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.” Continue reading “Is the Richard Kirkland Story True?”

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.

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.

What Is It About the Civil War and Christmas?

The two seem to go perfect together, but why?  Well, I guess in Fredericksburg it is the proximity of the famous battle to the holiday season that makes for such an easy connection.  Joyce Smith, a parishioner at Cornerstone Baptist Church, has written a Christmas Civil War drama titled “My Friend, the Enemy” which is based on the Mort Kunstler print by the same name.

MortKunstler

According to the news story, Smith “studied the picture for months.”  I’m not quite sure what there is to study that would keep one occupied for months, but it culminated in a play that essentially reenacts a meeting between four soldiers on Christmas Day 1862.  Stories of Civil War soldiers meeting to trade and talk are powerful narrative threads in our continued obsession with the Reconciliationist Narrative of the war.  They make the war palatable.  I can only imagine the dialog: (1) What the war is about; (2) Why must we be enemies?; (3) Family and Home…  The play ends with a meeting between two soldiers on Christmas Day 30 years after the end of the war followed by the singing of Christmas Carols.

Americans need to believe that their civil war was special, that the violence did not overshadow our faith in “Good Will Toward Men.”  I tend to think that we emphasize these stories to make ourselves feel better about what happened and why.  It give us a reason not to look too closely at ourselves and our collective past.  Our civil war needs to fit neatly under the Christmas tree.  When we cross the Rapphannock River we want to see two soldiers peacefully engaged rather than thousands of men crossing on the eve of a bloody battle or fugitive slaves crossing to their freedom.  So be it.  Take the family to see this one and remember to bring plenty of good cheer and egg nog.

Image: Mort Kunster’s “My Friend, the Enemy”