Editor’s Note: We are currently living in a time of deep division and strife where compassion and kindness can sometimes feel like the exception rather than the rule. The following is the second in a series of four articles detailing moving examples of how goodness in the midst of serious conflict had a lasting impact. Read the first article HERE.
This story is taken from Compassionate Soldier: Remarkable True Stories of Mercy, Heroism, and Honor From the Battlefield.
The American Civil War was a brutal affair. Weaponry had improved significantly in the eighty years since the Revolutionary War, without corresponding improvements in medical treatment for wounds and injuries. With over 620,000 deaths and more than 400,000 wounded, it was the costliest war in lives lost or injured in American history. And it was the only war in our history that pitted neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother, and former comrades in arms against one another.
While there are many heroes and villains in this great conflict, one man earned the admiration and gratitude of people on both sides; Sergeant Richard Rowland Kirkland of South Carolina. In one of the most disastrous campaigns of the war for the Union side, the Battle of Fredericksburg, Union forces made multiple thrusts against a well-fortified position on the Confederate side of the Rappahannock River. These assaults led to a staggering loss of life and heart-wrenching suffering during the attack on Marye’s Heights in December 1832.
The Union leadership should have adopted new tactics as soon as they recognized the strength of the Confederate position. Instead, they continued to send wave after wave of soldiers into a killing mill where thousands were killed or wounded. Because it was an active battlefield, no assistance could be offered to the wounded as the battle stretched on over two days. The injured Union Soldiers were forced to lie amid of a mountain of corpses where they spent a miserable, lonely, Saturday night in the freezing weather, unable to move to safety. As Sunday dawned with even more failed assaults, the wounded were increasingly desperate for water and assistance.
It was in this awful setting that an act of mercy by a lowly Confederate soldier, Sergeant Richard R. Kirkland, earned the gratitude of the desperate Union soldiers who received his care. And in risking his life to aid his enemies, he temporarily brought the battle to a standstill. As the story of his compassion became widely known, he was dubbed the Angel of Marye’s Heights.
A Stone Wall, a Sunken Road, an Invitation to Horror
A prominent Fredericksburg family, the Maryes, owned a large southern style home atop a hill at one end of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Confederate leaders occupied their home before the second battle of Fredericksburg. At the base of the hill, a massive retaining wall had been built out of river rock. Next to the wall was a road that ran parallel to the base of the hill. A second rock wall on the downhill side of the road made it appear lower than the surrounding countryside. Thus, the road was nicknamed the Sunken Road because these large walls protecting it on both sides.
General Robert E. Lee could see from his reconnaissance of the area that if the Union Army were to capture Fredericksburg, they would have to storm Marye’s Heights to secure the town from a Confederate counterattack. He could also see that it would be difficult to impossible for the Union forces to breach the double line of stone walls. So General Lee positioned his best sharpshooters behind the inner wall, four men deep. He believed that if the Union troops stormed the place the Confederate troops could safely shoot them down with little personal risk. Five failed assaults validated this position. The attacks occurred on a blood-soaked Saturday and Sunday, December 12th and 13th, 1862. In these attacks nearly 1,000 Union troops were killed, their broken bodies forming an increasing mound that had to be passed over by the next unfortunate group to attack the position. This left the Union wounded fully exposed to enemy gunfire, and thus unable to escape back to the safety of their lines.
The Suffering of the Wounded
“These wretched men lay crying, groaning, and begging for water and help in the most agonizing manner, and we were unable to rescue them. The rustle of a leaf or the cracking of a twig might send a shower of Rebel bullets into our ranks.” John Haley of the Seventeenth Main
At the height of the battle more than 5,000 injured Union soldiers lay in heaps among the dead, where they were left to suffer from their wounds in the December cold. On Saturday evening, the Union soldiers crouching behind their lines listened in distress to the terrible sounds of suffering coming from the battlefield. A few ventured out under of cover of darkness to offer comfort. For example, Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Chamberlain of the Twentieth Maine recalled that he and a comrade had to spend most of the night lying between two dead soldiers to try to stay warm. When the cries of suffering overwhelmed them, he and his friend left the relative safety of their position to offer aid:
“We did what we could, but how little it was on a field so boundless for feeble human reach! Our best was to search the canteens of the dead for a draft of water for the dying; or to ease the posture of a broken limb; or to compress a severed artery of fast-ebbing life that might perhaps so be saved, with what little skill we had been taught by our surgeons early in learning the tactics of saving as well as of destroying men. It was a place and time for farewells. Many a word was taken for far-away homes that otherwise might never have had one token from the field of the lost. It was something even to let the passing spirit know that its’ worth was not forgotten here.”
As Sunday morning dawned cold and foggy, the agonized cries of the wounded were even more desperate than before. Watching from behind the rock wall, Confederate Sergeant Richard Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, listened to these cries for help with increasing anxiety. Finally, he could stand it no longer. Here is the first-hand account that General J.B. Kershaw of the Confederate Army wrote about it later, in the “Charleston News & Courier.” Kerhaw speaks of himself in the first-person voice as the “General”:
“All 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 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 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 down the 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,” he said, “I’ll take my chances,” and ran down with a bright smile on his handsome countenance.
“With profound anxiety the General watched as Kirkland 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 in gently upon his own noble breast, 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, here, too, is life and suffering.
“For an hour and a half did this ministering angel pursue his labor of mercy, nor ceased 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!”
“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 in a posterity to enjoy his fame and bless his country; but he has bequeathed to the American youth – yea, to the world – an example which dignifies our common humanity.
There were many accounts given of Private Kirkland’s bravery that day, both Union and Confederate. They indicate that when this young man, in his early twenties, first climbed up onto the outer wall with as many canteens of water slung over his shoulder as he could carry, the Union soldiers were so startled that they paused in their firing. When they realized what he was doing the entire battlefield fell silent. Then a spontaneous shout of encouragement erupted on both sides of the line as both Rebel and Union soldiers cheered him on. Kirkland seemed not to notice. He was focused entirely on his mission of mercy. Not only did Kirkland give the wounded the water they so desperately craved, but he took the time to rearrange a broken limb into a more comfortable position. He even covered one soldier with his own topcoat to warm him.
When Kirkland’s first group of canteens was empty, he disappeared back over the stone wall and firing resumed on both sides. But when he stuck his head up a second time, the battlefield again went quiet while he came out to another group of wounded. This pattern continued for more than an hour-and-a-half until virtually all the wounded were cared for. For one small moment, the suffering of the injured had been relieved.
The Battle Ends
In spite of the sheer futility of continued assaults at Marye’s Summit, the Union’s commanding General Burnside became obsessed with winning the battle. He ordered his generals to mount more attacks, even though he had not personally visited this area of the battlefield. Finally, his senior generals prevailed on him that it was hopeless, and Burnside gave in to despair, allowing his army to retreat to the Union side of the Rappahannock River.
When the Union troops finally withdrew, acknowledging defeat, General Lee showed his humanity by taking the unusual step of calling for a temporary truce so that Union ambulances could evacuate the wounded to field hospitals. He also allowed the Union Soldiers time to dig a large trench to bury those who died in battle.
Burnside’s defeat was complete, and Lee’s victory added to his aura of invincibility, both in the South and the North. Lee smashed Lincoln’s hopes for a late winter victory against the double stone wall and the sunken road of Marye’s Heights. The statistics at Fredericksburg were grim. 114,000 Union Soldiers faced off against 72,000 Confederates. At the end of the battle, the Union suffered 1,284 dead, 9,600 wounded, and 1,769 taken prisoner or missing. The Army of Northern Virginia under Lee’s command had approximately one-half the loss, with 608 dead, 4,116 wounded, and 653 captured or missing.
A Lasting Tribute
In the midst of the fury and folly of this battle, Sergeant Kirkland’s act of heroism stands out because he was willing to cross into enemy lines to offer aid to the afflicted. As his act of kindness became known, his courage was celebrated in both Northern and Southern states as the Angel of Marye’s Heights. He continued his service to the Confederacy until losing his life at the Battle of Chickamauga on September 20, 1863. His body was laid to rest in Camden, South Carolina.
Today a number of memorials pay tribute to Kirkland, including a bronze monument at the foot of Marye’s Hill depicting Kirkland kneeling as he gives water to a wounded Union soldier. There is also an inscription on the wall of a memorial church in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In addition to these two monuments, people in both the North and South raised money to place a large stone slab over his grave in South Carolina commemorating his action.
Thus, a young man who otherwise would remain unknown to history found immortality because of his courage and humanity. In doing so, he fulfilled the charge given by Jesus in the Book of Matthew:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven…. Matthew 5:43-44
- The Battle of Fredericksburg, We Cannot Escape History. James. K. Bryant II. The History Press, Charleston, South Carolina. 2012
- “Richard Kirkland, ‘The Humane Hero of Fredericksburg’” The Civil War Trust http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/primarysources/richard-kirkland.html <September 30, 2015,> Quoting the original source, i.e., Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. VIII. Richmond, Virginia, April 1880. No 4
- “The Angel of Marye’s Heights,” Chester B. Goolrick. Coronet. January 1957, p. 154. http://www.unz.org/Pub/Coronet-1957jan-00154 <September 30, 2015>
- “Mercy, The Divine Gift,” Thomas S. Monson. Conference Talk, April 1994. https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1995/04/mercy-thedivinegift <9/23/2015>
 The Battle of Fredericksburg, We Cannot Escape History. James. K. Bryant II. The History Press, Charleston, South Carolina. 2012. p. 154.
 Joshua Chamberlain as quoted in The Battle of Fredericksburg, We Cannot Escape History. James. K. Bryant II. The History Press, Charleston, South Carolina. 2012. p. 154
 Richard Kirkland, The Humane Hero of Fredericksburg. The Civil War Trust. Quoting original source, i.e. Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. VIII. Richmond, Virginia, April, 1880. No 4. http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/primarysources/richard-kirkland.html <September 30, 2015>
 Matthew 5: 43-45. The New Testament. The Bible