FREDERICKSBURG, Va. -- As wave after wave of blue-coated Yankees fell before Rebel rifles, then lay dying on this frozen battlefield, a 19-year-old's killer instinct deserted him.
"All night and all day I have heard these poor people crying for water, and I can't stand it no longer," Sgt. Richard Rowland Kirkland said to Confederate Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw on Dec. 14, 1862. "I came to ask permission to go and give them water."
With his commanding officer's consent, Sgt. Kirkland risked his life to offer wounded Union soldiers water and blankets as both armies watched, guns silent, for nearly 11/2 hours.
Or did he?
Sgt. Kirkland died nine months later at the Battle of Chickamauga, never mentioning what he had done at Fredericksburg in letters home to Kershaw County, S.C. Neither did Gen. Kershaw until January 1880 when he recounted the story for a Charleston newspaper. His account was so compelling that residents of Camden, S.C., dug up Sgt. Kirkland's body, moved it to their biggest cemetery and unveiled a large monument in 1910 to the man now known as the "Angel of Marye's Heights" after the hillside that saw the worst of the battle.
In 1965, the states of Virginia and South Carolina joined with Kirkland descendants to erect a larger-than-life statue of him cradling a Union soldier near the stone wall where the Confederacy won its most lopsided victory. In 2001, a similar statue was unveiled at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg.
Last weekend, questions about Sgt. Kirkland's deed came to life at a re-enactment to mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg. While four gray-clad soldiers offered canteens to Union "casualties," others went through their fallen enemies' pockets and haversacks.
Looking on from the Union side was Civil War re-enactor and enthusiast Michael Schaffner, who created a stir three years ago in the Civil War Memory blog when he challenged Gen. Kershaw's account. He noted that after action reports filed by officers on both sides, including Gen. Kershaw, do not mention a 11/2 hour cease-fire or Sgt. Kirkland's act of mercy.
Mr. Schaffner says Gen. Kershaw's account is essentially a children's story that not only trivializes the horror of Civil War battle but also does a disservice to soldiers like Sgt. Kirkland. He knows it's an unpopular stance. "It's a little like shooting down Santa with a Stinger missile on Christmas Eve."
Mr. Schaffner, who lives in Arlington, Va., is a member of the Brady Sharpshooters, 16th Michigan unit, and helped to organize the Fredericksburg event.
The Kirkland story has its defenders, of course. Mac Wyckoff, a retired National Park Service historian who worked at the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for 25 years, has written a book about Kershaw's Brigade and much about Sgt. Kirkland. He has found six eyewitness reports and more secondhand accounts, including one in January 1863 by poet Walt Whitman, who heard a Union soldier wounded at Fredericksburg tell of a Confederate who came to his aid.
"After 25 years of research, there's no doubt in my mind that he was out in front of the stone wall giving water and comfort," Mr. Wyckoff said in a phone interview from his home in Oregon. "There may have been others there and in other battles, but Kirkland's the one we can put a name on."
Who is right? As a reporter, I know eyewitnesses' memories aren't reliable, especially 17 years later. But I also believe they rarely fabricate an entire incident, knowing other eyewitnesses can contradict them. (I'm not related to Sgt. Kirkland despite sharing his last name.)
Is it so unbelievable that a warrior would take pity on fellow Americans in this, our only civil war? Virginia Pvt. Alexander Hunter was one of several Confederates who wrote later of watching Union infantry march into heavy fire on Dec. 13, 1862, at Marye's Heights (pronounced MArees):
"I forgot we were enemies and only remembered that they were men and it is hard to see in cold blood brave men die."
After the Battle of Fredericksburg (Dec. 11-15, 1862), the Union's Army of the Potomac counted 1,284 dead and a total of 12,653 dead, wounded, captured or missing. Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had 608 dead and 5,377 casualties, many with only minor wounds.
Mercy at Gettysburg
Still wondering how a veteran soldier could muster an angel? Consider an account of the opposite scenario -- a Western Pennsylvania officer who tried to aid wounded Confederates at Gettysburg. In 1880, at a monument dedication to soldiers from the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves, Capt. Robert Taggart recalled Sgt. Isaac N. McMunn's efforts:
"There was common assent and approbation when Sgt. McMunn volunteered to carry to those wounded men the water for which they prayed. But Oh! the cruel, treacherous greeting with which that act of Christian charity was met [when a] Rebel bullet came crashing through his face as he bent to cool with water the burning lips of a wounded, helpless foe."
The Battle of Gettysburg, on July 1-3, 1863, was almost a mirror of Fredericksburg. This time, the Rebels attacked in waves against an enemy holding the high ground. Casualties for the two armies were 23,409 for the Union and 28,603 for the South. But a greater portion of Lee's much smaller army were killed, an estimated 4,700 Rebels vs. 3,155 Federals. Union soldiers who had fought at Marye's Heights shouted their vengeance at the retreating Rebels: "Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!"
Sgt. McMunn, a 1st sergeant in the 38th Pennsylvania infantry at Gettysburg, was promoted to 2nd lieutenant a month after the battle and to captain in July 1864. He was mustered out of the 193rd Pennsylvania infantry four months later and returned to Pittsburgh. According to city directories, he never held the same job for more than two years, working as a railroad brakeman, clerk, grocer and coal dealer. He and his wife moved often and had no children when he died at age 48.
The Kirklands, meanwhile, had deep roots in Scotland, South Carolina and American history. Arriving in Fauquier County, Va., in the mid-1700s, Sgt. Kirkland's ancestors became farmers in the Carolinas' Catawba-Wateree Valley. More than a dozen of them fought in the Revolutionary War and owned three plantations and about 100 slaves near Camden in the mid-1800s.
Four Kirklands go to war
After South Carolina seceded in December 1860, Richard and his five brothers drew lots to decide which of them would stay home to protect the family and defend it in case of a slave uprising. James, the eldest, remained home while four of his brothers enlisted.
Richard, the youngest of seven children, was the first to go, joining Company E, Camden Volunteers. In April 1861, he wrote excitedly to one of his brothers of marching through North Carolina and Virginia to a camp near Richmond:
"We was received with warm reception & cheer everywhere through the state ... for it appeared like there was never such men in the world as South Carolinians."
In 1862, he was promoted to sergeant and transferred to Company G, the Flat Rock Guards, to serve with his friends and neighbors. In a July 4, 1862, letter to his sister-in-law, Rosa Kirkland, he wrote of having dinner with his brothers, Dan and Billy, 7th Cavalry, and taking part in the Battle of Savage's Station. Midway through the letter, he relayed news about her brother, William Truesdel. "Willie your brother was killed early in the action by a ball through the head."
Although another of her brothers, Capt. Jesse Truesdel, served in the same regiment and wrote her occasionally, the distraught woman asked Sgt. Kirkland for more details of her brother's death. With beautiful handwriting but sometimes awkward grammar, he tried to comfort her in a letter dated July 24, 1862:
"I am sorry to see you write so sad. William has done only what we will all have to soon do. ... But we must recollect that it is not our will but His that must be done.
"You seem to think that he might have been saved if any one of his friends could have been present. ... But alas it was not so. The accursed ball had done its work. It passed through his teeth and into his neck which killed him instantly."
Capt. Truesdel and Dan Kirkland continued to write to Rosa, but there are no more letters in the Camden Archives from Sgt. Kirkland, before or after Fredericksburg.
A sad finale
Sgt. Kirkland's last battle was Sept. 20, 1863, the second day of the Battle of Chickamauga in northwest Georgia. He and two other soldiers found themselves alone on an exposed knoll and began to retreat. "Against the warning of his companions, [Sgt. Kirkland] persisted in turning and firing upon the advancing enemy," said Col. W.D. Trantham in a speech on Memorial Day, 1899.
The 20-year-old was shot in the chest and said to his friends as they tried to help him: "I am done for. Save yourselves and tell my Pa I died right."
His father, John, lost everything in the war, forced to pay back loans in Confederate money with federal dollars at high interest rates, Sgt. Kirkland, one of 2,312 Rebels to die at Chickamauga, was one of the few whose body was brought home. He was buried in the family graveyard on White Oak Creek.
In October 1909, members of the Camden chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy received permission from Dan Kirkland, his brother, to move his remains to the Quaker Cemetery in Camden, not far from the grave of Gen. Kershaw. On Memorial Day, 1910, his large new memorial was dedicated.
By that time, Capt. McMunn had lain for 21 years in a military grave in Section 33, Lot 81 of Pittsburgh's Allegheny Cemetery. He paid a terrible price for trying to give water to his enemy, according to a Nov. 3, 1888, article in the Pittsburgh Gazette:
"The body of Capt. I.N. McMunn was found yesterday floating in the Ohio River near Woods Run. It will be remembered that Capt. McMunn disappeared two weeks ago. He left his wife at the corner of [illeg] avenue and Liberty streets, saying that he had some business to attend to, and that was the last she saw of him.
"The Captain had been a sufferer for years from the effects of a terrible wound in the head, received during the war, and it is supposed that the pain grew so intense as to produce temporary insanity. It is thought that while in this state he wandered to the river and drowned himself."
Kevin Kirkland, a Post-Gazette editor, was sometimes asked if he was related to Sgt. Kirkland while working at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg in the late 1980s (he's not). He returned to Virginia last weekend to cover the 150th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Fredericksburg. Contact him at email@example.com or 412-263-1978. First Published December 16, 2012 5:00 AM