkland continues “until he relieved all the wounded on that part of the field.” [click to continue…]

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A Child’s Richard Kirkland

Some of you are familiar with 10-year old Richard Warren’s earlier portrayal of Richard Kirkland that was filmed at Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg last year.  He is slated to play a young Kirkland in the upcoming film that was mentioned in yesterday’s post.  There are no surprises in young Richard’s narration; than again we shouldn’t necessarily expect a certain level of sophistication at such a young age.  History is still very much concerned with stories that are highly moralistic. The problem is that our adult version of Kirkland’s actions at Fredericksburg fail to extend much beyond this account.

I do hope that Richard Warren continues to give voice to his passion for history and the Civil War.  He is quite good and quite the entertainer.

On a different, but related note, one of my readers mentioned the lack of wartime sources re: Kirkland’s actions.  As far as I know the earliest account was penned by General J.B. Kershaw and published in the South Carolina News and Courier in 1880 and later in the Southern Historical Society Papers.  I took a quick look at two recent studies of Fredericksburg by George Rable and Frank O’Reilly to see what they utilized in their brief references to Kirkland.  O’Reilly includes the following:

  • B.M. Ellison and B.F. Emanuel, The Humane Hero of Fredericksburg: The Story of Richard Kirkland, Lancaster: S.C.: Carolina Museum, 1962.
  • McBride, “Banner Battle of the War,” Atlanta Journal, May 4, 1901.
  • Fleming Reminiscences, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Park Collection [FSNMP].
  • Shand Reminiscences, University of South Carolina Collection.
  • Kershaw letter to the South Carolina News and Courier.
  • Mac Wyckoff, History of the Second South Carolina Infantry, Fredericksburg, Va.: Sgt. Kirkland’s Museum and Historical Society, 1994.
  • Unidentified Union Soldier, “Fredericksburg during the Civil War,” Schoff Collection.

and George Rable:

  • William D. Trantham, “Wonderful Story of Richard R. Kirkland,” Confederate Veteran 16 (March 1908): 105.
  • Kershaw letter to SC News and Courier.
  • Unidentified Author, “Fellow Feeling in the Army”.

Rable does make an attempt to give some context to Kirkland’s actions: “Such acts bespoke a common humanity that hatred and relentless fighting had not entirely suppressed.  They reaffirmed civilized values in the midst of a war that always threatened to destroy tender impulses.  All along Lee’s lines a Confederate soldier here and there would scramble onto the field to relieve the thirst of a wounded foe.” (p. 273)  Sources utilized:

  • Robert Franklin Fleming Jr., “Recollections,” 4 FSNMP.
  • Parramore et al., Before the Rebel Flag Fell: Five Viewpoints on the Civil War, Murfreesboro, N.C.: Johnson Publishing, 1965.
  • David Emmons Johnston, The Story of a Confederate Boy in the Civil War, Portland, Ore.: Glass and Prudhomme, 1914.
  • Milo Grow to his wife, December 15, 1862, Grow Letters, FSNMP.

As if to bring us back down to the reality of this bloody fight, Rable notes that, “More common, however, was the Confederate behind the stone wall and along the heights who kept his opponents pinned down most of the day.” (p. 273)

I should point out that other than the Kershaw letter I have not read any of these sources.  Perhaps the few secondary sources cited include references to wartime accounts.  The more I think about it, however, the more I am convinced that something along what Rable suggests occurred.  There were a number of Confederates along the lines who brought water to Union soldiers in their immediate front.  Finally, and I am going out on a limb here, perhaps for veterans the war in 1862 proved to be more attractive when citing stories of compassion.  After all, the fighting in the Wilderness, and especially around Petersburg in 1864, left very little room for such actions of bravery and compassion.  Fredericksburg provides an ideal setting to emphasize Kirkland-style bravery.  It highlights the popular notion of Union generals recklessly throwing men into battle against an enemy who reflected the highest Christian virtues even after watching the enemy loot the town of Fredericksburg.

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Sgt. Richard Kirkland For All Of Us

I‘ve been thinking quite a bit about Sgt. Richard Kirkland lately.  Last week Peter Carmichael referenced Kirkland in his speech marking the anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg.  Carmichael used the Kirkland story and his monument on the Fredericksburg battlefield to point out our tendency to glamorize the Civil War and ignore the more horrific aspects of battle and the challenges of soldiering.  In addition, a new movie about Kirkland is scheduled to be released at some point soon.  As someone who focuses on why we remember certain aspects of the war I am less interested in the history of Kirkland than in why his story continues to be so attractive.  Actually, with all that has been written about Kirkland I am struck by how little we know about him.  If you read the many short stories published about Kirkland at the turn of the twentieth century you get the sense that they are much more reflective of what the authors and society chose needed to remember about the Civil War as opposed to simply Kirkland himself.  Kirkland serves more as a template for our collective memory of the war; one could almost say that we are using him for our own purposes.  I think Carmichael is right about our selective memory regarding Kirkland’s actions.  We want to see him as the “angel” in waiting rather than as someone who took part in the brutal slaughter of Union soldiers on that December day.  The scores of published accounts and paintings narrow our focus of Kirkland’s experience at Fredericksburg to that one point as opposed to a participant in the broader battle and war.  How many of those “Yankee” soldiers did he gun down out of revenge for the looting of the town?  Can we even acknowledge such questions?

The truth is that our memory of Kirkland (like much of the war) has always been instrumental in allowing us as a nation to move further away from the history of the Civil War.  We can see this in South Carolina during the 1890s under the leadership of Governor Ben Tillman where the first Kirkland monument was unveiled.  Consider W. Scott Poole’s analysis:

South Carolina’s new leadership class continued to give a respectful nod to the Lost Cause, but their Lost Cause represented a dead past to be honored rather than  living ideology of defiance.  Increasingly, reconciliation with the North became a theme of even the Lost Cause celebrations.  Wealthy landlords, railroad interests, textile mill owners, and the ladies of the UDC could find little reason to refight the issues of the war.  This new ideology found expression in Confederate monuments as well.  The town of Camden, in Kershaw County, for example, dedicated a decorative drinking fountain to Richard Kirkland, as South Carolina soldier who had taken water to the suffering wounded in both blue and gray after the battle of Fredericksburg.  Rather than symbolizing Confederate virtue, this monument, built with money raised by some of Tillman’s public school children, honors the turn-of-the-century sentiment of reconciliation.  An inscription describes Kirkland as “moved by Christlike compassion” for the northern soldiers he aided, a sentiment at odds with the warrior virtues praised by earlier Lost Cause celebration.  As if to stress the changed meaning of this particular Lost Cause monument, the Humane Society of New York City provided the design for the structure. (p. 190)

If I understand Poole correctly, it looks like the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” functioned to help build economic ties between a “New South” that struggled to reconcile itself to a modern economy and an industrial North.  It could do so not by abandoning its past, but by remembering it in a way that did not alienate white northerners, who were no longer seen as enemies, but as potential business partners.

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