Short film retells Civil War soldier's brave act of mercy


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Some soldiers risk their lives to save a comrade.

Confederate Sergeant Richard Rowland Kirkland went further. He braved mortal danger to carry water to dying Union and Confederate soldiers after the battle at Fredericksburg in December 1862.

The story of his compassion unfolds tonight at 7:30 when a half-hour documentary called "The Angel of Marye's Heights" premieres at Captain Thomas Espy Post No. 153, in the Carnegie Library of Carnegie.

Local Union soldiers who served in the Grand Army of the Republic once met in this beautifully restored room, which holds a large library of Civil War books, letters and memorabilia.

After the film is shown, Michael Aubrecht, who grew up in Green Tree and is a graduate of Keystone Oaks High School and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, will discuss the making of the documentary. It was shot for about $5,000 in Virginia and South Carolina, using 24 re-enactors and eight film students. Post production and the creation of a website, www.theangelmovie.com, cost about $2,700.

Director Clint Ross, 30, made the documentary to earn his master's degree in film and television in 2009 at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. Mr. Ross, video director for Savannah Christian Church, asked Mr. Aubrecht to help him with the film after reading his work about Sergeant Kirkland on the Internet.

Mr. Aubrecht, 38, moved to Fredericksburg in 1994. He traces his passion for the Civil War to a tour of the Gettysburg Battlefield he took at age 7 with his parents. The author of five books on various facets of the Civil War, he earns his living as a technical writer for the U.S. Marshals Service at its headquarters in Arlington, Va.

"I'm the only Yankee on this entire production. I never even knew about the Espy Post," Mr. Aubrecht said.

Sereant Kirkland's compassionate act inspired painters, poets, songwriters and a sculptor, but his story has never been told on film. Born in August 1843, he grew up on a farm in Camden, a town in southeastern South Carolina. The Kirkland family had slaves, and seven of his ancestors fought on the side of independence during the American Revolution.

Sergeant Kirkland's mother died when he was 2, and he was brought up by his father and six older siblings. He became a diligent surveyor. He enlisted and was at Fort Sumter when Confederate forces fired upon the military installation. Fewer than 10 of his letters home survive. He died Sept. 20, 1863, at the battle of Chickamauga.

At the battle of Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862, the Confederate Army held the high ground and its soldiers shot from behind a 6-foot high stone wall. As Union forces advanced up a hill, Confederates rained musket fire down upon them.

"This was a doomed and futile assault before it ever began," said Mr. Aubrecht.

By the end of the day, 11,000 Union soldiers lay dead or dying. Throughout the night, Sergeant Kirkland could hear the agonized cries of the wounded. By daybreak, he could not stand it any longer and appealed to a superior officer for permission to climb the wall.

Initially, Union soldiers shot at Sergeant Kirkland in the mistaken belief that he was robbing dead men of their valuables. But they ceased firing when they realized he was laden with canteens and bringing water and blankets to the wounded.

"A lot of guys were trapped on the field. They were unable to retreat. They were literally hiding behind the bodies of their fallen comrades. They were there for two days," Mr. Aubrecht said.

Actor Sean Allen Pratt narrates the film, which will be released in December. On Dec. 4, the documentary will be shown at the Confederate Relic Room in Columbia, S.C.

"One of Kirkland's descendants is coming to the screening. We're very, very excited," Mr. Aubrecht said.

Tickets are $10 to the premiere of "The Angel of Marye's Heights" and the dessert reception that follows. Tickets are available at the library circulation desk or at www.carnegiecarnegie.org. Docents will offer free tours from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. today of the Espy Post, 300 Beechwood Ave., Carnegie (15106).


Correction/Clarification: (Published December 3, 2010) Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in 1861. An incorrect description of that battle was included in a story Nov. 27 about Confederate Sergeant Richard Rowland Kirkland.

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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