This morning I was interviewed by Mike Zitz of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star concerning the Saturday premiere of “The Angel of Marye’s Heights” – a movie about Richard Kirkland. I made it clear that I could not comment on the movie beyond the few videos previews and other assorted postings that I’ve read on the movie website. We talked for about 30 minutes and I confined most of my thoughts to what this story tells us about how Americans have chosen to remember the Civil War. As far as I am concerned there isn’t much to talk about regarding the factual basis of the story since there are no wartime accounts. If I remember correctly, the earliest account is dated around 1880. I am going to hold off commenting further until the article is published on Thursday.
For now, consider this little video, which touches on some of the same themes in the Kirkland story. In 1913 Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain received a letter from a veteran of the 15th Alabama concerning the fighting at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863.
Here we have another story where in the heat of battle the compassion of a Confederate soldiers saved the life of his enemy. Of course, there is no way to confirm this story. In the end, however, the truth of the matter isn’t as interesting as what this tells us about how Americans chose to remember the war in 1913 – the same year as the 50th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg. Let’s not ask how the soldier in question knew that the man he was writing to in 1913 was the same individual that he remembered in 1863. I’m not even sure we can confirm that the author of the letter was, in fact, a veteran of the 15th Alabama. Like I said, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that someone decided to write to Chamberlain 50 years after the battle and acknowledge an act of compassion. What matters in reference to the Kirkland story is that someone decided to write a letter that highlighted the compassion of another soldier in the heat of battle.
If you are not reading Mysteries and Conundrums than you are missing one of the most interesting new Civil War blogs to come down the pike in some time. The blog is maintained by the historical staff at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, which is led by John Hennessy. The gang has been posting on a regular basis and the stories are absolutely fascinating. Much of it has focused on the analysis of images of the town and battlefield and the high-resolution photographs will leave you staring for quite some time.
The most recent post by Eric Mink addresses the history of the famous Stone Wall at Marye’s Heights and its construction by a segregated group of African American Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s. The post goes on to address the concerns within the NPS and local white community surrounding the presence of these men as well as the steps taken to segregate park facilities, including picnic areas and bathrooms. I encourage you to read the entire post.
Anyone who has studied the battle in detail knows that the stone wall is not an accurate representation of the original wall, though recent archaeological work has shown that it does sit on the original foundation. This raises the interesting question of its status given the NPS’s recent work to return their battlefields to as close to their appearance at the time of the war as possible. We’ve seen this with the return of viewsheds at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg as well as a recent decision to dismantle a New Deal bathroom between Little Round Top and Devil’s Den.
I don’t believe that there is a general rule to be applied at every battlefield; rather, I tend to think that these decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis and in a way that will enhance the interpretation of the actual site. While I’ve walked the area around Marye’s Heights multiple times with students, family, and friends, I find it very difficult to imagine the fighting that took place there in December 1862 and May 1863. The development of the town from the area along the river up to the very foot of the battlefield makes it very difficult for me to understand the tactical ebb and flow of the battle as well as the area’s topographical significance. What I do understand is that the Confederate position there was pretty damn good. I get that.
As far as I am concerned the stone wall constructed by the CCC ought to be preserved and properly interpreted. While it would be interesting to see a historically accurate stone wall at Marye’s Heights, it’s added benefit would not outweigh the importance of the CCC wall. Actually, I could probably make the argument that if the returning of the site to its “original” look is our goal than we should either dismantle or remove the Richard Kirkland monument. Now, before you go off the deep end keep in mind that I am not suggesting that we do so, only that it does function as an obstacle in that regard. When I bring students to the monument we talk very little about the actual battle as opposed to the culture of the Civil War Centennial, which goes much further in explaining the monument’s presence than anything Kirkland did or didn’t do.
A new wall would not drastically change the stories that I share with my students when we visit. On the other hand Eric Mink’s post now allows me to share a significant story of the battlefield that will dramatically expand their understanding of the battle and its legacies. As I discussed in a talk that I gave at Fredericksburg on the anniversary of the battle in 2009 I strive to give my students a broad understanding of the significance and legacy of our Civil War battlefields. Here we have a major battle that took place on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation. Roughly seventy years later that very same spot is being maintained by a segregated group of black CCC workers for the enjoyment and education of a predominantly white audience. Some of these men may have been the children and grandchildren of slaves.
The men who fought at Fredericksburg created their own meaning, but we should not lose sight of the fact that subsequent management of a landscape continues its history and infuses it with additional significance and meaning. Think of the monuments that were erected at the turn of the twentieth century. These objects over time attain their own unique historical significance. With this wall we are presented with another object of historical significance and an interpretive opportunity that ought not to be passed over.
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.