Angel of Marye’s Heights by Mort Kunstler
Note: For additional commentary, check out Tim Abbott’s post on Kirkland at Walking the Berkshires.
Angel of Marye’s Heights by Mort Kunstler
Note: For additional commentary, check out Tim Abbott’s post on Kirkland at Walking the Berkshires.
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.” Continue reading
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:
and George Rable:
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:
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.
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.
Update: Is Jackson’s dark complexion just an accident or is this an attempt to blur the racial line?
If you didn’t know any better one might think that Confederate leaders were at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Case in point is the popular and misunderstood story of Stonewall Jackson’s black Sunday School which he established in Lexington, Virginia in 1855. Most of the stories that you will come across Online or in non-academic books tend to wax poetic about the benefits of these classes for the areas free and enslaved blacks. There is no shortage of stories of blacks praising Jackson or dedicating stained-glass windows long after his death and the end of the Civil War. All of this is interesting, but rarely are we given anything that approaches analysis of how the school functioned in slaveholding Virginia in the period after Nat Turner’s insurrection. Even James I. Robertson, who authored the most thorough biography of Jackson, fails to provide a sufficient analysis of the broader conditions that shaped Jackson’s Sunday School. Robertson cites the widely held assumption that “the more uninformed a slave was about everything, the more docile he tended to be”, the Virginia code that forbade the teaching of slaves to read, and Jackson’s apparent defiance. That’s about it. We are left with an image of a defiant Jackson who would not allow Virginia law to stand in his way of saving souls. This view is pervasiveness throughout much of the popular literature. Consider Rickey Pittman’s new book, Stonewall Jackson’s Black Sunday School:
In autumn 1855, slaves and free black men, women, and children first made their way to the Lexington Presbyterian Church to attend Sunday school. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, stood as the superintendent of this school. Although it was illegal under Virginia law to teach blacks to read and write, Jackson believed all men, regardless of race, should have the opportunity to receive an education. To these students, Professor Jackson was a leader and mentor who taught them more than just reading and writing. He instilled in them the word of God. Even after he left to join the Civil War, he prayed for his students and sent them money for Bibles and hymnals. Through Jackson’s leadership, many of his Sunday-school students went on to become community leaders, ministers, and educators. This lesser-known tale of the Confederate leader shows young readers another side of the man known in battle as “Stonewall.”
Earlier I referenced Nat Turner and I did so because it is crucial to understanding this story. Charles Irons does a magnificent job of analyzing the degree of cooperation between white and black evangelicals in Virginia through the early 1830s. He notes that by 1830 there one-quarter of black Virginians (115,000) had been converted to evangelical Christianity and thousands more practiced outside of the church. In addition, Turner’s claims that God had inspired him to rise up against the white population worked to reinforce growing concerns among white evangelicals as to their ability to safely monitor black gatherings. Irons is instructive here:
Gripped by fear and mistrust for several months, white Virginians struggled to adjust to the sobering fact that converted slaves could unleash such savagery. Some, particularly nonslaveholders from the western portion of the commonwealth, suggested that only a general emancipation could save the state from racial Armageddon and pushed for a constitutional convention to consider such a measure. Others, including some white evangelicals still shocked by August’s carnage, favored simply denying slaves the privilege of religious expression. Stark choices: emancipation or an end to evangelization. Within tow years, however, white evangelicals had found a way to move forward without either destroying black religion or freeing their slaves. No single ideologue emerged to articulate the new policy of constant white supervision right away; politicians and churchgoers independently stumbled toward the formula of aggressive oversight and proselytization. (p. 143)
Within this context, Jackson’s school makes perfect sense, though it should be pointed out that a school had been established in Lexington as early as 1843. While our popular perceptions paint Jackson as some kind of liberator who was ahead of the curve, Irons’s analysis provides us with a clearer understanding of how the school reinforced slavery and white supremacy in Lexington and the Shenandoah Valley. Jackson admitted as much himself when he noted that God had placed the black race in a subordinate position. Constant oversight allowed Jackson and the rest of the white population to continue to proselytize and at the same time monitor his black students’ understanding of themselves in relationship to God and the white community. One can only wonder what Jackson would have said to a student who put forward the notion that slavery stood in contradiction to God’s law.
Let me point out that the goal here is not to demonize Jackson. I have no problem with people who choose to celebrate Jackson’s work within the black community. As historians, however, our job is to understand how churches functioned in a slaveholding society and how those institutions evolved in response to various challenges. As much as we need to be sensitive to Jackson’s personal motivation we must never forget that he did not operate in a vacuum.