On the night of December 13, 1862, the Battle of Fredericksburg was over, but the soldiers didn’t know it yet. All they knew was the bone-chilling cold, the shrieks and moans of the wounded, the sweeping wind, and the Northern lights dancing in the sky above them. While the battle had unfolded with Union attacks along the Confederate line, the repeated assaults on Marye’s Heights had left a blue carpet of dead and wounded in the open field.
It was at Marye’s Heights that an officer had assured General Lee the artillery crossfire was so deadly a chicken could not live on that field. And for Union troops who survived the artillery fire, Confederate infantry waited in the Sunken Road. The famed Union Irish Brigade had made a supreme effort and yet only came within about 40 yards of that defensive position. The field was a no man’s land. Uninjured survivors sheltered behind the bodies of their dead comrades while Confederate snipers watched the field for movement.
Morning came: December 14, 1862. Skirmishing started at the base of Marye’s Heights and continued intermittently through the day. Yet another sound echoed over the bloody field – cries for help, groans of pain, and a relentless cry for water. Alone, a nineteen year old young man left the safety of the Sunken road. There was no weapon in his hand and no battlefield scavenger greed in his heart. He stood between the muzzles of two armies, carrying canteens of water.
The story of Sergeant Richard Kirkland’s mission of mercy has been immortalized in stone and bronze. It has been exalted as an example of Christian virtue and humanitarian aid. It has also been doubted and questioned. Could a man really have survived walking onto the Fredericksburg battlefield? What could have motivated him to put himself in harm’s way to bring relief to the very men he’d been shooting the previous day? Historical evidence and research firmly suggests the validity of the account of Sergeant Kirkland’s bravery.[i] While the romanticizers of history have labeled Sergeant Kirkland “the angel of Marye’s Heights,” the simple facts of courage and selflessness are clear in the historical account.
Sergeant Richard Kirkland of 2nd South Carolina Volunteers[ii] was the son of a “plain, substantial farmer of the olden time.”[iii] In 1861, Kirkland enlisted with the Camden Volunteers, which became Company E of the 2nd South Carolina Infantry Regiment when the unit was mustered in January 1861 to defend their home state.[iv] The regiment saw action at the bombardment of Fort Sumter and was later one of the first Southern units to go to the defense of Virginia, formally mustered into the service of the Confederacy in May 1861. The 2nd South Carolina fought at First Manassas, the Peninsular Campaign, Sharpsburg, and other smaller engagements. In 1862, Kirkland transferred to Company G and was promoted to sergeant.[v] Thus, by December 1862, Kirkland was a veteran of several fierce battles.
During the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11-13, 1862), the 2nd South Carolina – part of Kershaw’s Brigade – defended the Sunken Road in front of Marye’s Heights and had encamped around the Marye House.[vi] Kirkland saw the numerous assaults by Union divisions, charging across barren farm fields and caught in a maelstrom of cannon blasts and rifle volleys. He did his duty as a soldier, shooting toward the advancing enemies in blue.
“During Sunday, the 14th,…the two great armies lay in positions, each expecting when the morning fog lifted to be attacked by the other. There was some firing at different points along the extended lines, but nothing which approached to an engagements.”[vii] Sergeant Kirkland and his comrades waited, watched, and listened. “All that day those wounded men rent the air with their groans and their agonizing cries of ‘Water! Water!’”[viii] At some point, Sergeant Kirkland could not endure the suffering cries any longer. Perhaps it was one particular man’s plea and groping hands or perhaps it was the constant dying chorus which prompted Kirkland to make his decision. Perhaps he spoke to some of his comrades and received incredulous looks. It is probable that his superior officers were unwilling to permit his request and sent him to higher authorities. Alone, he went to the brigade commander’s headquarters. Years later General Kershaw recorded his memories of that incident.[ix]
In the afternoon the general sat in the north room, up-stairs, of Mrs. Steven’s house…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.”
After a pause the general said: “Kirkland, I ought not to allow you to run such 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 downstairs…[x]
Kirkland returned a few seconds later to ask General Kershaw if he could raise a flag of truce while he went out onto the field. The general regretfully refused and expected Kirkland to resign the mission, but the young man expressed his desire to continue.
After filling some canteens with fresh water, Sergeant Kirkland stepped onto the battlefield. Most likely he had to walk about forty yards before reaching an enemy soldier – that was plenty of time to be shot. Surely Union soldiers had him in their rifle sights, but they waited, perhaps astonished at what they saw. Unharmed he reached the nearest sufferer. He knelt beside him, tenderly raised the drooping head…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 there, too, was life and suffering.
For an hour and a half did this ministering angel pursue his labor of mercy, nor cease 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![xi]
Conflict and tragedy brings out the best and worst in a man’s heart. The soldiers at Marye’s Heights had seen first-hand the destruction of war, the harsh brutality of fighting for beliefs. Sergeant Kirkland showed the men – wounded and uninjured alike – what it meant to love your neighbor as yourself. Without regard for his personal safety and comfort, Kirkland entered the hostile no-man’s land to bring comfort to his enemies.
Sadly, Sergeant Kirkland did not survive the war. He was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga, but he left a lasting impression on the soldiers who had witnessed his heroism at Fredericksburg. General Kershaw concluded his account with this tribute: “…he has bequeathed to the American youth – yea, to the world – an example which dignifies our common humanity.”[xii] As time passed, the story of Richard Kirkland’s actions on the Fredericksburg battlefield gained popularity and he is often called “The Angel of Marye’s Heights.”
Angels and Fredericksburg – what a juxtaposition! Christmas and war – what opposites. And yet a historical account shines in the darkness of the Fredericksburg slaughter. Sergeant Richard Kirkland brought comfort and peace for a few brief moments on the battlefield. He showed his comrades, his enemies, and the world what it meant to be merciful.
[ii] Kirkland’s unit was Confederate; there is another 2nd South Carolina Volunteer regiment that was part of the Union Army and was a USCT unit, but in this article the 2nd South Carolina refers to the Southern regiment.
[iii] J.W. Jones, Christ in the Camp, (1887), page 400.
[vi] J.W. Jones, Christ in the Camp, (1887), page 400.
[vii] Harpers Weekly, Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (1866), page 416.
[viii] J.W. Jones, Christ in the Camp, (1887), page 400.
[ix] Kershaw’s account has received some criticism for minor historical flaws and it is unlikely that the former general remembered every word of his conversation with Kirkland, but the overall veracity of the account has been confirmed. For complete details and analysis of Kershaw’s account please view the research of Mac Wyckoff here.
[x]J.W. Jones, Christ in the Camp, (1887), page 400.
[xi] J.W. Jones, Christ in the Camp, (1887), page 401.
[xii] J.W. Jones, Christ in the Camp, (1887) page 401.