Richard Rowland Kirkland

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Richard Rowland Kirkland
Moment of Mercy (3412860347).jpg
Monument depicting Kirkland giving water to wounded Union troops at Fredericksburg
Nickname(s) The Angel of Marye's Heights
Born August 1843
Kershaw County, South Carolina, U.S.
Died September 20, 1863 (aged 20)
Chickamauga, Georgia, C.S.
Buried at Old Quaker Cemetery
Camden, South Carolina
Allegiance  Confederate States of America
Service/branch Confederate States Army
Years of service 1861–1863
Rank Confederate States of America Second Lieutenant.png Lieutenant
Battles/wars

American Civil War

Richard Rowland Kirkland, known as "The Angel of Marye's Heights", (August 1843 – September 20, 1863) was a Confederate soldier during the American Civil War, noted for his bravery and the story of his humanitarian actions during the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Monument in Fredericksburg created by Felix de Weldon

Early life[edit]

Kirkland was born in Flat Rock, South Carolina, in Kershaw County. He was the fifth son of Mary and John Kirkland. He received a moderate education during his youth, as was typical during that era.

Early Army service[edit]

Despite his youth, Kirkland enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861, not long after war was declared, before his older brothers. He was first assigned to Company E, 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, but was later transferred to Company G of the same regiment, and was promoted to sergeant. He first saw action during the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas), and later in the Battle of Savage's Station, Battle for Maryland Heights and Battle of Antietam, during which time many of his closest friends from Kershaw County were killed.

Battle of Fredericksburg[edit]

The story[edit]

On December 13, 1862, Kirkland's unit had formed at the stone wall at the base of "Marye's Heights" near Fredericksburg, Virginia. In the action that followed, he and his unit inflicted heavy casualties on the Union attackers. On the night of December 13, walking wounded made their way to the field hospital while those who were disabled were forced to remain on the battlefield. The morning of December 14 revealed that over 8,000 Union soldiers had been shot in front of the stone wall at Marye's Heights. Many of those remaining on the battlefield were still alive, but suffering terribly from their wounds and a lack of water.

Soldiers from both sides were forced to listen to the painful cries of the wounded for hours, with neither side daring to venture out for fear of being shot by the enemy. At some point during the day, Kirkland allegedly approached Confederate Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw, also from Kershaw County, South Carolina, and informed him that he wished to help the wounded Union soldiers. By Kershaw's own account, at first he denied the request, but later he relented. However, when Kirkland asked if he could show a white handkerchief, General Kershaw stated he could not do that. Kirkland responded "All right, sir, I'll take my chances."

Kirkland gathered all the canteens he could carry, filled them with water, then ventured out onto the battlefield. He ventured back and forth several times, giving the wounded Union soldiers water, warm clothing, and blankets. Soldiers from both the Union and Confederate armies watched as he performed his task, but no one fired a shot. General Kershaw later stated that he observed Kirkland for more than an hour and a half. At first, it was thought that the Union would open fire, which would result in the Confederacy returning fire, resulting in Kirkland being caught in a crossfire. However, within a very short time, it became obvious to both sides as to what Kirkland was doing, and according to Kershaw cries for water erupted all over the battlefield from wounded soldiers. Kirkland did not stop until he had helped every wounded soldier (Confederate and Federal) on the Confederate end of the battlefield. Sergeant Kirkland's actions remain a legend in Fredericksburg to this day.

Challenges[edit]

Though tales of Kirkland's heroism and humanitarianism have become the stuff of legend, at least one historian has challenged their veracity. Historian Michael Shaffner points out that numerous official reports from the battlefield—including one by Kirkland's own regimental commander—said nothing about his alleged heroism, while praising other soldiers and surgeons for their performance at Fredricksburg.[1]

Later engagements and death[edit]

Kirkland went on to fight in both the Battle of Chancellorsville and the Battle of Gettysburg where, after further distinguishing himself for courage and ability, he was promoted to lieutenant. On September 20, 1863, he and two other men took command of a charge near "Snodgrass Hill" during the Battle of Chickamauga. Realizing they had advanced too far forward of their own unit, they attempted to return and Kirkland was shot. His last words were, "I'm done for... save yourselves and please tell my pa I died right."

His body was returned home to Kershaw County, South Carolina, and he was buried in the "Old Quaker Cemetery" in Camden. A friend who visited the gravesite years later was said to have commented that it was one of the most sequestered, unfrequented, and inaccessible spots for a grave he'd ever seen. General Kershaw would later be buried in that same cemetery, which also maintains the graves of Civil War General John Bordenave Villepigue and his descendant, World War I Medal of Honor recipient John Canty Villepigue, in addition to World War I Medal of Honor recipient Richmond Hobson Hilton. In 1965, sculptor Felix de Weldon unveiled a statue in front of the stone wall at the Fredericksburg battlefield in Kirkland's honor.

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