This year is the 70th anniversary of Gone With the Wind and this week my Civil War Memory class will watch it. Depending on how they respond to it we may even watch it in its entirety. There are so many thought provoking scenes, which will allow us to address a number of interpretive threads that have been passed down in our collective memory. With Birth of a Nation already under their belt they will also be able to begin to track certain themes in popular culture during the first part of the twentieth century.
In addition to viewing the movie, students will have to write an analytical review that addresses questions that I have provided. This time around they will also have to spend some time on one of our school’s databases that includes newspapers from around the country. They will have to integrate reviews and editorials into their essays. We will start with the following blog post from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to get the juices flowing.
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 “Is the Richard Kirkland Story True?”→
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.
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.
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?
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.