“While the Civil War entailed immense destruction and tragedy, it did not always engender hate. For two days following the battle, wounded Union soldiers, caught between the lines, cried out for water. Though exposure to enemy fire even for a moment meant almost certain death, Sergeant Richard R. Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers tried to help. Filling several canteens of water, the young Confederate stepped over the stone wall to care for his wounded enemies. When Union soldiers understood Kirkland’s purpose, they ceased firing at him and cheered. For nearly two hours he continued his ministrations. Kirkland has since been known as “The Angel of Marye’s Heights.” He died in battle at Chickamauga, George in September 1863.”
Richard Rowland Kirkland was born on August 20th, 1843 in Flat Rock, South Carolina, but shortly after his 20th birthday, he found himself on the snowy hills of Marye’s Heights. In 1861 Richard Kirkland left his family farm in South Caronlina and joined the company of Captain J. D. Kennedy of the Second Carolina volunteers.(1)
Two years later, the day after the Battle of Fredericksburg, Kirkland was housed by a Mrs. Stevens’ on Sunken Road. It was here that Kirkland was made to listen to the cries of the wounded, which he could see from the upstairs window of Mrs. Stevens home. In a narrative written by General J. B. Kershaw, he gives the account of Kirkland asking his general if he could care for the wounded. It is reported that Kirkland said “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.”(2) After light discussion the General replied “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.”(3)
Before running outside Kirkland supposedly asked his general if he could wave a white handkerchief – a symbol of surrender – but his general declined to which Kirkland responded, “I’ll take the chances.” (4) Many eyewitnesses accounts chronicle Kirkland climbing over the wall that still stands at Sunken Road toward the wounded soldiers. His Confederate uniform caused several Union soldiers to begin shooting at him, but luckily he arrived at the first wounded soldiers unscathed. Fire as a whole ceased, as both sides realized that Kirkland was providing aid to the wounded and dying, and for the next 90 minutes he aided to every man that he could before returning to Mrs. Stevens home.
He would go on to survive the fighting at Peach Orchard and gained recognition at the Battle of Gettysburg – earning him a promotion to Lieutenant – before being shot in the chest at the Battle of Chickamauga on September 20, 1863.(5) Apparently, he knew the extent of his injury and brushed away any aid, saying “No, I am done for. You can do me no good. Save yourselves and tell Pa good-bye and I died right. I did my duty. I died at my post.”(5) It is unclear whether Kirkland really said these words, but the quote reinforces the heroic deeds he completed at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Over a century after his death a group made up of the states of South Caroline and Virginia, as well as the Descendants of Richard Kirkland and the Richard Rowland Kirkland Memorial Foundation erected a statue to the memory of Sergeant Kirkland. The power of this story lies in the fact that all the participants on both sides ceased fire and allowed one man to care for the wounded on either side of the fight.
There is still debate on the degree of truth to the story of the Angel of Marye’s Heights. For further reading on this debate, one can have a read of Kevin M. Levin’s analysis of wartime evidence to answer the question of “Is the Richard Kirkland story true?” Regardless of the degree of truth, the story of Richard Kirkland on Marye’s Heights still influences Fredericksburg as a whole; his lack of bias of care on the field carries to Fredericksburg relationship to its history.
Lakelyn Wiley, “Historical Marker for the Angel of Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg, VA,” 2018.
(1) Donald C. Pfanz, “The Angel of Marye’s Heights,” Fredericksburg.com, published 8 September 2001, accessed 26 April 2018. http://www.fredericksburg.com/civil_war/the-angel-of-marye-s-heights/article_0927a4fc-231a-5ccf-a380-562d299a6364.html
(2) J. B. Kershaw, “Richard Kirkland, The Humane Hero of Fredericksburg,” Southern Historical Society Papers, vol. VIII (April, 1880). Pat Leonard, “The Angel of Marye’s Heights,” The New York Times, published on 14 December 2012, accessed on 26 April, 2018. https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/14/the-angel-of-maryes-heights/
(5) “1LT Richard Rowland Kirkland,” Find A Grave (2006). https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/4063#view-photo=1549992
(6) Nathan Greene, “For I Was Thirsty,” (2009). https://www.nathangreene.com/prod_detail_list/74
(7) Photo of Sergeant Richard Kirkland, on display at the Chancellorsville Battlefield Museum, published 30 September 2014.