The Importance of an "Angel": Kirkland at Fredericksburg

 (photo by author)

(photo by author)

Fredericksburg is a largely unmonumented battlefield.  The most prominent monument on the southern end of the field is the “Meade pyramid” largely inaccessible to most visitors; besides that the remains of earthworks stand as a testament to what once occurred there ornamented by a few cannon the park service has placed to represent their use.  There are a few small monuments scattered through the town and up to the heights which mocked the efforts of Union soldiers in 1862.  The only large monuments to a body of troops, like those you would expect to see at Gettysburg or Antietam, stand in the National Cemetery, and there are only three of them. But there is one monument so large and prominent that is captures the attention of every visitor who walks down the Sunken Road, and that is the monument to Richard Kirkland.

The Kirkland monument was erected by South Carolina, Virginia, Collateral Descendents of Richard Kirkland, and the Richard Rowland Kirkland Memorial Foundation; its dedication in 1965 was the last centennial event in the area.  The large sculpture of 22 year old Kirkland and a wounded Union soldier sits on a base inscribed with the words: “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.’”  On the back of the pedestal is biographical information about this sergeant who served in the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers.

The story of Richard Kirkland received wide attention from an account written by his brigade commander, J. B. Kershaw.  Kershaw writes:

 Richard R. Kirkland

Richard R. Kirkland

“The day after the sanguinary battle of Fredericksburg, Kershaw's brigade occupied the road at the foot of Marye's hill and the ground about Marye's house, the scene of their desperate defence of the day before. One hundred and fifty yards in front of the road, the stone facing of which constituted the famous stone wall, lay Syke's division of regulars, U.S.A., between whom and our troops a murderous skirmish occupied the whole day, fatal to many who heedlessly exposed themselves, even for a moment. The ground between the lines was bridged with the wounded' dead and dying Federals, victims of the many desperate and gallant assaults of that column of 30,000 brave men hurled vainly against that impregnable position.

All that day those wounded men rent the air with their groans and their agonizing cries of "Water! water!" In the afternoon the General sat in the north room, up stairs, of Mrs. Stevens' house, in front of the road, surveying the field, when Kirkland came up. With an expression of indignant remonstrance pervading his person, his manner and the tone of his voice, he said:

"General! I can't stand this."

"What is the matter, Sergeant?" asked the General.

He replied, "All night and all day I have heard those poor people crying for water, and I can stand it no longer. I come to ask permission to go and give them water."

The General regarded him for a moment with feelings of profound admiration, and said: "Kirkland, don't you know that you would get a bullet through your head the moment you stepped over the wall?"

"Yes, sir," he said, "I know that; but if you will let me, I am willing to try it."

 (photo by author)

(photo by author)

After a pause, the General said, "Kirkland, I ought not to allow you to run a risk, but the sentiment which actuates you is so noble that I will not refuse your request, trusting that God may protect you. You may go."

The Sergeant's eye lighted up with pleasure. He said, "Thank you, sir," and ran rapidly down stairs. The General heard him pause for a moment, and then return, bounding two steps at a time. He thought the Sergeant's heart had failed him. He was mistaken. The Sergeant stopped at the door and said: "General, can I show a white handkerchief?" The General slowly shook his head, saying emphatically, "No, Kirkland, you can't do that." "All right," he said, "I'll take the chances," and ran down with a bright smile on his handsome countenance.

With profound anxiety he was watched as he stepped over the wall on his errand of mercy -- Christ- like mercy. Unharmed he reached the nearest sufferer. He knelt beside him, tenderly raised the drooping head, rested it gently upon his own noble breast, and poured the precious life- giving fluid down the fever scorched throat. This done, he laid him tenderly down, placed his knapsack under his head, straightened out his broken limb, spread his overcoat over him, replaced his empty canteen with a full one, and turned to another sufferer. 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 God's sake, water!" More piteous still the mute appeal of some who could only feebly lift a hand to say, here, too, is life and suffering.

For an hour and a half did this ministering angel pursue his labor of mercy, nor ceased to go and return until he relieved all the wounded on that part of the field. He returned to his post wholly unhurt. Who shall say how sweet his rest that winter's night beneath the cold stars!”

 Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania nmP's logo features the kirkland monument.

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania nmP's logo features the kirkland monument.

This account, the idea that a soldier would risk his own life to help those he has recently had a hand in wounding, has intrigued visitors and history lovers for years.  But was it real?  Kershaw did not write his account until 1880, long after its subject had been killed at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863.  In addition, there are no contemporary accounts to prove the story, although some accounts talk of similar deeds done by other soldiers (for an expanded investigation of this topic see: Is the Kirkland Story True?).  Nevertheless, the Kirkland story is widely known and remembered.  He has been the subject of numerous artist renderings, a second statue to him graces the entry of the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, PA, and Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP made the statue part of their logo. 

 Monument to mercy stands in front of the national civil war museum.

Monument to mercy stands in front of the national civil war museum.

And why? True, it is a compelling story.  But it is more than that; war provides us many compelling stories.  But this is a story of mercy, of the better side of human nature.  The Fredericksburg battlefield in itself is a monument to horror, bloodshed, pain, and tens of thousands of casualties.  From where the monument sits today, the open plain towards the city of Fredericksburg would have been a scene which would haunt the soldiers who experienced and survived it.  When we go to see the battlefield to study its story, we go to see the worst part of our nature, the part where men are compelled to kill and maim each other by the thousands for hours on end.  In that moment of our own horror, experiencing through the ages the pain and bloodshed of battle, we look for reassurance that humanity is not lost in the chaos of the battlefield.  And there is Richard Kirkland.  Proof that in the men who so earnestly seek to destroy one another, there is still humanity and regard for their fellow human beings.  We seek a sign of the better side of humanity among the pain of battle, and we find Kirkland, and many like him through our nation’s history. 

 For I Was Thirsty by Nathan Greene: The Angel of Marye's Heights, Confederate soldier Richard Rowland Kirkland

For I Was Thirsty by Nathan Greene: The Angel of Marye's Heights, Confederate soldier Richard Rowland Kirkland

Kirkland gives us a glimpse of hope, of a human face in the midst of dehumanizing battle.  It allows us to “feel better,” giving us a “good” story to counter the “bad” story of death and killing.  Is that a bad thing?  Not really.  Soldiers in war and civilians at home need to cling to the hope that humanity survives in battle, that those who fight will not “lose themselves” and will return home unscathed.  We yearn for evidence that there is a good side to war, that there is good in the world, and the Kirkland story fulfills that need.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.