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Experts battle over story of Marye’s Heights ‘Angel’
BY KEVIN KIRKLAND
FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
As wave after wave of blue-coated Yankees fell before Confederate fire 150 years ago this week, then lay dying on Fredericksburg’s battlefield, a 19-year-old’s killer instinct deserted him.
“All night and all day I have heard these poor people crying for water, and I can’t stand it no longer,” Sgt. Richard Rowland Kirkland said to Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw on Dec. 14, 1862. “I came to ask permission to go and give them water.”
With his commanding officer’s consent, Kirkland risked his life to offer wounded Union soldiers water and blankets below the stone wall on Sunken Road as both armies watched, guns silent, for nearly an hour and a half.
Or did he?
Kirkland died nine months later in the Battle of Chickamauga, never mentioning what he had done at Marye’s Heights in letters home to Kershaw County, S.C. Neither did Gen. Kershaw—until January 1880, when he recounted the story for a Charleston newspaper.
Kershaw’s account was so compelling that residents of Camden, S.C., dug up Kirkland’s body and moved it to their most prominent cemetery. In 1910, a large monument was unveiled to the man now known as the “Angel of Marye’s Heights.”
In 1965, the states of Virginia and South Carolina joined with Kirkland’s descendants to erect a larger-than-life statue of him cradling a Union soldier near the Fredericksburg hillside where the Confederacy won its most lopsided victory.
Now, with the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, questions about Kirkland’s deed have come to life. During the re-enactment of the epic fight last weekend, four gray-clad soldiers offered canteens to Union “casualties” while others went through their fallen enemies’ pockets and haversacks.
Looking on from the Union side was re-enactor and enthusiast Michael Schaffner, who created a stir three years ago on the “Civil War Memory” blog when he challenged Kershaw’s account. He noted that after-action reports filed by officers on both sides, including Kershaw, do not mention an hour-and-a-half cease-fire or Kirkland’s act of mercy.
Schaffner says Kershaw’s account is essentially a children’s story that not only trivializes the horror of Civil War battle, but does a disservice to soldiers such as Kirkland.
He knows it’s an unpopular stance.
“It’s a little like shooting down Santa with a Stinger missile on Christmas Eve,” he said.
Schaffner, who lives in Arlington, is a member of the Brady Sharpshooters, 16th Michigan unit, and helped to organize the Fredericksburg area’s “Fire on the Rappahannock” event.
The Kirkland story has its defenders. Mac Wyckoff, a retired National Park Service historian who worked at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for 25 years, has written a book about Kershaw’s Brigade and much about Kirkland. Wyckoff has found six eyewitness reports and more secondhand accounts, including one in January 1863 by poet Walt Whitman, who heard a Union soldier wounded at Fredericksburg tell of a Confederate who came to his aid.
“After 25 years of research, there’s no doubt in my mind that he was out in front of the stone wall giving water and comfort,” Wyckoff said in a phone interview from his home in Oregon. “There may have been others there and in other battles, but Kirkland’s the one we can put a name on.”
Who is right? Eyewitnesses’ memories aren’t always reliable, especially 17 years later. But it’s not unbelievable that a soldier would take pity on fellow Americans during the Civil War.
Virginia Pvt. Alexander Hunter was one of several Confederates who wrote later of watching Union infantry march into heavy fire at Marye’s Heights on Dec. 13, 1862:
“I forgot we were enemies and only remembered that they were men and it is hard to see in cold blood brave men die.”
After the battle, the Union’s Army of the Potomac counted 12,653 dead, missing, captured and wounded, with 1,284 men reported killed in action. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia suffered around 5,300 casualties, with about 600 reported dead.
There are accounts of other soldiers coming to the aid of injured enemies. A western Pennsylvania soldier tried to aid wounded Confederates at Gettysburg.
In 1880, at the dedication of a monument to soldiers of the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves, Capt. Robert Taggart recalled Sgt. Isaac N. McMunn’s efforts:
“There was common assent and approbation when Sergeant McMunn volunteered to carry to those wounded men the water for which they prayed. But Oh! the cruel, treacherous greeting with which that act of Christian charity was met [when a] Rebel bullet came crashing through his face as he bent to cool with water the burning lips of a wounded, helpless foe.”
The Battle of Gettysburg, on July 1–3, 1863, was almost a mirror of Fredericksburg. This time, Confederates attacked in waves against an enemy holding the high ground. Casualties for the two armies were about the same—more than 23,000 on each side—but a greater portion of Lee’s much smaller army were killed, an estimated 4,700 Confederates vs. 3,155 Federals.
Union soldiers who had fought at Marye’s Heights shouted their vengeance at the retreating army: “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!”
Kevin Kirkland, an editor at the Pittsburgh Post–Gazette, worked at The Free Lance–Star in the late 1980s and was sometimes asked if he was related to Sgt. Kirkland. He’s not. He returned to Fredericksburg to cover the re-enactment. He can be contacted at email@example.com.