December 14, 1862: The Angel of Marye’s Heights
But he, desirous of justifying himself, said to Jesus, And who is my neighbour?
Richard Rowland Kirkland is a name that should be cherished by every American. On December 14, 1862 he was a sergeant in Company G, 2nd South Carolina. It was approaching noon and his unit was stationed at the stone wall at the base of Marye’s Heights overlooking Fredericksburg. His unit had helped smash Union attack after Union attack the day before, and now he looked over fields strewn with wounded and dead Union soldiers. He could hear the wounded Union soldiers crying out desperately for water.
Unable to bear the cries any longer, he approached Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw and informed him of what he wanted to do. Kershaw gave him his permission, but told him he was unable to authorize a flag of truce. Kirkland said that was fine and he would simply have to take his chances. Gathering up all the canteens and blankets he could carry, Kirkland slipped over the wall, realizing that without a flag of truce it was quite possible he would be fired upon by Union troops.
Kirkland began to give drinks to Union wounded and blankets to protect them from the cold. Union troops, recognizing what he was doing, did not fire at him. For an hour and a half Kirkland went back and forth tending to the enemy wounded. He did not stop until he had assisted all Union wounded in the Confederate portion of the battlefield. The last Union soldier he assisted he gave his own overcoat. He was repeatedly cheered by both Union and Confederate soldiers.
Sergeant Kirkland did not survive the war. He died at the battle of Chickamauga, September 20, 1863, just barely 20. His last words were, “Tell my Pa I died right.” May we all live and die as right as Richard Rowland Kirkland.
Here is General Kershaw’s account:
Camden, South Carolina, January 29, 1880
To the Editor of The News and Courier
Your Columbia correspondent referred to the incident narrated here, telling the story as ’twas told to him, and inviting corrections. As such a deed should be recorded in the rigid simplicity of actual truth I take the liberty of sending you for publication an accurate account of a transaction every feature of which is indellibly impressed upon my memory.
Richard Kirkland was the son of John Kirkland, an estimable citizen of Kershaw County, a plain substantial farmer of the olden time.
In 1861 he entered as a private, Captain J. D. Kennedy’s Company E of the Second South Carolina Volunteers, in which Company he was a sergeant in 1862.
The day after the sanguinary battle of Fredericksburg, Kershaw’s Brigade occupied the road at the foot of Marye’s Hill and the grounds about Marye’s House, the scene of their desperate defense 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 Sykes 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 nearly bridged with the wounded, dead and dying Federals, victims of the many desperately 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 agonizing cries of ” water ! water !”
In the afternoon the General sat in the North room upstairs 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 can stand it no longer”, I came 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 all about 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 eyes 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, Sir, he said, I’ll take my chances.” 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 precious life giving fluid down the fever scorched throat. This done he laid him gently down, placed his knap-sack under his head, straightened out his broken limb, spread his over-coat 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, for God’s sake, water!” More piteous still, the mute appeal of some one who could only feebly lift a hand to say, here too is life and suffering.
For and hour and a half did this ministering angle pursue his labor of mercy, nor ceased to go and return until he had relieved all of the wounded on that part of the field. He returned wholly unhurt. Who shall say how sweet his rest that Winter’s night beneath the cold stars.
This incident occurred during a bitter cold spell in December when the thermometer fell to zero.
Little remains to be told. Sergeant Kirkland distinguished himself in battle at Gettysburg and was promoted Lieutenant. At Chickamauga he fell on the field of battle in the hour of victory. He was but a youth when called away and had never formed those ties from which might have resulted a posterity to enjoy his fame and bless his country; but he has bequeathed to American youth, yea, to the world, an example which dignified our common humanity.
J. B. Kershaw