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.”

It is a moving account and well portrayed in the statue.  Yet contemporary references to the act prove difficult to come by.  A review of on-line periodical and book collections, including the Official Records, as well as an examination of Kershaw’s original account, all raise questions about the story behind the monument.  For example, an examination of the Cornell University “Making of America” website, which provides a wide range of books and periodicals published in the United States between 1815 and 1926, uncovers no versions of the story.

A search through Google Books produces a few accounts, including the original Kershaw letter, as well as an appearance of the same letter, unchanged, in the works The Camp-fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, published in 1886, and Christ in the Camp:  Or, Religion in Lee’s Army by John William Jones, published in 1887.  The story also appears in The Army of Northern Virginia in 1862 by William Allen (p. 514), published in 1892, in almost identical language, but with the additional details that Kershaw refused the white handkerchief lest it be interpreted as a flag of truce, that Kirkland collected canteens from his comrades before going over the wall, and that a similar act was performed by artillerymen of Jordan’s battery that evening.  But the author gives no sources for these added facts.

An interesting variation on the story appears in Augustus Dickert’s 1899 History of Kershaw’s Brigade.  This work, written by a veteran company officer of the Third South Carolina, makes no mention of Kirkland’s act, giving instead a first hand description of a somewhat different scenario (p. 193):

The next day [December 14], as if by mutual consent, was a day of rest. The wounded were gathered in as far as we were able to reach them. The enemy’s wounded lay within one hundred yards of the stone wall for two days and nights, and their piteous calls for help and water were simply heart-rending. Whenever one of our soldiers attempted to relieve the enemy lying close under our wall, he would be fired upon by the pickets and guards in the house tops.

Despite this, Dickert reports one soldier as taking relief work into his own hands (pp. 196-197):

In one of the first charges made during the day a Federal had fallen, and to protect himself as much as possible from the bullets of his enemies, he had by sheer force of will pulled his body along until he had neared the wall.  Then he failed through pure exhaustion.  From loss of blood and the exposure of the sun’s rays, he called loudly for water…. To go to his rescue was to court certain death… But one brave soldier from Georgia dared all, and during the lull in the firing leaped the walls, rushed to the wounded soldier, and raising his head in his arms, gave him a drink of water, then made his way back and over the wall amid a hail of bullets knocking the dirt up all around him.

There is something compelling about this account, as an act of individual initiative as well as mercy, but it involves no ministering to the mass of casualties, no cease-fire, and, apparently, no Kirkland.

But another easily accessible source exists that should enable us to verify the story of Sergeant Kirkland.  His actions occurred at a known time at a known place, within view of trained observers required to file reports on the incidents of the day.  We can find these reports in The War of the Rebellion, the official records of the Union and Confederate Armies, published by the War Department between 1880 and 1891.  Specifically Series I, Volume 21 (published in 1881) presents accounts of the battle of Fredericksburg prepared by commanders in the field within days of the action.  While we might expect the charitable actions of one noncommissioned officer to escape notice, a key portion of Kershaw’s account – the 90 minutes during which no one fires at Kirkland – must have attracted the attention of one of the officers commanding on the field.

Brigadier General George Sykes commanded the Second Division of the Fifth Corps opposite Kershaw’s Brigade on December 14th, the day after the charge, on the afternoon of which Kershaw has Kirkland tending the wounded.  According to General Sykes (p. 415):

At 11 p.m. [night of the 13th] these troops [First and Second Regular brigades] relieved the troops in advance (General Howard’s), and held their ground until the same hour the following night.  The position assigned these troops was one of extreme peril – in an open field, within 100 yards of the enemy, who was securely sheltered behind stone walls and rifle-pits.  They remained under constant fire for twelve hours, and could offer in resistance only the moral effect of that hardihood and bravery which would not yield one foot of the line they were required to protect.

Possibly Sykes did not see actual conditions on the line.  One level down the chain of command, Lt. Col. Robert C. Buchanan commanding the First Brigade reports (p. 418):

At daylight firing commenced between the pickets, and it was soon found that my position was completely commanded, so that if an individual showed his head above the crest of the hill he was picked off by the enemy’s sharpshooters immediately…

Buchanan ordered his men not to return the shots, but notes no general cessation of Confederate fire.  In fact (p. 419):

The enemy shot my men after they were wounded, and also the hospital attendants as they were conveying the wounded off the ground, in violation of every law of civilized warfare.

Captain John Wilkins, commanding the Fifth Infantry notes (p. 420), “At daybreak I found the pickets entirely unprotected, and exposed to a murderous fire from the enemy’s rifle-pits…”  Captain Hiram Dryer, commanding the Fourth Infantry, stated that daylight found his men within 100 yards of the Confederate position, and under continuous fire until they occupied a brick tannery, from which they “succeeded in keeping the enemy’s fire under until midnight, when we were relieved…”  (p. 422).

Captain Matthew Blunt, commanding the Twelfth Infantry reports his men taking position within 200 feet of the enemy and receiving “a continued fire” (p. 423) until relieved Sunday night.  Captain John O’Connell, Fourteenth U. S. Infantry, reports holding a position that Sunday about 150 yards from the enemy “under almost continuous fire of musketry from the enemy’s rifle-pits, with occasional shots from heavy guns during the daylight…” (p. 424).

The Second Brigade had it no easier.  Its commander, Major George Andrews, reported of that Sunday (p. 426):

Our line was now about 80 yards in front of a stone wall, behind which the enemy was posted in great numbers… To move even was sure to draw the fire of the enemy’s sharpshooters, who were posted in the adjacent houses and in tree-tops, and whose fire we were unable to return.  Thus the troops remained for twelve long hours, unable to eat, drink, or attend to the calls of nature, for so relentless were the enemy that not even a wounded man or our stretcher-carriers were exempted from their fire.

Captain Salem Marsh, commanding a battalion of the First and Second U. S., reports the fire on the 14th as “terrific” and “passing not more than a foot over the ground.”  He also notes that “The firing of the enemy ceased at dark.” (p. 427)  Captain Henry Maynadier, commanding a battalion of the Tenth Infantry, reports “a continuous fire” (p. 428); Captain Charles Russell of the Eleventh Infantry similarly states that the enemy “continued the fire all day” (p. 429).

In summary, the relevant Union after action reports not only fail to confirm Kershaw’s story, but describe conditions that make it unlikely.

Confederate reports provide another perspective.

Colonel Kennedy of the Second South Carolina (Kirkland’s regiment) mentions fifteen officers and two orderlies by name for meritorious conduct, but Kirkland is not among them (p. 593).  Colonel James Nance of the Third South Carolina similarly ends his account on the 13th, when he was wounded.  Captain John Nance takes up the story, having taken command after two more senior officers were struck down, but tells only of the relief of the regiment on the evening of the 13th and notes nothing further until the regiment returned to camp on the 15th (p. 596).

Lieutenant Colonel Elbert Bland of the Seventh South Carolina describes the battle, and then tells of his regiment relieving Philips’ Legion on the stone wall:  “We held this position with the wings doubled, occasionally exchanging shots with the enemy, until Tuesday morning (16th)…” (p. 597).  Captain Stackhouse of the Eighth South Carolina states, “On the 14th, we confined our fire to select parties of the enemy” (p. 598), but makes no note of a general cease fire, or of Kirkland.

Colonel De Saussure of the Fifteenth South Carolina reports that his regiment moved on the evening of the 13th to support the Second South Carolina at the wall, “and there remained until the evacuation of the city…” (p. 599).  He makes no mention of Kirkland, but does commend his surgeon, assistant surgeon, and chaplain for their attention to the wounded.  Colonel Robert McMillan of the Twenty-fourth Georgia took over the command of Cobb’s brigade when General Cobb received a mortal wound during the Union assaults of the 13th.  Of the 14th he reports, “We rested on our arms that night, and throughout the next day {Sunday, the 14th} a close, heavy, and continuous skirmish fire was kept up.”

As for Kershaw himself, his own after action report (presented entire in Appendix B) spends but one short paragraph on Sunday the 14th:

At daylight in the morning the enemy was in position, lying behind the first declivity in front, but the operations on both sides were confined to skirmishing of sharpshooters. We lost but 1 man during the day, but it is reported that we inflicted a loss upon the enemy (Sykes’ division) of 150.

He mentions eight officers as having distinguished themselves, as well as Captain Cuthbert’s company and Captain Read’s battery, but makes no mention of Kirkland.

In short, Kershaw’s 1880 letter to the editor receives no support from contemporary after action reports, including Kershaw’s own.

Kershaw had another opportunity to insert Kirkland into the official record, or something like it, when he wrote the editors of the Century Magazine for their “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War” series, on December 6th, 1887.  But here he confined himself to technical corrections of General Ransom’s letter concerning Fredericksburg, and fails to note anything of interest occurring on December 14th.

A story in the Richmond Daily Dispatch of January 12, 1863, provides another contemporary view, titled “The Carnage at Fredericksburg – Graphic Account From a Yankee Soldier.”  In this an unnamed Union soldier writes to a friend in Baltimore, describing the battle and aftermath.  He notes that the main attack “was fought on a remarkable small space of ground,” that each wave was virtually annihilated, that a slight rise within 150 yards of the stone wall gave some shelter, that a “criminally negligent” ambulance corps did not carry off the wounded till after midnight, and that the troops laid out all the next day expecting the attack to be renewed.  But he did not see Kirkland.

At this point it seems worth noting that the Kirkland story also does not appear in some of the better known histories of the war.  Douglas Southall Freeman makes no mention of the Sergeant, and of the scene on December 14th writes (Robert E. Lee, Vol. II, Chapter 31, p. 469):

Union troops were burying the dead within their lines and were carrying off such of the wounded as they could reach. Now and again the skirmishers engaged in angry exchanges, and the Federal batteries fired a few half-hearted rounds. That was all.

His picture of the following day provides a marked contrast with the acts of mercy ascribed to Kirkland (p. 470):

On the morning of the 15th, with his own line still further strengthened, Lee observed that the enemy had dug rifle pits and had thrown up fortifications on the outskirts of the town, as if to repel attacks. He saw a ghastly sight besides: The Federal dead that still remained between the lines had changed color. They no longer were blue, but naked and discolored. During the night, they had been stripped by shivering Confederates, many of whom now boasted overcoats, boots, and jackets for which the people of the North had paid. It was ghoulish business, reprobated by the enemy but excused by the beneficiaries, who asked whether it was better for them to freeze or to take clothing the former owners would not miss.

Shelby Foote, who might fairly be said to have never met an anecdote he didn’t like, similarly omits Kirkland, repeating Freeman’s account of southern soldiers treating the Federal casualties as a source of winter clothing.  One popular historian who does mention Kirkland legend is Francis O’Reilly, but even he in the end hedges a bit (The Fredericksburg Campaign, 2006, p. 439):

Whether Kirkland acted alone, or pioneered a host of encounters and somehow became a composite for all of the works of mercy, is hard to determine….

Not all recollections of Fredericksburg leave out the Sergeant.  T. Rembert of Company E, a comrade of Kirkland’s, left a tribute to him in the form of a letter to The Confederate Veteran, in 1903.  However, his story repeats the highlights of Kershaw’s 1880 letter, with no details that would distinguish his as an original account.  Given the paucity of corroboration, it seems appropriate to reexamine the story as Kershaw told it, and see how key elements accord with other accounts of the battle, and the logic of the situation.  We start with the setting itself:

The ground between the lines was bridged with the wounded, dead, and dying Federals, victims of the many desperate and gallant assaults…

A field carpeted with wounded provides the essential setting for the tale of Kirkland’s charity, but where were the wounded, and how many were still there?

General McLaws, commanding the Confederate division along the wall, stated that “The body of one man, believed to be an officer, was found within about 30 yards of the stone wall, and other single bodies were scattered at increased distances until the main mass of the dead lay thickly strewn over the ground at something over 100 yards off…” (OR, Series I, Volume 21, p. 581).

That is, the mass of Federal casualties lay within what would soon become, according to the after action reports, the picket lines of Sykes’ Regulars.  Though their officers withdrew these men to less exposed positions during the day, such wounded as remained would still lie much closer to the Federal than Confederate lines.

But in any case the Federals did not simply abandon those wounded in the assaults of the 13th.  Private William McCarter (My Life in the Irish Brigade, pp. 190-194) describes small parties of soldiers, backed up by ambulances, searching for wounded between the lines on that night, as well as his own efforts to drag himself back.  Brigadier-General Humphreys, commanding the third division of the Fifth Corps, which made the final charge against the wall, reported on his own efforts (OR, Series I, Volume 21, p. 433), stating “The wounded were nearly all brought in before daylight, and some of the dead, but many of the latter were left upon the field.”  The unnamed Union private quoted in the Daily Dispatch expresses bitterness at the ambulance corps for not coming till after midnight, but they came.

Altogether, between the efforts of the walking wounded and ambulance parties, and considering the effect of lying through a winter’s night and day in the field, there seems considerable reason to doubt that many wounded remained to “bridge” the space between Sykes’ and Kershaw’s lines on the 14th.

…the General sat in the north room, up stairs … when Kirkland came up …

Kirkland, a sergeant in a company in one of several regiments under the command of General Kershaw, passes by or through his company commander, his regimental commander, and the general’s staff, to make a personal appeal to relieve the Federal wounded, while his unit is engaged with the enemy or awaiting an attack.  It seems equally difficult to see him leaving the ranks without their knowledge or to imagine him going through each link in his chain of command, as each refers him to the next until finally the general himself tells the young sergeant to go ahead and risk his life.

“General, can I show a white handkerchief?” … “No, Kirkland…”

This exchange has the effect of accentuating the danger Kirkland encounters – apparently Kershaw sees himself as having no authority to call for a truce, however limited.  Yet he has already allowed an enlisted man to undertake an action forbidden to the rest of the army.

Unharmed, he reached the nearest sufferer…

Fortunately for Kirkland, Sykes’ division has been ordered not to fire, though Dryer’s men in the tannery may have come into action by this time.

This done, he laid him tenderly down, placed his knapsack under his head…

Most accounts of the Federal assault on the wall mention the dropping of knapsacks before going into action.  McCarter left his on the other side of the Rappahannock, others removed them in town.  Humphrey’s division even dispensed with their haversacks and blankets before making the attack.

…spread his overcoat over him…

The wounded Federal had either cast his overcoat aside, or Kirkland must have wrestled it off him.  In any event, based on Freeman’s account, it will soon find its way to the Confederate lines.

…replaced his empty canteen with a full one, and turned to another sufferer…

Kershaw doesn’t tell us that Kirkland takes several canteens, but he must have either done that or traveled repeatedly back to his own lines for more water, or both.  It is only at this point, however, that the danger from the enemy has passed:

By this time his purpose was well understood on both sides, and all danger was over.  From all parts of the field arose fresh cries of “Water, water…”

For an hour and a half did this ministering angel pursue his labor of mercy…

At this point the story goes beyond merely raising a few questions to presenting several seeming improbabilities.

A general cease-fire has broken out, involving troops for a hundred yards or more in each direction – otherwise “all danger” would not yet have passed.  As remarkable as this seems, it would be even more remarkable had troops continued to shoot each other while leaving Kirkland to go about his labors unmolested – so remarkable that, by this point, we could expect Kershaw to mention it.

Even more remarkably, although the wounded cry from all over the field, only Kirkland attends them, and only with water.  For the next ninety minutes no medical personnel on either side – not the Confederate surgeons and chaplain praised by De Sausseur, nor the Union hospital attendants that Buchanan reports as having been fired upon – take advantage of the lull to perform their duties.  Nor does the Georgia soldier reported by Dickert; nor does any other soldier.  Everyone in view seems paralyzed by Kirkland’s act.  They neither remove nor treat any of the casualties “bridging” the positions; the best the wounded can hope for is a drink of water.

Not only do the observers fail equally to fire on or assist Kirkland, but within days, when writing up their after action reports or letters to friends in Baltimore, or years later, composing their memoirs, they make no mention of the incident.  This despite the fact that the deed occurs on an afternoon when the sun will set, according to McCarter, at 4:30, so that the halt in the firing and the public act of mercy occupies a significant portion of the day, on an open field in view of thousands on both sides.

Interestingly, all of this makes Dickert’s story of the nameless Georgian that much more compelling.  Here a single soldier, seeing a suffering foe who has been fortunate enough to drag himself near the wall, on his own initiative leaps over, gives the man a drink, and leaps back under fire.   It has a ring of truth, and it does not in any way contradict the after action reports or other accounts of the battle.

It also raises the possibility that this might be the real Kirkland story.  When it went into action at the wall, Dickert’s regiment took position on the left of the Twenty-fourth Georgia, Cobb’s Legion.  Colonel Kennedy of the Second South Carolina notes that when his regiment took its position, “three companies and a half” fell in “in rear of the Twenty-fourth Georgia Regiment.”  (OR, Series I, Vol. XXI, p. 592)  With the Confederate troops formed in four ranks behind the wall, a soldier of the Second South Carolina crossing over the wall to aid a wounded Federal might very easily be assumed to be a “Georgian” by the troops to their left in the Third South Carolina.   This does not substantiate the legend, but it at least provides some hint of a likely origin.

With all this, several questions remain – what did Sergeant Kirkland actually do at Fredericksburg?  If he didn’t do precisely what Kershaw said he did, why would Kershaw say that?  And what can it matter now?

We cannot answer the first question.  Unless Kirkland was Dickert’s “Georgian” the record that fails to corroborate Kershaw’s story also fails to replace it.  Kirkland himself was killed in action at Chickamauga less than a year later, reportedly as a Lieutenant.  But we do not even know that Kirkland held that rank, or even that of Sergeant – Dickert’s history, which includes a muster roll, lists him only as “Kirkland, R. R.” among the privates of companies E and G, and notes that gaps in the records make it impossible to reflect every change in the ranks.

It seems reasonable to assume that Kirkland was a gallant young man – he gave his life in the war, and attracted the admiration of his General.  Perhaps Kershaw never really meant us to take his story literally, but rather intended to convey a deeper meaning.

It seems notable that Kershaw not only left Kirkland out of the after action report, but also left him out of the “Battles and Leaders” account of Fredericksburg written eight years after his letter to the editor.  Kershaw may have seen a difference between a human interest story told to a local paper at a time when papers published lyric poetry and lurid scandals and everything between, and the actual historical record.

There is a certain logic in reserving for the latter the literal truth while offering to the former the sort of tale that perhaps ought to have been true – the kind of civic parable that Plato in The Republic recommends that the elite tell to commoners, the kind of story incorporated in inspirational messages in sermons.  In that context, the literal truth would matter less than the spiritual truth of the noble youth who confronts the brutality of the battlefield with an act of Christian charity and later dies heroically for his country.

Several elements in the telling of Kershaw’s story make this a more plausible than speculative interpretation.  The idea that he wrote a parable rather than a history shows up in the literary flourishes in the letter, including the passage in which Kirkland, having received permission to proceed, “ran down [the stairs] with a bright smile on his handsome countenance.”  Literally, of course, Kershaw would have no way of seeing Kirkland’s bright smile as the sergeant ran down the stairs away from him, but it adds to the tone of the tale.   Similarly the conclusion of the letter hints at a purpose other than a strict historical account:  he has bequeathed to the American youth — yea, to the world — an example which dignifies our common humanity.  It was not an example noted at the time, but the letter published 17 years later, and the statue erected in 1965, have made up for it.

The final question remains.  Does it matter whether Kershaw’s account of Sergeant Kirkland’s deed is literally true?

From one perspective, we can say that it does not.  We do not need a real action to praise the virtue of aiding a wounded foe.  Yet another view might hold that when we memorialize an act of such singularity and uncertain provenance to the exclusion of a greater reality, we lose the concrete to the fanciful.  Hundreds of American soldiers died defending the wall at Fredericksburg, holding their ground though it seemed that the whole enemy army was coming their way.  More than a thousand other American soldiers died before that wall in an attack that quickly became equally famous for futility and heroism.  The men in the first Federal assault wave saw a situation that seemed, but had not yet proven to be, hopeless.  The ensuing attacks were certainly so, and yet men went forward anyway, into the fire.

Kirkland himself fell to the fire less than a year later.  In celebrating an action that may not actually have occurred (and that Kershaw himself apparently never tried to place in the historical record), the statue fictionalizes one man’s courage even as it overshadows that of thousands of others.  In effect, the real soldiers – including Kirkland himself – have no statue.  In its place stands a monument to a myth.

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109 comments… add one
  • Helmut W-K Mar 2, 2023 @ 3:44

    (English is not my mother tongue, so please excuse any grammatical fault or so).

    I read about Kirkland in a (German) christian calendar, looked abut him in German Wikipedia, found a link to this blog and then read the articles and the comments.

    Some commenters mix up Levin with Schaffner, and not a few argue not at the article. Schaffner does not simply say “It’s no in the ORs, so kit did not happen. He says that the evidence from the ORs (i.e. what they do say) contradicts the details of what Kershaw told.

    Legends tend to “grow”: A person repeats the facts (s)he has heard, and adds (mostly unconsciously) further facts to the story, often loose inferences that became part of memory.

    This can be studied in the Kirkland case, when we consider the accounts collected by Mac Wyckoff ( General Kershaw is confronted with the story of a soldier from his brigade: The fellow asks him to help the wounded unionist soldiers, get the allowance, helps some soldiers. He gets soon (“a ball from the front nearly tore off one arm and left it dangly loosely at his side”), but when his actions is appraised, no more bullets are shot on him, so he can finish this task and return safely. Which inspires other soldiers to do the same. But when this fellow made a second attempt, he is shot dead.

    In an attempt to correct this story, Kershaw leaves out the damaged arm (which is suspicious: How could that man proceed his action?) and final death.

    He embellishes the action: On one hand, he leaves out the other helpers, which highlights the courage of the hero, and multiplies the number of action from two to many. And he enlarges the not-shooting at the helper to a cease-fire of 1½ hours (which did not take place!). He also seems to enlarge the number of wounded soldiers on the ground (thou he gives no figure, only later versions mention 8,000).

    The omission of the hero’s death allowed Kershaw to add a name of a soldier who survived that day (Kirkland). But the fact that he described the story of that guy not correct (Kirland died as a Sergeant, not Lieutenant) let one doubt whether the name is correct.

    How to explain all this? Kershaw obviously knew a version different from the one told in the Charleston news, and this was strong enough in his memory to block the obvious correction of the fictitious cease fire by the other account. But is his version based only on his memory, or were his recollections influenced by talks about that incidents (with whom?).

    Both versions agree that only one soldier asked Kershaw for allowance, which might explain why in his memory the actions of multiple soldiers become the multiple actions of one person. If we assume that the soldier shot dead was not the first one who asked, this would explain why Kershaw did not notice and recollect it.

    So the name may be true, but there is still the possibility that when Kershaw pondering about a soldier who allegedly had asked him, his memory produced a scene which did not occur, but resembled another interrogation (with Kirkland?). We will never know …

  • Norma Jean Morrissey Feb 3, 2022 @ 6:19

    Are you telling me that someone just made up this “story”? Why? To create a hero who never was? I must be gullible because I believe this tale of a brave young soldier even if embellished a bit. If story is made up someone has quite an imagination! Norma Jean Morrissey-student of the Civil War

    • Kevin Levin Feb 3, 2022 @ 6:48

      Thanks for the comment, Norma Jean, but next time you might read the blog post before responding.

  • Douglas Gray Jun 21, 2019 @ 17:39

    It is interesting that in modern physics, we have concepts such as the “Uncertainty Principle, and “Probability Densities” which imply that it is sometime difficult to have the kind of deterministic certainty we feel comfortable with. It may be that with these sorts of historical events, there will not be enough evidence to make a determination of what really took place.

  • Barry Borchers Feb 11, 2019 @ 18:34

    I have read this article and the comments with great interest. I would like to thank the writer and the comments herein. Much of our history is being rewritten these days. I must say that I am very skeptical of most of the revisionist history. Stories seem to come out of thin air daily today. I see that many people have done much research on this story. I applaud them. Every notable event in America’s history seems to be under some sort of scrutiny today. Most especially anything to do with the Confederacy. Many want to demonize anyone or anything to do with it. Believe me, this will not stop with the Civil War. The “re-writers” are just getting started.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 12, 2019 @ 1:36

      Thanks for the comment. History is always being re-written based on new questions that are asked, new evidence that emerges, and different analytical approaches applied. It should always be welcome and scrutinized.

      • Barry Borchers Feb 12, 2019 @ 12:05

        Thank you for you reply. I’m not so sure about the “different analytical approaches applied” portion. We must remember that the ones before us lived in a different world altogether than we do. We are constantly second guessing their meanings in word and deed to a number of things, good or bad, that were commonplace and acceptable in their times. Today people are quick to give judgement when they have no comprehension of those times. On the subject of “new evidence”, I have to wonder how much of this is fabricated to justify the usually slanted version that someone wishes to promote. Generally, the “new evidence” will be in the spotlight. But, if it is later debunked, little is heard. As a youngster I heard a story of Rebs and Yanks pausing their fight in order to perform Masonic funeral rites. I was told this by an old relative whose Grandfather supposedly witnessed it. Who knows?

  • John Speight Jun 16, 2018 @ 20:45

    What bothers me most about this whole discussion is the incivility that is manifest. The barely masked arrogance and anger that some on both sides display towards another individuals comments. Does it truly matter whether Richard Kirkland, or some other anonymous, person performed this act of mercy? Both sides on that day, those who died and those who killed, were Americans! I am a southerner, (and yes I lost an ancestor in the war) but I refuse to refer to this conflict as the War Between the States or any other euphemism employed by either side. It was a civil war! One with all the inherent horrors that comes with a war of that kind. One that almost destroyed our beloved county and almost prevented America from taking her place as the greatest nation in the world. At the local Civil War reenactments that I attend, I mourn for all those who died, regardless of whether their uniform was blue or gray. The Civil War ended in 1865. We have more pressing problems in 2018 that require our attention. Problems that need cool heads and not insults to resolve. “Make you sons Americans” Robert E. Lee and God Save America!

    • Bob Gartner Jan 21, 2023 @ 7:00

      I believe this to be the best comment I have read in this discussion

  • kbrown2225 Sep 21, 2017 @ 17:07

    “If Freeman said it happened, it happened.”

    Hmm, despite all of the untrue and unfair things he said about James Longstreet?

    Freeman was a fine historian for his age, but hardly an unbiased one, and a strict adherent to the Lost Cause narrative. Far too often Freeman only found the “truth” than he wanted to find.

    Interestingly enough, Freeman himself warned historians against accepting the credibility of the testimony of those writing years after the war, stating:

    “It is a very grave mistake to give the same measure of acceptation to the late witness that is given to the early witness.” Douglas Southall Freeman, “An Address.” Civil War History 1, no. 1 (March 1955): 7-15.

    It is funny, of course, that Freeman would make such a statement, since all of Freeman’s negative observations regarding Longstreet came from the Southern Historical Society Papers, a politically motivated “late source,” but one that Freeman accepted as gospel.

    The lies of the SHSP served the storyline Freeman desired to write, so instead of questioning the dubious sources the SHSP provided, he accepted them without question because they served his purpose.

    Sorry, I did not mean to go into a tangent on Freeman’s mistreatment of Longstreet, but when someone makes the sort of statement quoted above about Freeman I cannot help but think of the massive historical injustice that Freeman did to James Longstreet.

    In any event, Freeman was a great, but flawed historian, but even he said to beware of “late witness” claims like Kershaw’s.

  • Vince Sep 17, 2015 @ 7:11

    I’m less interested in the veracity of this story than I am in the fact that we choose to commemorate it at all. Every time I visit the Kirkland monument, I get the feeling that this story acts as a sort of pressure valve that allows us to come away from the experience feeling good about humanity. In a similar way, the focus on the Irish Brigade gives us something ennobling to celebrate in spite of the carnage. There’s the compelling and sentimental storyline of Irishmen mowing down their countrymen (ostensibly weeping, could it be that some of them were happy to do so? Didn’t the whole war involve compatriots killing each other, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes gladly?). I often get this feeling when visiting NPS sites, or indeed when reading chronicles of the war. There’s a morsel or two presented, for each battle, aside from the main narrative. A gallant deed, an act of battlefield compassion. Something for a descendant of a soldier on either side to lament, and something to feel good about. For me the power of the Civil War war narrative lies in staring at the horror of it all, and still coming away feeling that the end result was worth the sacrifice. I feel like this story lets us of the hook.

    • Jerry McKenzie Dec 15, 2018 @ 21:06

      Not only former countrymen mowing one another down, but cousins close and distant.

  • Jun 7, 2015 @ 18:17

    That works for me.

  • Bill Trav Jun 7, 2015 @ 5:52

    I don’t know about this particular incident. What I am saying is that there are no nationally recognized Southern hero’s that I am aware of. England no longer hates America for becoming an independent country, however, Northerners still call Southerners traitors.

    • Andy Hall Jun 7, 2015 @ 14:13

      Typical “heritage” navel-gazing. You’re less interested in knowing the factual truth of the Kirkland story than you are in nurturing your feelings of being abused by “Northern historians.” Do your research, find out what’s true and what’s not, and move on.

      • Kevin Levin Jun 7, 2015 @ 14:28

        Mr. Trav, you are free to post a comment about the subject under consideration, but I have little patience for such a vague tangent. There are plenty of other websites that will be more than happy to entertain your thoughts.

      • Jun 8, 2015 @ 3:08

        Thank you, Mr. Hall. That’s good advice.

  • Bill Trav Jun 5, 2015 @ 12:27

    I don’t know if this story is true or false, but I wonder if this had been a Northern soldier who had performed an act of mercy, would Northern historians be so determined to discredit him. I get the feeling they cannot stand to recognize a Southern hero.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 5, 2015 @ 12:31

      Are you suggesting that only Northern historians have challenged this story? If so, you are mistaken.

  • Sean McCormack Sep 15, 2014 @ 15:41

    The Kirkland story added a touching memory to my visit to Fredericksburg. I believe!

  • Stu Jul 9, 2014 @ 8:44

    Having served in the military I can honestly say actions of the enlisted members are often overlooked. Givin the attitudes of the day I seriously doubt Kirkland would have been mentioned. It makes the officers look like cowards. The last thing they want is for a lowly enlisted man to seem more gentlemanly then the officer corp. As for his cohorts in the trenches not writing of his adventures I think you should remember the ability to read and write was not common in those days.

  • Mike K. Apr 27, 2014 @ 14:01

    From Pat Leonard’s article in the New York Times, December 2012 (which cites Shaffner as a source):

    “So, is the Richard Kirkland story true? Looking at the available evidence, it’s almost certain that a Confederate did risk his life to bring water to at least one wounded federal soldier, and if that “angel of mercy” must be identified, odds are probably better than even that it was indeed Kirkland. While Kershaw likely embellished his recollections of the incident for his letter to the News and Courier, it’s just as likely that he named Kirkland as “The Angel of Marye’s Heights” for no other reason than that he believed it himself.”

    And Kershaw, it bears repeating, was actually there that day.

    One last comment from yours truly – in reading about Kirkland, it’s interesting to find so many people dismiss the account of his actions at Fredericksburg as “Lost Cause mythology”. Kind of goes along with what I wrote, above.

  • Mike K. Apr 27, 2014 @ 13:25

    Mr. Schafer has been quite effective in making his point (despite the repeated, ineffectual “You are no closer to making your point…” retorts), and all of his remarks concerning “revisionist history” are spot on. The letter from Kershaw (who would gain nothing by fabricating anything), a strong oral tradition, and just plain ol’ common knowledge – as perpetuated by a bunch of guys who were actually there – is more than ample evidence supporting the Kirkland story. And, there is the mention in Freeman. As Schafer and others point out, the fact that ten different generals from both sides failed to write detailed accounts of Kirkland’s actions doesn’t mean that those actions didn’t occur.

    Two primary factors are at play here. First is the ever-growing trend to try to make a name for oneself by “debunking” events that are seemingly easy pickings – since there isn’t a video of said event on YouTube, the story is obviously “made up”. And second, in our age of PC-gone-wild, is the passing of judgment on people who were born nearly two hundred years ago, into a vastly different reality than what we now know. I’m speaking, of course, of the disturbing tendency among the general public to equate the antebellum American South with Nazi Germany. Anything that can be seen as even remotely connected to slavery MUST be reviled. Therefore, no man from South Carolina could ever have been capable of performing such a selfless, humane act. Had an incident occurred under the same circumstances in another battle – except with a sergeant from New York aiding wounded Confederates – one has trouble imagining that the the story would ever be questioned. Just my opinion.

  • Sam Vanderburg Nov 30, 2013 @ 21:28

    True? Myth? It still plays it’s role as a myth – encouraging humane treatment and courage in the face of danger. To solve with certainty perhaps will never be settled to many, but often the base of a myth is found in truth, or so my literary teachers have shared with me.

    Sam Vanderburg

  • Ron Krandle Sep 23, 2013 @ 17:41

    I’m neither a historian or a journalist. I’m just a regular guy who enjoys history and reading up on the Civil War. It would seem to me, using some logic and common sense, and mind you this is only my opinion for what it’s worth, that for something to be “debunked” you’d have to provide conclusive proof showing that the circumstances were impossible for it to have happened the way it’s been presented. An example would be if someone were to show that Kirkland couldn’t possible have even fought at here because he was proven to be somewhere else at the time. Does that mean I’m saying it can’t be called into question? Of course not. But to say it’s been “debunked” simply isn’t so at this point.

  • Steve Morin May 26, 2013 @ 4:35

    I’m sorry I do not have specific historical value to add, just my gut feelings.

    I am no historian, merely a long time military history buff (brigade level down preferred) . I only recently joined a CW reenactment unit.

    No disrespect to the descendants.

    In reading the thread in its entirety I agree that the evidence for total truth falls short. I fall in with the possibility that it is exaggerated somehow. I am glad I took the time to read because I am much more educated on this important subject from all perspectives.
    Mr Levin I commend on putting this forth for discussion knowing it’s sensitivity.

  • michaelschaffner Jan 3, 2013 @ 7:26

    I regret that I missed the comments made nine months ago and just now have taken another look at this thread. To the accusation of being a “liar” I plead not guilty, though I certainly am guilty of not looking further in D.S. Freeman before writing that he didn’t credit the Kirkland story.

    When I do another revision of the article I’ll correct that and perhaps remove the reference to Shelby Foote as well. The view of any secondary sources is less important than the validity, or existence, of primary ones.

    The other item worth commenting on is the latest, the question of Kershaw’s credibility. In my original article I speculated that Kershaw saw a difference between the formal history of after action reports and “Battles and Leaders” on one hand, and popular history on the other. But in revising it a year ago I took a closer look at the particular popular outlet involved and refined the conclusion. The story isn’t simply some kind of Lost Cause fairy tale — though it serves that purpose well enough — but has a role specific to the time and place in which it was written.

    With that in mind, here are a few paragraphs from the latest version, from about a year ago. This is sort of a hobby with me, so I don’t think I’ll ever be quite finished with it. I welcome any further comments people may have. I think the real story of Sergeant Kirkland lies somewhere in South Carolina and has yet to be fully told:

    “…So we need to choose which Kershaw to believe— the Kershaw who wrote an after-action report to his superiors subject to punishment for falsification, and a note to amend the historical record subject to the criticism of his peers in “Battles and Leaders,” or the Kershaw who wrote, not in an official or historical capacity, but for the popular audience of the News and Courier.

    “The Context of Kershaw’s Story

    “It helps greatly in answering this question that Mr. Wyckoff’s research has led to his
    finding and publishing the letter that inspired Kershaw’s account. In this earlier version published by the Charleston News and Courier the sergeant sets off as Kershaw states but
    receives a serious wound before the Yankees cease fire, whereupon several other
    rebel soldiers take up canteens, which results in a small flock of “angels” on
    Marye’s Heights. The subject of this version later dies in the Wilderness attempting to repeat his kindness. Unfortunately the real Kirkland fell at Chickamauga a half a year before the overland campaign, and the author does not claim to have witnessed either incident himself, only to have heard the story from an unnamed informant.

    “Who wrote this earlier version? It carries the byline “C. McK.” Thanks to fellow
    enthusiast Robert Mosher we know that this was almost certainly Carlyle McKinley. A Confederate veteran, poet, and author, McKinley was also a correspondent for the very same News and Courier. Somewhat unreconstructed in his political beliefs, he would go on to write the book An Appeal to Pharoah (1889), which proposes a “radical solution” to the “Negro problem” via the mass deportation of black Americans to Africa.

    “The News and Courier itself published in addition to journalism such works as the
    human-interest collection Our Women in the War (1885). This documents the heroism and strength of southern womanhood in language fully as colorful as that in either of the
    versions of the Kirkland story it published. But in the early 1880s an audience existed for such: reconstruction had ended in 1877 and Kershaw belonged to a group of politically strong conservatives known as “Bourbons” who, under the leadership of Wade Hampton, focused on “ousting the carpetbaggers and undoing as much of Reconstruction as they could” while intending “to re-create as much as possible the world of antebellum South
    Carolina, a world in which they and their kind held sway” (Walter B. Edgar, South
    Carolina: a History, p. 407).

    “This leads us to one last look at “Kershaw’s” letter. I put the General’s name in quotes because I now question whether he even wrote the account himself. After all, he only signed his name to the introduction; the rest of the letter tells the story in the third person – it has no “I,” only “the General,” and the language bears far less resemblance to that of Kershaw’s original after action report or subsequent article in “Battles and Leaders” than it does to the more florid prose of a Carlyle McKinley.

    “The story did, nonetheless, serve a cause of more immediate interest to Kershaw and like-minded “Bourbons” at the time. It limns the portrait of a noble representative of southern manhood who, in the aftermath of the Confederacy’s defeat, devastation, and “reconstruction,” rises from the ashes to bequeath “to the American youth — yea, to the world — an example which dignifies our common humanity.”

    “In addition to the cultural imperatives of the “Bourbons.” the story serves a useful
    purpose for “Lost Causers” and southern partisans generally. It changes the fundamental narrative of the battle of Fredericksburg from one of heroic and hopeless self-sacrifice on the part of northern soldiers, to one of southern chivalry and charity. On the field of mythos, the green flag of Erin and the Irish brigade with boxwood in its hats fall not to a stone wall
    lined with muskets but a noble young man burdened with canteens.

    “But the popularity of the story goes even further than that. The story of the “Angel” and his “Christ-like” mercy offers those of us who read military history for its questionable pleasures – and those of us whose votes may lead to future wars – a kind of solace, and an
    absolution. On this battlefield, humanity stays the hand of the grim-faced sharpshooter and acts of mercy go forward without impediment. No one shoots Lt. Col. Buchanan’s wounded or guns down his ambulance attendants. Major Andrews’ men need not go twelve hours
    without a drink of water, nor relieve themselves in the mud where they lie under fire the entire day. From this battlefield, we need remember only one man with a canteen in his hand, not the more than 18,000 with lead in other parts of their bodies. Here, war is evil in the abstract but noble in its particulars.

    “The legend of Sergeant Kirkland remains as good a story as ever. But in the end it tells us considerably less about the actual battle of Fredericksburg than the cultural and political milieu in which it first appeared, and our continuing need to avoid confronting the reality of war.”

  • Jack Warren Jan 2, 2013 @ 20:12

    I have read the argument and the extensive dialogue, which is all very interesting. There’s a significant critical perspective missing, both from Mr. Levin’s post and the commentary: an examination of Kershaw’s credibility as a witness. Mr. Levin’s argument can be summarized, without injustice I hope, in simple terms. General Kershaw’s report of the event, he contends, is the only one we have. He has looked in vain for a supporting account in all of the sources he could think of. Finding none, he concludes that the story is a myth.

    That conclusion leaves unanswered — or at least unanswered in any sort of persuasive manner — why J.B. Kershaw would have made up such a story. Mr. Levin says the story should be read as a “parable.” He suggests Kershaw “never really meant us to take his story literally.” That’s an interesting suggestion, because it contradicts, utterly, what Kershaw said he was offering. Kershaw claimed to be giving us “the rigid simplicity of actual truth.”

    Mr. Levin dangles the conventional impeachment of post-war memory, pointing out that seventeen years had passed between the alleged events and the publication of the story. Forgive a middle aged historian for not thinking Kershaw’s memory of the Battle of Fredericksburg was likely to have dimmed much in that short time. He certainly had no difficulty remembering Kirkland — a very real person about whom Kershaw remembered significant details.

    I see no evidence that Kershaw was creating a parable, one he didn’t expect us to take seriously. Nor do I see any evidence that Kershaw’s memory was clouded. Mr. Levin respects evidence, so he will recognize that he doesn’t offer any evidence to support either of these suggestions.

    So was J.B. Kershaw a liar? A spinner of tall tales? A romantic? I don’t know. I haven’t done the work. To address these questions, we have to leave the Kirkland story and examine the rest of Kershaw’s writings. Was he a generally reliable witness, or a fictionalizer?

    Historians look for supporting testimony, but they often rely on the testimony of a single credible witness. Skepticism about the Kirkland story is reasonable. It does make sense that someone else would have commented on the extraordinary event Kershaw described. But before dismissing Kershaw’s account as a “myth,” Mr. Levin needs to persuade us that Kershaw is an unreliable witness.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2013 @ 2:49

      Thanks for the lengthy reply, but please keep in mind that this was a guest post. I did not write it.

  • J.W.Nation Nov 28, 2012 @ 14:56

    Trying to belittle Richard Kirkland anywhere around Camden, SC, is akin to starting the war again. His decendants have too many letters from this gentleman. Some are in the Kershaw County Archives, others still in family possession.You can believe your tale, we know ours.

  • Eric Schafer Apr 18, 2012 @ 5:39

    A true historian is one who is educated and trained in the proper methods of research, authentication, verification and who is also so deeply versed in their subject matter that they are judged highly reliable in discerning what is fact or fiction; and they are also able to unearth or judge new material creditably. Just because someone writes a book about history or a historical figure does not make them a true historian – even if they do extensive research. Pryor is a perfect example. I mean, she wrote a book about a man who was a soldier and who was anti-slavery, yet her writing demonstrates she cannot comprehend military matters, and she claims Lee fought for slavery. To make such gross errors disqualifies her as a Lee historian. Incidentally, I’m not surprised she claimed Lee fought for slavery. In our hyper-sensitive, “racism” sensitive, revisionist society, if she claimed Lee didn’t fight for slavery, she’d’ve been run out of town on a rail by the folks who have no idea what they’re talking about, yet are convinced they are right – and anyone who disagrees is evil.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 18, 2012 @ 5:47

      You are no closer to making your case for the Kirkland story than you were in your last comment.

      • Eric Schafer Apr 18, 2012 @ 5:55

        Oh, the point was made long ago; you’re just not getting it. They do not present factual evidence discounting the act. For example, claiming, “It wasn’t in the official reports, so it didn’t happen” is not credible. Do you know anything of military matters? Officers never put incidents like Kirkland’s act into military reports…because his act had nothing to do with the battle or how the regiment fought. One’s superiors – military and political – have no interest in one soldier succoring enemies with canteens of water; they want to know what happened in the battle. If I were Kershaw’s superior and he wrote of the Kirkland incident in his battle report I would have it stricken from the record as being inconsequential and irrelevant.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 18, 2012 @ 5:59

          Yes, I am aware of this. In fact, I believe Mac Wycoff made that very point. My suggestion is that you write something up that addresses the specific points made by Schaffner. Please don’t make the mistake in assuming that I agree with everything in his guest post. This is not a peer reviewed journal. It’s a blog. At the time I believed it was worth posting to generate a discussion and I still believe this to be the case. Your claims about Freeman’s infallibility as well as the tired and I suspect that your references to “revisionist history” have won you few supporters here.

        • Jim Skinner Aug 18, 2019 @ 9:33

          Agreed, may be unfortunate, but when it comes to war, facts (numbers, casualties, results, etc) are what the leaders need and want to know, not heroism.

    • Jerry McKenzie Dec 15, 2018 @ 20:55

      How was Lee anti-slavery? You lost me on this one. He inherited slaves he was to free and worked them relentlessly for his benefit.

      • Andy Hall Dec 16, 2018 @ 11:31

        In fact, Lee saw the institution of slavery as being God’s will and a positive benefit to those enslaved. Lee disliked having to deal with the practice personally, and kept it at arm’s length as much as he could, but he wasn’t “anti-slavery” in any meaningful sense.

        Also remember that Lee himself owned slaves for most of his adult life, entirely apart from those that were part of his father-in-law’s estate.

  • stephen finch Apr 13, 2012 @ 13:24

    Wouldn’t General Kershaw have, at the very least, jeopardized his reputation for sound, dispassionate judgment had he early on acknowledged his decision to allow Sergeant Kirkland to go over the wall? That may well explain why he waited 18 years to publicize Kirkland’s deed. In so doing he avoided creating an impression of sentimentality and weakness on the battlefield.

    • Eric Schafer Apr 18, 2012 @ 3:38

      The Kirkland incident is true. Douglas Southall Freeman spends a great deal of time on it in “Lee’s Lieutenants” Volume 2, middle page 378-middle page 380. If Freeman said it happened, it happened.

      • Kevin Levin Apr 18, 2012 @ 3:40

        If Freeman said it happened, it happened.

        What is it about Freeman that makes him omnipotent?

        • Eric Schafer Apr 18, 2012 @ 3:47

          His immaculate research and unstinting integrity. The man won two Pulitzers and deserved a third.

          • Kevin Levin Apr 18, 2012 @ 3:50

            I don’t think anyone will deny Freeman’s talents as a historian or his integrity, but no one deserves to be given a free pass in the way you suggest. I am currently reading a wonderful intellectual biography of Freeman by Keith Dickson, which I highly recommend

            • Eric Schafer Apr 18, 2012 @ 3:57

              It’s not so much a free pass as this: If Freeman failed to find credible evidence, he would not have included it, especially giving it two full pages. Had he found evidence discrediting it, he would have either simply not mentioned it, or spent a single line dismissing it. Thus his account is trustworthy. Shaffner’s post, as well, is full of conjecture and rationalization, which, in the end, he uses to convince even himself. At the worst, it must be accepted that Kirkland’s act was of a type which undoubtedly was repeated often during the war. It is often present as something extraordinary – it was – and unique – which it wasn’t.

              • Kevin Levin Apr 18, 2012 @ 4:00

                I don’t deny that Freeman believed himself to have found “credible evidence” for a whole host of claims. That’s what historians do. However, it doesn’t follow that the evidence and the interpretation of that evidence is somehow beyond question. We are constantly challenging/questioning evidence and developing new interpretation.

                • Eric Schafer Apr 18, 2012 @ 4:16

                  But that’s just the point between every day people – who are almost always convinced they hold the truth about something, and careful historians who are relentless in sifting, sorting and making decisions. “Lee’s Lieutenants” has something like 9.600 footnotes and Freeman is endlessly using them to explain how he sorted through multiple sources to draw a scene, and which are reliable and for what reasons, which are unreliable and for what reasons, and what can never be proven beyond doubt. And in the 70 years since the appearance of this collection, few if any have challenged his conclusions. Had anything rung false about this incident, he undoubtedly would have not included it. I find Shaffner’s post to be essentially amongst the latter style of Civil War “historians,” the movement of “Well, let’s see; let’s take something and discount it, even though we have no evidence to discount it, because taking the negative side gives me something to write about.” Much like the revisionist histories of Lee; they’re written not because new evidence has come to light, but because people decided, “Damn, it couldn’t have been THAT good, so let’s just say he was bad without any evidence.” Gettysburg is a perfect example. Of course Lee made errors, but to champion Longstreet as possessing better ideas at this battle would be a gross error. He failed Lee half a dozen times in two days…then laid the blame on Lee. His complete failure to understand and bring about Lee’s request for a “feu d’enfer” on July 3 is why Pickett’s Charge failed, not because it was a bad idea.

                  • Kevin Levin Apr 18, 2012 @ 4:21

                    You are more than welcome to challenge Schaffner’s post, but if you hope to convince anyone here you are going to have to deal directly with specific claims rather than broad generalizations that have little to do with his actual argument.

                    As for Freeman you say:

                    And in the 70 years since the appearance of this collection, few if any have challenged his conclusions.

                    You are apparently not familiar with the relevant historiography. I recommend starting with Gary Gallagher’s edited collection Lee: The Soldier, Peter Carmichael’s edited collection Audacity Personified, and Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man.

                    • Eric Schafer Apr 18, 2012 @ 4:35

                      I don’t think that’s a challenge. If anyone took this article seriously it would become well known. Not only does Shaffner pass off conjecture as fact, he even lies: he claims “Douglas Southall Freeman makes no mention of the Sergeant [Kirkland]” but this is a falsehood. While Freeman does not mention Kirkland in his biography of Robert E. Lee, he devotes no less than two full pages to Kirkland’s act in “Lee’s Lieutenants” Volume 2, middle page 378-middle page 380. Any falsehood like this immediately disqualifies the writer as a real historian.

                      Oh, I’m familiar with all those books. As I stated, we are currently mired in “revisionist history” which basically is: “All these other folks wrote books saying how great these guys were, and I don’t have any new material, so I’m just going to write a book saying how bad those guys were.” You see it in all areas; in music for example, there is now a movement claiming Robert Johnson was not a great blues guitarist. Why? They have nothing else to write, so they’re writing the opposite of what’s been written for 50 years.

                      Closer to home, any close study of what really happened in the Civil War will undoubtedly lead right back to what people said during and immediately after the war: Lee was a genius, head and shoulders above everyone else. Because Grant was in charge of the Union Armies at the end of the war, he’s constantly referred to today as “brilliant” and even “a genius” but my careful studies of his career never reveal this. Grant was an unimaginative plodder who beat Lee only because he had endless supplies of men. Had their resources been switched, Lee would have crushed Grant and won the war.

                      Pryor’s book is not a very good one, despite her exhaustive research. Bottom line: she actually used very few letters to write her book. Basically, she wrote what she wanted about Lee, and her conclusions are ill-founded. She makes the great error of asserting that Lee “fought for slavery” which he most certainly did not; and when she writes about Civil War battles she’s in way over her head – it’s clear that she has no grasp of military matters. Thus what could have been an interesting book comes off as shallow and of little value.

                    • Kevin Levin Apr 18, 2012 @ 4:40

                      You said:

                      As I stated, we are currently mired in “revisionist history” which basically is: “All these other folks wrote books saying how great these guys were, and I don’t have any new material, so I’m just going to write a book saying how bad those guys were.”

                      This is just silly given the extent to which Freeman viewed his own work as “revisionist”. Your reading of Pryor is much too simplistic. Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment. I don’t know whether the Kirkland story is true or not, but nothing you’ve said pushes me in one direction or another.

                    • Eric Schafer Apr 18, 2012 @ 4:49

                      In a sense, any new history is “revisionist” and Freeman undoubtedly viewed his work as such. But that is in the context of true historians re-examining the work of other true historians. But my use of “revisionist” is that in which people who want something to be different just say it’s different because they want it to be different, not because they have new evidence or anything of value to say.

                    • Kevin Levin Apr 18, 2012 @ 4:52

                      ut that is in the context of true historians re-examining the work of other true historians.

                      I don’t know what a “true historian” is. I know how to evaluate the work of those who consider themselves to be historians or present their work as history. In that sense there is good and bad history based on the quality of the interpretation itself rather than who they are or based on assumptions of motivation. I leave that to others.

                    • Lawrence Kirkland Apr 18, 2012 @ 4:58

                      I don’t understand all this. Because Richard Kirkland was mentioned in one account and not somewhere else..!!! How did Richard Kirkland’s name get involved…?? If it was just a STORY..why not a Sgt. John Smith or some other soldier. This is stupid. It happened, there are accounts and the name of the soldier that did it..Enough..LOL

                    • Eric Schafer Apr 18, 2012 @ 5:48

                      It’s just like these people who are desperately trying to get English Lit PhD’s or make a name for themselves, and they claim that when Huck and Jim are naked on the raft it’s because they’ve just had homosexual relations. No…the storm blew away all their clothes. Or the one who claimed that Jay Gatsby was black. No, he was white, and the evidence for such is all through the book. And so on…

                    • Eric Schafer Apr 18, 2012 @ 6:00

                      You’ve missed the point. I didn’t say that just because Freeman said it, it’s true; I said that because Freeman was a true historian and all the evidence shows he did a marvelous job of sorting fact from fiction, if he discerned the Kirkland story was true, it’s true.

                      Besides, you admitted you don’t know what a true historian is, so I don’t think you can argue any of these points creditably.

                    • Kevin Levin Apr 18, 2012 @ 6:10

                      Like I said, I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

          • Ken Noe Apr 18, 2012 @ 6:40

            I admire Freeman’s work as well, but we’ve known for years that he suppressed a Lee letter because he (wrongly) believed that it revealed Lee’s murder of a settler early in his career, and he wanted to protect Lee’s reputation. Likewise, at the end of his life Lee admitted in a private letter that he had been unfair to Longstreet and hoped to rectify it. The man was a fine scholar, but he wasn’t perfect.

            • Kevin Levin Apr 18, 2012 @ 8:04

              Hi Ken,

              Thanks for reminding me of this. There are also plenty of legitimate questions that can be asked about specific points of interpretation in his Lee biography that can be made. The one that stands out for me is his insistence that resigning from the U.S. army was the “decision he was born to make.” It ignores the fact that Lee’s own family was split on secession and that any number of his West Point colleagues from the South chose not to resign. The only way Freeman could make such a claim is if he ignored Southern Unionists and even fellow Virginians such as George Thomas.

            • Ken Noe Apr 18, 2012 @ 14:42

              Oops, I meant to say that Freeman “admitted in a private letter that he had been unfair to Longstreet and hoped to rectify it.” Sorry.

      • Andy Hall Apr 18, 2012 @ 4:24
        • Eric Schafer Apr 18, 2012 @ 4:45

          Mac Wyckoff’s piece is far more reasonable and better written than Shaffner’s yet is based on the same premise: “I want this story to not be true, so I’m going to say it’s not true” – it does not present factual evidence discounting it. If a man leaves Spotsylvania riding a horse, claiming he’s going to ride to Richmond, and his friends see him ride into Richmond on the same horse, we can take for reasonable certainty he rode from Spotsylvania to Richmond on a horse. If someone else wants to claim, “No, he went by car” yet has no witnesses, photographs or other evidence to show he went by car…we cannot then deduce that he went by car.

          As I noted, one thing to remember is that Kirkland’s act was undoubtedly repeated a thousand times before and a thousand times after the battle of Fredericksburg; such things are mentioned briefly by soldiers in letters and diaries, and by historians. But because Kirkland’s act gains the most attention, revisionist history wants so desperately for it not to have happened. Next thing they’ll be telling us is that Elvis didn’t lay down all those vocals and Scotty didn’t lay down all those guitar solos – it was session musicians did it! Can’t name ’em, don’t have any photos or records to prove it…but it must be so because Elvis and Scotty couldn’t have been that good because…because…we aren’t that good, so we don’t want anybody else to be that good…

          • Kevin Levin Apr 18, 2012 @ 4:50

            Mac Wyckoff’s piece is far more reasonable and better written than Shaffner’s yet is based on the same premise: “I want this story to not be true, so I’m going to say it’s not true”[.]

            But because Kirkland’s act gains the most attention, revisionist history wants so desperately for it not to have happened.

            You need to spend less time on assuming what motivates others and more time on dealing with the actual arguments. What’s to stop me from dismissing you along the same lines or anyone else for that matter? This is a non-starter.

            • Eric Schafer Apr 18, 2012 @ 5:45

              I’ve been a journalist for over 30 years and have seen the changes in what motivates people – and how this appears in journalism and new histories – very well, especially over the past 20 years. And what generates a lot of this stuff these days is, “They say this guy did this; I’m going to say he didn’t.” “They say Lee was so great; I’m going to say he wasn’t.” A perfect example is how Shaffner deliberately deceives his readers when he states that Freeman didn’t write about Kirkland, so it couldn’t have happened. This is a lie; he tells us Freeman didn’t write about Kirkland in “Lee” but never states that Freeman devotes two pages to Kirkland in “Lee’s Lieutenants.”

              In fact, Shaffner disproves his own argument. To whit, he states, “Freeman didn’t say it happened, so it didn’t,” which means, “If Freeman said it happened, it did.” And because Freeman said it happened in “Lee’s Lieutenants,” Shaffner has just stated that, in fact, it did happen.

              • Kevin Levin Apr 18, 2012 @ 5:50

                You are still no closer to making your case for the Kirkland story than you were in your last comment. Again, what is to stop me from applying your own approach to critiquing to you? Could it be that you just want the story to be true? And around we go.

          • Andy Hall Apr 18, 2012 @ 5:16

            Mac Wyckoff’s piece is far more reasonable and better written than Shaffner’s yet is based on the same premise: “I want this story to not be true, so I’m going to say it’s not true” – it does not present factual evidence discounting it.

            Um, maybe you oughter go back and read Wyckoff’s essays, because he presents substantial evidence supporting the claims made about Kirkland, either specifically about him or about similar acts by others. My point being this: if you’re going to argue that the Kirkland story is factually true — and I have no trouble acknowledging that, in substance, it likely is — then you can do a whole lot better than saying, “it’s true because Douglas Freeman says so.”

  • Paul Thornton May 19, 2011 @ 5:25

    I note from the essay the following;

    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.

    Do we know if any plans are underway for something similar, perhaps much smaller, during the sesquicentennial in Fredericksburg also? Any help would be much appreciated.

    Thank you.

    • Kevin Levin May 19, 2011 @ 5:30


      I do not know of any plans to dedicate a new statue at Fredericksburg.

  • Fr. Jack Kirkland Bradberry Aug 15, 2010 @ 19:05

    Years ago, while living in North Carolina I journeyed to Camden to learn about Richard Rowland Kirkland. The librarian there gave me a copy of a poem, “The Angel of Mary’es Heights” about the exploits of Sgt. Kirkland. She told me at that time that there was a time in the south when every child in school had to recite the poem. I lost my copy, but did visit his grave. There is no doubt in my mind that the story is exact and true. Just want to comment.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2010 @ 1:53

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. You said: “There is no doubt in my mind that the story is exact and true.” Do you care to provide an interpretation of the available evidence that would justify such a conclusion?

  • wade Jun 13, 2010 @ 9:34

    This is bullcrap. Richard Rowland Kirkland is my great x4 uncle. My family knows for a fact that he was a Lieutenant before he was killed. And these are eye-witness accounts from the 13th and 14th regiments, when Kirkland was in the 2nd regiment. This guy has no idea what he is talking about.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 13, 2010 @ 10:36


      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I guess I understand your disappointment, but it would be a mistake to describe this guest post as “bullcrap.” It’s an honest attempt to come to terms with a popular story based on a selection of the available evidence. It sounds like you have a additional sources to share on this story. We would love to have references to these accounts. Are they original letters, wartime or postwar publications? Thanks for your assistance.

    • Andy Hall Jun 13, 2010 @ 12:13


      I don’t know if you have a copy of Kirkland’s service record, but it’s available here (12 pages, 9.3MB PDF). It shows his rank at the time of his death as First Sergeant. It’s possible that these records (like any other) are in error, but that seems unlikely. I have a similar situation in my own family, an uncle that my family all “knew for a fact” had been an officer. He wasn’t; hell, he wasn’t even a non-com. He was a buck private the entire war. But decades later, the local UDC chapter bestowed the honorary rank of colonel on him. He apparently used the title frequently, so by the time he died, everyone in town (and the family) knew him as “old Colonel Daffan,” and no one thought to question it. It was accepted as fact.

      I’ve found a good bit of that in doing my own research — much of what I “knew” was simply wrong.

      • Kevin Levin Jun 13, 2010 @ 12:18


        Thanks for providing the link.

    • Tony Ziebol Jul 12, 2010 @ 8:41

      Hi Wade, I’d like a chance to speak to the Kirkland family for a book I’m writing. If you read this, please contact me at

      Thank you!

      • Dick Stanley Aug 14, 2010 @ 14:13

        I’m glad I don’t have a dog in this fight (I don’t care whether the Kirkland story is true or not), but I must agree with the commenter who says the official reports aren’t always reliable. The old master Sheby Foote wrote something silly years ago when he said of the stuff in the O.R. “there you hear the real men speak.”

        What you actually “hear” is the way the real men were taught to write, with all the expected formalities and omissions. Few were the officers on either side who were brave enough to contradict their commanders or write things he wouldn’t approve—not more than once. And so much of the Confederate material was lost, who could know what of what remains is reliable and what isn’t?

        I also would quarrel with the idea of relying only on what’s available on the Web. Much primary material in state archives and university libraries (not to mention county historical societies) has yet to be digitized.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 14, 2010 @ 14:18

          I don’t think anyone who has a serious interest in historical research would disagree with your final point. The author of the article in question also concedes the point. That said, however we proceed the fundamental problem is that the earliest account of Kirkland was written in 1880. I also don’t really care whether the standard story of Kirkland is true because that question doesn’t really explain why it continues to have such a profound hold on so many people.

    • Lawrence Kirkland Apr 17, 2012 @ 18:43

      I would really like more information on this if you have it.

    • Michael Deschain Jul 10, 2015 @ 13:58

      I am also a descendant of Kirkland as well as a few other Confederate soldiers from the (now) Kershaw S.C area. I too have read the story of Kirkland, although in our family history books (McGill and Samuel Jones) written by Hazel Parker Jones. Well, nice talking to you, five years after the fact. If you do get see this comment, awesome, I’td be great to know i reached another of the jones McGill line.

  • Tony Ziebol Mar 27, 2010 @ 0:06

    All of you have brought up interesting points, but I’ve been researching the Kirkland story for 8+ years and I believe Kershaw was telling the truth. In fact, the Camden, SC chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans named the camp after Kirkland, despite six generals being from the town. And this was approved by the generals and soldiers that were still living. Contempory accounts are sketchy, in this I agree, but there are so many mentions of Kirkland in speeches and memoirs from soldiers that fought with him, that I find it extremely hard to believe that the story was made up. If you read the accounts of the reburial of Kirkland, you have to come to the conclusion that this was someone who was venerated at the highest level by all who knew him. I’ve just returned from South Carolina and Kirkland’s descendants may soon put all questions to rest. I’ll know more soon!

    • Kevin Levin Mar 27, 2010 @ 1:04


      Thanks for taking the time to write. It’s a fascinating story and one that is worth serious research. First, I don’t think the fact that the SCV chapter was named after Kirkland over six generals is significant. After all, many of the chapters around the country are named after popular figures from the war. There are indeed many mentions of Kirkland, but we don’t see that until after the war. This is also the case for countless postwar stories that we now know are not true. Best of luck with your research.

  • Craig Dec 24, 2009 @ 20:48

    The real gist of your case seems to be the limited number of first hand accounts from witnesses to Kirkland's actions. While I would agree, if we were to present this to a court of law, the weight should be upon eyewitness accounts. But I would ask if Kirkland's actions, or alleged actions if you wish, were something which the officers might normally include in reports. We often cite the ORs as if these were some magic documents encompassing all that occurred on the battlefield. As if the writers were required to provide detailed essays of their perceptions, sensations, and impressions. Not at all. These were simply military after action reports detailing the actions of the units as recalled by the commanders. I would argue then Kirkland's act of mercy, if it occurred or not, was not something normally included in a battalion, regimental, brigade, or division report. That Kershaw never “debunked,” and in fact added to the Kirkland story post war is actually far more telling than his lack of inclusion within reports written at the time of the event, all things considered.

    As as second point, I would also wonder how unique or extraordinary Kirkland's actions were. At the very heart of the somewhat contradictory notion of civilized warfare lodged in the Western mindset. Not just soldiers, but throughout society, is ingrained the respect for white flags, dignified treatment of prisoners, care for wounded, and indeed the concept of “non-combatant.” Taking such moral and ethical cornerstones as a base, there should have been dozens if not hundreds of “Kirklands” rendering assistance through the course of the war. Maybe there was more than one “Kirkland” with canteen in hand on Marye's Heights (the evidence presented in your post indicates at least one existed). And who is going to stop and record names for posterity in a situation as played out at Fredericksburg? More to my first point above, are there any mention of Kirkland-like acts from any official reports from other battles (I can think of blue-to-blue or gray-to-gray acts of mercy, but not many gray-blue exchanges)? Or were such acts commonplace enough to go without mention?

    As for fictionalizing one man's courage while overshadowing others, well that's the normal state of affairs in this world (think about the Iwo Jima memorial for instance). Some of the bravest men and women I've ever met will never get a statue on even the smallest town square. Some won't even gain recognition in the form of noted awards. Guess I can provide many more appropriate examples from which to make the stand against the inequities of these public displays and the faulty collective memory. I seriously doubt anyone is rolling over in their grave at the attention given Richard Rowland Kirkland. And if the premise is Kirkland's memorial somehow slights other more deserving individuals, then I'll start on my rant about the Dante Alighieri statue in Meridian Hill Park, Washington, D.C. while William Shakespeare goes unrecognized.

    • Michael Schaffner Dec 25, 2009 @ 4:58

      The real import of the after action reports is that they not only fail to mention Kirkland, but that they contradict — without any ulterior motive or reference to the legend to follow — the circumstances underlying Kershaw's account, especially the truce and the ground carpeted with wounded within easy canteen-hauling distance of the Confederate lines.

      Of course the other critical fact about the after action reports is that they exist, and that they were written a short time after the battle when memories were fresh, and that both sides agree on the essentials. To discount these reports — Union and Confederate alike — while priviledging a letter to the editor written nearly twenty years after the fact, seems a bit unbalanced to me. It seems bizarre, in fact. If we didn't so much want the story to be true, we would never stretch so far in favor of one much later source against a dozen written at the time.

      But don't stop at trying to discount the after-action reports. I would like to hear the explanation for why we have no mention of the incident in any of the newspaper reports of the battle (tell me that editors at Harpers or the Brooklyn Eagle or the Richmond Daily Dispatch wouldn't have given their right arms for a story like this!), nor any of the letters from the soldiers on either side at the time (wasn't even one of Kirkland's beneficiaries grateful enough to write home about it?), nor any contemporary journal entries –it's not just absent from the AARs, but apparently from all other records.

      But even those aren't the only problems I have with the account, now that I've taken the time to check it out and consider it. Not only does the Kirkland legend stretch the normal standards of historical research, it seems to me to risk prettifying and trivializing the very real horror of the actual battle. By focusing on the “Christ-like” Kirkland — moving among the grateful wounded while the two great armies sit, jaws-agape, in admiration — we pass by the Regulars lying under fire unable to “attend to the calls of nature” (or, more likely, attending to them in their clothes where they lay); we praise the figure who is not shot at while poor Lt. Col. Buchanan's wounded are wounded again and even the stretcher bearers attempting to reach them are shot. In crediting the legend of Kirkland, we credit Kershaw's 1880 letter while ignoring his own report after the battle, in which he proudly reports inflicting 150 further casualities on his enemy and hasn't a word for his charitable sergeant.

      And not only do we praise the water-bearer above his suffering foemen, but by fetishizing Kirkland's alleged act of kindness we ignore the reality of the Confederate position on that day. The Confederate soldiers in the ranks didn't know whether or not they would get hit again, and they didn't know whether or not they might be ordered to counterattack — to cross the same ground that had seen the ruin of many Federal attacks the day before. The Kirkland story obscures both the real suffering and the real heroism of both sides on that battlefield.

      And, so attractive has the story of the soldier giving water to the wounded enemy become, that we don't even begin to think about what even that simple act might really have meant. The story is so much about what we'd like to believe that it seduces us away from any critical reading at all. But if you think about it, and have read anything about military medicine at the time, the worst thing you can do for a gut-shot soldier (not an unlikely condition for someone disabled and lingering on the battlefield) is to give him water. For others, exsanguination causes such thirst that a few drops or swallows would be another kind of torture — McCarter emptied two canteens when he finally reached a party of his comrades from the Irish brigade. In fact, the kindest thing to do for the wounded is what the armies actually did: try to get them back to the professional medical staffs, even if in a few cases that means waiting another day for the cease fire. The story not only trivializes the situation of the armies on the day it supposedly occurred, it trivializes the condition of the wounded who were supposedly helped.

      I don't want you to stop believing this story if it makes you feel better about humanity and warfare. But the more I consider the legend and compare it to the reality of the battle as reported by participants at the time, the more I think that Kirkland himself would be rolling over in his grave to hear it.

      • Kevin Levin Dec 25, 2009 @ 11:21

        While I usually utilize the Chancellorsville battlefield for my school trips, on a few occasions I have taken my students to Fredericksburg. Inevitably we come across the Kirkland statue, but I've never made too much of it in my tours; in fact, I typically talk about the setting in which it was dedicated in 1965 rather than as a significant point of reflection on the battle itself for some of the reasons you mention here. In short, it seems to me that this story overshadows and distorts what happened on the site.

        • Michael Schaffner Dec 25, 2009 @ 13:00

          Your students are truly fortunate to have an instructor who understands that memorials often tell us more about the people who raised them, and the time in which they were raised, than the people or events they memorialize.

          • Kevin Levin Dec 25, 2009 @ 14:23

            Thanks for the kind words. I am lucky enough to be able to teach an entire class on these issues. My students are getting ready to go on a field trip to Monument Avenue and Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond to explore issues of historical memory and public history.

      • Craig Dec 25, 2009 @ 15:32

        Michael, I am not discounting the after action reports at all. Just pointing out the nature of the vessel.

        Two things that are very often misunderstood about the AAR. First these were supposed to be very stoic, unemotional, professional documents written in order to convey a strict understanding of the military situation. At its base, the AAR is the response from subordinate to superior offering proof one followed orders. The documents were not written for the benefit of historians, but rather to support the next higher HQ's presentation of the events. Reports were consolidated in order to ensure accuracy of the details (again military maneuvers, logistics, etc, but not someone's impressions or emotional reactions).

        Second is the timeliness. Often times the reports were written, submitted, rejected, resubmitted. In the case of Kershaw's report from Fredericksburg, it was only submitted on the day after Christmas that year, and after all his subordinate units had submitted their reports. If you bounce it off the regimental returns, you see a classic AAR report rollup. But this meant delays up the chain. General Lee's official summary report of the battle was not submitted until April 10, 1863, for instance. I am always suspect of “freshness of memory” with a battle report until I can draw a chain of events pertaining to the creation of said report. In other words, how long DID the author have to contemplate the events and what other accounts did they refer to while composing the report?

        All I'm saying is, given the style, format, and processing of the reports, it is expected that no mention of Kirkland's actions or lack thereof would be found in the official reports. And as I alluded to before, if Kirkland-like actions were not uncommon (as I would contend), then why would a reporter or diarist consider them in isolation? Particularly within the context of a great battle with so many observations to consider.

        Guess my point about Kirkland is even if the man from S.C. didn't perform the acts attributed to him, someone did. And similar acts occurred throughout the war. It is, as I pointed out before, part of the Western view of how war should retain some degree of civility. (And I can say with great personal reflection that civility is all to often dropped when one perceives a lack of reciprocal civility.) How many “Kirklands” carried water that day in December? Or on other fields during the war? Sometimes we have to look to other disciplines to gain context and comprehension of the historical events. I'd submit this is one such case.

        On the other had, since it seems from the tone you are looking for examples of the cold hard realities of war, I would direct you to the writings of E.P. Alexander and his descriptions of artillery employment. At about the same time Kirkland would have been offering canteens, the Confederate artillerist was employing guns to fire upon the pinned down Union troops. This was done more to demonstrate the effectiveness of the particular weapon, less so for military necessity.

        If Kirkland didn't carry canteens, then I'll just summarize my response as “meh.”

        • Michael Schaffner Dec 25, 2009 @ 17:34

          Thank you for your response. I respect your continued belief in Kershaw's moving tribute to man's humanity under awful circumstances. It may be my loss, but I will probably continue to rely on more prosaic sources, including the AARs and other first hand accounts of the battle. These sources I have already presented and discussed as well as I can, and at this point I fear that in any further discussion I would only repeat myself, and possibly inject an emotion entirely inappropriate to the subject and the day. With all sincerity, I wish you and yours a Merry Christmas.

          • Craig Dec 26, 2009 @ 1:42

            Michael, I'll accept your sincerity. And certainly if you cannot avoid the injection of inappropriate discussions it is time to move on. But let me make one point perfectly clear. I never said I reject AARs. I said I place them in context. That, sir, is key to understanding the events.

        • Eric Schafer Mar 9, 2012 @ 9:51

          Dear Michael,

          I read your interesting article but not only found it a typical case of revisionist history – “I couldn’t find it, so it didn’t happen” – but you also deliberately deceived the reader concerning a great historian. You state that “Douglas Southall Freeman makes no mention of the Sergeant [Kirkland]” but this is a falsehood. While Freeman does not mention Kirkland in his biography of Robert E. Lee, he devotes no less than two full pages to Kirkland’s act in “Lee’s Lieutenants” Volume 2, middle page 378-middle page 380.

          A true historian – like Freeman – researches all the facts, sifts, and reports when he feels sure is the truth. If Freeman says it…I believe it. You deliberately withheld Freeman’s account because it did not jibe with your attempt to discredit Kirkland.

          Shame on you.

          Eric Schafer

  • Michael Schaffner Dec 23, 2009 @ 15:09

    “While there is no contemporary evidence that Kirkland performed this act, there is not evidence that he did not.”

    I think that kind of sums up the actual historical case for Kirkland, except that I also think that the after-action reports of the commanders of Sykes' regulars and Kershaw’s brigade provide compelling documentation that the story told by Kershaw could not have happened. After-action reports often vary in details, and can lend a kind of Rashomon-like quality to the story of a battle – in the case of Fredericksburg, for example, the reports I cited vary in the intensity of firing described, with those receiving generally reporting more than those giving. But they all agree in the absence of the hour and a half long cease-fire claimed by Kershaw in his later account (though not in his AAR), as well as in the absence of angels. Moreover, McLaws’ statement about the distance of Federal bodies from the wall supports Humphrey’s account of the removal of his wounded, which receives further support from McCarter and other casualties who survived. So contemporaries not only fail to mention Kirkland’s deed, but they describe a situation in which it simply could not occur as Kershaw tells it.

    A reading of Dickert's history of Kershaw’s brigade (written by an officer in that brigade who served at Fredericksburg) tells me that some who didn't object to Kershaw's story about Kirkland had simply never heard it. Indeed, if Kirkland was widely known as the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” at any time in the 35 years following the war, we would expect a comrade of his, writing for other comrades of his in the same brigade, to have showcased the story in a book published in 1899.

    Mr. Wyckoff seems dismissive of “on-line sources” but I want to point out to those readers who might not have seen them that the Official Records first appeared on paper in the years 1880 through 1901. The ORs include just about every report and piece of correspondence that the War Department could lay their hands on and are even more valuable to us now that they can be searched electronically. Those interested can take a look at them here:

    Some of the sources I consulted were available only on paper at the time I first wrote the article (2007), but have since found their way on-line, typically through Google Books. I don’t think they lost historical value in the scanning process.

    I’d like to turn this question about the ORs around and ask, if twenty-five years of research have failed to uncover “contemporary evidence that Kirkland performed this act,” why hasn’t Mr. Wyckoff turned to contemporary sources such as the Official Records and Dickert’s history for possible alternative explanations? To say “Incidents like this were usually not mentioned in the Official Records” sells that source pretty short. I’ve found everything in the Official Records from battlefield correspondence to studies of knapsack weight, ammunition production statistics, inventories of captured materiel, and reports on the durability of sewed vs. pegged brogans. The only incidents consistently not mentioned in the Official Records are incidents that did not occur.

    But my search didn’t start with the computer; it did in fact begin on the battlefield. I have gone to Fredericksburg many times, both as a tourist and as a reenactor. I have several times marched along the route traveled by the Irish Brigade in living histories narrated by Mr. Wyckoff’s NPS colleague Frank O’Reilly. It was at the end of one of those, facing the statue of Kirkland before the fateful wall, that my questions about the sergeant began. I wanted to know more about the story from the men who had seen it happen. I first looked for leads in my personal library, particularly Foote and McCarter’s books. I was surprised that Shelby Foote didn’t cover Kirkland, since he so obviously loved a good story. Once I got to the Official Records and other original sources, I found an explanation for the omission – no one can reconcile the story as Kershaw told it with the contemporary accounts of the battle by the men who fought it.

    I should also mention that I found some of Mr. Wyckoff’s writings on-line, but while dramatic and well-written they did not refer to original sources that independently verified the story. When I first drafted my Kirkland article I sent copies both to Mr. O’Reilly (who worked at the Park with Mr. Wyckoff) and to the e-mail address of the Kirkland museum, in each case asking the recipients if they had any information that contradicted my findings, or indeed anything about Kirkland’s alleged act written earlier than Kershaw’s account. I never heard back. The existence of a “huge file” at the Park was thus something I did not know about, but as I was interested in contemporary accounts corroborating the story – material that, according to Mr. Wyckoff’s statement above, does not exist – I am not sure what anyone is supposed to find there.

    I am glad to receive Mr. Wyckoff’s clarification of Kirkland’s rank – that he was a sergeant at Fredericksburg and died a sergeant at Chickamauga. Kershaw’s original letter states that the young man was promoted to lieutenant after Gettysburg, but this now seems the least of the general’s exaggerations on Kirkland’s behalf.

    • Cynic Feb 15, 2010 @ 18:04

      A wonderful piece of scholarship.

      I'd like to add, if I may, to your discussion of Kershaw's motives in embellishing or inventing the story in 1880. By the time he wrote his letter, the Civil War was being reimagined amid a national focus on reunion. Nina Silber termed it the Culture of Conciliation, which is as good a label as any. David Blight has focused on the particular subject of soldiers' accounts of their wartime experiences. And other scholarship abounds. It all points in the in the same direction. By the 1880s, a new tone was ascendant in accounts of the war. It became important to Americans to reconstruct the war as a defining and shared national experience. Veterans groups – blue and gray – began meeting together. National groups, particularly fraternal orders, made a point of spanning the Mason-Dixon line. Among the most popular tropes of the era was the notion that all veterans were members of a common fraternity. And stories like that of Kirkland were seized upon as evidence, popularized to illustrate the way they wished the war had been fought. The key feature of the story is that Kirkland's sympathy for the wounded trumped even his concern with his own life – and that his act won the admiration of both sides, to the point that they ceased firing. An act of true fraternal love, in other words, was powerful enough to silence the guns.

      Small acts of mercy were common amidst the horror of war. But bilateral, spontaneous, sustained cease-fires were not. The former might well have been omitted from official accounts; the latter would almost certainly have been reflected in some form. So why did Kershaw need to exaggerate the drama of the moment? The key to the power of the story, particularly to his audience at the time, was the fact that all the participants on both sides were prepared to set aside their differences. If Kirkland had moved about the battlefield under sporadic fire for ninety minutes, for example, it would have heightened his own heroism, but diminished the intended import. Similarly, if the surgeons and ambulances were portrayed as following Kirkland's example, they would merely have been fulfilling their duties. It was Kirkland's willingness to act as an individual that is key to the tale.

      And, in fact, Kershaw confirms this himself, concluding his account by writing that Kirkland stands as “an example which dignifies our common humanity.” That's a very interesting phrase. Not a confirmation of Christian mercy. Not a heroic figure, distinguished precisely because of his divergence from the norm. Not even a tribute to Southern manhood, or to the nobility of the Lost Cause. No, Kirkland “dignifies our common humanity.” He acted because he saw no difference, amid the suffering, between gray and blue. And both armies, moved by his example, ceased their fire.

      It's a powerful fable. And, in some ways, it makes me glad that the statue was erected. It's a concrete embodiment of something very important – the collective Gilded Age desire to reassert our commonality. So long as we don't mistake it for history, it conveys an equally important lesson.

      • Michael Schaffner Feb 17, 2010 @ 3:10

        Thanks very much for the compliment. Really — the whole thing's been a bit awkward for me.

        I'm still not sure about the motive behind the story. Possibly it had a complex of purposes. Beyond the reassertion of common humanity, one can also see the assertion of a ripping good yarn and the deliberate change of the Fredericksburg narrative from gallant-Irish-assault-against-all-odds to Christlike-Confederate-compassion-even-against-dastardly-yankees. Either way of course it would sell papers. And that in itself could have been the point. I recently discovered that the Charleston News and Courier published whole books of this sort of thing in the 1880s. If you like Kirkland you can also read, for example, Our Women in the War —… — a whole compendium of tales about gallant southern belles and the hardships of the southland. It seems enough of a genre that I begin to wonder whether Kershaw even wrote that letter himself or simply allowed his name to be attached to something ghost-written for the edification of the masses.

        It's not as if much of our popular view of the war isn't more or less legend anyway. Kirkland has plenty of company in the miracle bullet of Raymond, the heroics of vivandiere Annie Etheridge, the Confederate composition of Taps, legions of “Black Confederates,” and other myths.

        And even the conventional history of the battle of Fredericksburg seems a little mythic when you delve into the official records and first person accounts like McCarter's and Armstrong's. Each wave of the gallant attack fell apart pretty much within yards of the real jump off point, and Burnside's supposed stupidity looks more or less understandable given the communications of the day and the word he was receiving from the front.

        And yet that's all more or less besides the point when it comes to the Kirkland Memorial. I think I would mind it less if it had nearby its own historical marker — one explaining why it had much more to do with 1965 than 1862. Without such an explanation I can't help but see it as less uplifting than septic.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2010 @ 12:44

          Thanks for the comment. I tend to agree with you, though I think the idea of Kirkland having penned the piece himself goes a bit too far. That said, I do agree that the monument tells us much more about 1965 than it does 1862. I've been reading quite a bit about the monument in publications of the 1960s and it really does fit neatly into the push to see the war along consensus lines at the height of the Cold War. Glad to see that you are still following the blog.

          • michaelschaffner Feb 17, 2010 @ 15:07

            Sorry for the confusion — I didn't mean that I thought that Kirkland himself wrote the piece. I believe Kirkland died in the war. But given that the Kershaw letter wasn't unique — that the News and Courier published many similar stories, enough to fill at least one book — some other ghost writer wouldn't surprise me. But I don't want go any further down that path than simply observing that the original letter looks more like pulp folklore than history.

            Just drawing on my own memory of the time, the civil rights movement gives us another context for a statue of a noble, Christian Confederate soldier in 1965. It's a nice counterweight to the Pettus Bridge.

            Yes, I still drop in from time to time. About time I registered full time, eh?

            By the way, good luck with the “black Confederate” crowd.

            • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2010 @ 15:31

              Duh…I've had so much on my mind that I overlooked that important fact. Yes, it would have been quite a stunt for Kirkland to have composed the letter.

  • Mac Wyckoff Dec 22, 2009 @ 23:17

    While the author of this article did a very good job consulting sources aviable on-line, he missed much information about Kirkland and the incident that is not on line. I have studied this incident for twenty-five years. It appears that the author of this article did not consult my book on the 2nd South Carolina which details the Kirkland innocent and there will be even more detail in my upcoming greatly reviased and expanded second edition. Nor did the author of this article consult the huge file on Kirkland at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. It would seem to me that anyone serious about this incident would have started at the battlefield where the incent occured instead of relying on-line sources. The file at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center contains my research into why Kershaw wrote the newspaper article. He was asked in a newspaper article about the incident a week before to provide more details and the name of the soldier who performed the humanitarian act. That was his motive. It is important to note that as the story grew in popularity, no one disputed Kershaw's story or that Kirkland was the one who did it. In fact, after Kershaw's wrote his account, several members of the 2nd South Carolina came forward confirming Kershaw's account and naming Kirkland as the humanitarian. If the author had checked the Compiled Service Record of Richard Kirkland or consulted the roster of my book he would find that Kirkland was a sergeant at the time of the incident and the time of his death.

    Incidents like this were usually not mentioned in the Official Records so the author's arguments that since they don't mention the incident means it did not happen don't hold up. It also could be that humanitarian incdients like this were not that common and so not worth mentioning at the time. With the passage of time, an incident like this may have grown in importance and eventually took on a life of its own. While there is no contemporary evidence that Kirkland perfromed this act, there is not evidence that he did not. There are eye witnesses who wrote later of the incident and no eye witnesses challenged Kersahw's story or that Kirkland performed it.

    Anyone wishing to learn more about the Kirkland incident should consult the extensive f ile at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center.
    Mac Wyckoff

    • Kevin Levin Dec 22, 2009 @ 23:34


      Thanks so much for taking the time to respond. You are absolutely correct in pointing out that anyone interested in the Kirkland will have to take a trip to FSNMP to consult the files. I published the account with full understanding that it covered only sources available Online and that it does a pretty good job of critiquing those sources, your concerns nothwithstanding.

      Perhaps you can clarify something for me about the large file on Kirkland that is located at the FSNMP. I assume I am reading their bibliographies incorrectly, but where in their books do Rable and O'Reilly cite a Kirkland collection? So, I assume that the file includes wartime accounts of Kirkland's actions. If so, than why did neither of these authors cite those accounts? Thanks again for taking the time to write. It's a fascinating story that seems to bridge the divide between history and collective memory.

  • jfe Dec 22, 2009 @ 15:20

    It would make a fine article, I agree, but there would be many who would not like seeing another myth punctured.

  • Tim Abbott Dec 22, 2009 @ 14:54

    Compellingly and perceptively written.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 22, 2009 @ 15:11

      I couldn't agree more. It should be written up for one of the Civil War magazines. It would make for an excellent article.

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