Thursday, February 16, 2012
One of the Greatest Heroes of the War
By Bob Hurst
The magnificent warrior, Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, expressed the truth about war with his statement that "war means fightin’ and fightin’ means killin’". Union general William T. Sherman is credited with the description that "war is hell". Sherman, of course, would have certainly known since his "total war" tactics brought true hell on earth to thousands of Southern civilians whose homes, farms, crops, fences, animals, etc. were destroyed by Sherman’s forces.
War, without a doubt, is one of the most horrible creations of mankind. In too many cases it brings out the worst side of human nature resulting in the cruelty and evil that play such a major role in conflict. If I live to be a thousand, I will never be able to understand, for instance, how a human could load a car with explosives and park it in a crowded area where it can kill or maim hundreds of people who are totally unknown to the perpetrator. (And don’t even ask me how someone could give the order to firebomb a treasure like Dresden that was filled with civilians at the end of a war that was already decided.)
And yet, occasionally in war we learn of amazing instances of compassion and kindness that are so unusual that these acts give rise to ideas of saintliness. This article will be about such an act and the saintly young man who displayed such compassion and kindness generally unknown among the horrors of war. It all occurred on the 14th of December of 1862 near the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The name of the young man was Richard Rowland Kirkland.
The events that had occurred in Fredericksburg in the days immediately preceding the actions of this young Confederate soldier made his acts of compassion and kindness even more remarkable. The federal commander, General Ambrose Burnside, had ordered an artillery shelling of the town of Fredericksburg and the more than one hundred cannons at his disposal did great damage to the lovely old town and its citizens. Many beautiful houses and buildings were destroyed by the cannon shells and more were destroyed by the fires that followed. Family heirlooms, furniture, paintings and other possessions that were not destroyed by the cannon fire soon fell victim to the looting of the federal troops. Burnside, like many other Union generals, apparently had no problem attacking civilian targets.
Burnside had his forces in Fredericksburg as part of his grand plan to move on from there and take Richmond – the Confederate capital. His plan had been foiled, however, by numerous delays that had allowed General Robert E. Lee to move a sizeable Confederate force to Fredericksburg.
The Confederate forces had set up west of town in what appeared to be an impregnable position. The artillery and infantry were entrenched in hills which were fronted by open fields. Burnside consulted his subordinate officers for their opinions and many thought it would be foolish to attack such a well-fortified position under such circumstances. Burnside would not be dissuaded, however, and around noon on December 13 the attack began. Confederate forces from their position in the hills could hardly believe the federals would attempt such a maneuver. By this time, General Lee had been able to accumulate about 80,000 troops and the artillery units and the sharpshooters with the infantry were all well-positioned to repel the attack of the blue coats.
Burnside’s primary objective was a ridge called Marye’s Heights. Confederate general James Longstreet’s troops occupied this ridge and General Stonewall Jackson had positioned his corps alongside Longstreet. Making this position even more daunting was the presence of a four-foot high stone wall at the base of the ridge. With a multitude of sharpshooters positioned six-deep behind the wall and vast artillery stationed atop the ridge, it seemed suicidal for the federal troops to attack at this position. But attack they did and the carnage began.
Burnside had ordered General William B. Franklin to attack Jackson’s position with 4500 troops and these were soon being cut to pieces by the artillery counterattack. Burnside ordered attack after attack on the Confederates positioned on Marye’s Heights and each met with the same result as the federal troops continued to be cut to ribbons by the accurate artillery fire and the deadly sharpshooters of the Confederate infantry.
Before the carnage ended, Burnside had sent fifteen brigades to challenge the strongly-held Confederate position. When the federals finally stopped their attacks there were more than sixty-three hundred dead and wounded soldiers lying in the fields.
As the shooting stopped and the darkness set in, the horror of the day did not end. The fallen federal troops lay on ground that was quickly freezing in the December cold. The moans and cries of the wounded and dying were easily heard by the Confederate troops. Some of the yankee troops had gotten as close as 150 feet from the wall at the base of the ridge. The desperate and unending calls of the wounded for water and help filled the night.
The next morning as the Confederates awakened the sounds of the suffering filled their ears. Since the two armies were still in position, sporadic gunfire would erupt as combatants on either side became visible to the other. Amidst all this tragedy and horror, one young Confederate was moved to the point that he could stand it no longer. Richard Kirkland, a nineteen year old sergeant, approached his regimental commander with a request that he be allowed to go out among the yankee wounded and provide them with water and help them in whatever way he could. His commander, fearing that young Kirkland would be quickly shot as soon as he became visible to the enemy, denied the request.
Later in the day, Sgt. Kirkland was able to obtain permission to speak to Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw. Kershaw, like Richard Kirkland, was a South Carolinian. General Kershaw, in fact, was good friends with the parents of young Kirkland. Kershaw was taken aback by the request of the young soldier to go out among the enemy wounded and provide some relief to their suffering. He initially refused the request, but the young sergeant persisted and the general was apparently touched by the sincerity of Richard Kirkland and the nobility of the sentiments driving the request of the young soldier.
General Kershaw warned Sergeant Kirkland that he would likely be shot by the enemy as soon as they saw him in the field but the young South Carolinian said he was willing to take that chance. Impressed by the character of the young man but concerned about how he would explain the situation to Kirkland’s parents should he be killed, General Kershaw reluctantly agreed to the request.
Before he embarked on his mission of mercy, Sgt. Kirkland asked permission to wave a white handkerchief as he went over the wall into the field. This request was denied. Although it might have provided an element of protection for the young man, the general was concerned that the meaning of the white kerchief might be be misread by the enemy.
Richard Kirkland went over the wall without the white handkerchief but loaded down with as many canteens full of water as he could carry. Some accounts of his deed record that no shots were fired toward this angel of mercy while other accounts, more numerous, indicate that there were shots fired toward him initially. For certain, though, when it was recognized what the gallant young man was doing, all firing in his direction quickly stopped. The noble young soldier spent more than an hour and a half in the field going to as many of the wounded enemy as he could reach. To each wounded soldier he offerred a kind word and a much-needed drink of water. For some he rearranged their coats or capes to make them more comfortable or changed their positions on the frozen ground. Most importantly, he gave a ray of hope to each of the wounded.
He made numerous trips to refill his canteens so he could provide water to as many as he could reach. There is no record of how many blue-coated soldiers he ministered to that day but several accounts indicate that it likely was at least a hundred. That is a small number when compared to how many fallen there were in the field that day but it wasn’t the number helped that truly mattered – it was the size of the heart of the caregiver and the amazing bravery displayed by the young soldier.
After Fredericksburg, Richard Kirkland saw service in the battles at Chancellorsville, Salem Church and Gettysburg where he was recommended for promotion to lieutenant. He later went to Chickamauga where, sadly, on September 20, 1863, this wonderful young man was struck down by a bullet to the chest. Reportedly, his last words (spoken to two Confederate companions) were, "Save yourselves and tell my father I died right." The funeral in Camden, South Carolina, for the young hero was attended by a huge crowd since since he had already become a legend.
I have no doubt that Richard Kirkland held some hate in his heart for the injustices committed by the northern government and the northern army toward the South. I feel strongly that he resented the waging of an unnecessary war against the South; the waging of war against Southern civilians; the destruction of so many towns, farms, homes and lives of people of the South and the needless deaths of so many young Southern men. It is obvious, though, that this noble young man had no hate in his heart for northern soldiers as individuals and was willing to risk his own life to give aid and comfort to these human beings at a time of great need.
Richard Kirkland was not a commanding general, nor a dashing cavalry leader or an esteemed member of the Confederate government; but his actions on December 14, 1862, proved him to be a person of such innate goodness and sterling character that he was truly one of the greatest heroes of the war. It is for this trait of humanity that a statue stands near the site of his remarkable deed and he will be forever immortalized as "The Angel of Marye’s Heights".