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 →