[Introductory note: For more than two decades Mac Wyckoff served as a front-line historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. During that time he also became the world’s leading authority on all things South Carolina as they relate to the Army of Northern Virginia. His newest book, to be published early next year by Broadfoot Publishing, will be a history of the 2d South Carolina Infantry, of Kershaw’s brigade of South Carolinians. Nobody has seen more source material related to the 2d South Carolina than Mac. What follows is derived from an appendix he has assembled for his book.
On December 14, 1862, the day after the bloody Union assaults on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, Sergeant Richard Rowland Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina risked his life by giving humanitarian aid to the wounded Union soldiers in front of the heights. It’s a world-famous story, commemorated by an impressive statue by Felix de Weldon, who also created the statue for the Iwo Jima Memorial.
But what evidence do we have of what Kirkland did that day? How valid is it? And ultimately, how should we view the story of Richard Kirkland at the Battle of Fredericksburg? In response to intensified interest in the Kirkland story (there’s even a film out on Kirkland, featuring the park’s Donald Pfanz) and the persistent online debate about the historical basis of the Kirkland story (for example, see the dialogue at Civil War Memory), Mac has assembled and assessed virtually all known primary references to the story of Richard Kirkland at Fredericksburg. Here in slightly abridged form is what he has to say. If you want his full commentary on Kirkland (and everything else you need to know about the 2d South Carolina), please order his upcoming book at Broadfoot Publishing.]
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The Kirkland story as we know it had its origins in two accounts published in early 1880. The most famous (but, as we will see, not the first) was written by former Confederate General Joseph B. Kershaw, who commanded the brigade in which Richard Kirkland’s 2d South Carolina served. I strongly suggest you read the account in full, which you can find here (as published in the New York Times on February 10, 1880)..
There are a few minor mistakes in or questions about Kershaw’s account:
- Kirkland was not promoted to lieutenant for gallantry at Gettysburg—he remained a sergeant until his death at Chickamauga.
- He was not in Company D, but originally in Company E (the Camden Volunteers), with an 1862 transfer to Company G, the Flat Rock Guards.
- It’s unlikely Kirkland jumped the stone wall to get to the Union wounded. As shown in the photo below, there is a break in the wall in front of the Stevens House. After gathering water from the well (on the right of the picture), Kirkland probably just walked through the Stephens’s yard to the open plain beyond.
- It seems unlikely that after seventeen years Kershaw could have recalled the exact words used in his conversation with Kirkland.
But these are insignificant points. Most of Kershaw’s account seems reasonable.
Still, I must admit that at times in my early research of the 2nd South Carolina that I lacked confidence in the veracity of the story.
To satisfy my curiosity, I began to investigate the Kirkland incident around 1990. The crux of my research focused on what motivated Kershaw to tell the story in 1880. (Finding out what people do is the easier part of research; finding out why they do what they do is much harder, sometimes impossible.) As I set out on my research, I did not expect of find an answer to this question. I remember thinking that I was looking for a needle in the haystack, if a needle even existed.
To my surprise and joy, I found the needle—the prompt for Kershaw’s telling of the Kirkland story–almost immediately. Spinning the microfilm backward just a few frames from the Kershaw article, there it was, an article written in the News and Courier’s January 23, 1880 edition—a week before Kershaw’s famous account. Read the full article here. This earlier article, a secondary source written by a correspondent whose identity is not known, is the key to understanding why Kershaw wrote his account six days later: the correspondent asked Kershaw to elaborate on the story and name the soldier in question.
Several errors appeared in the first account (notably, Kirkland was not wounded at Fredericksburg), and so Kershaw offered both corrections and elaborations—most importantly identifying the Kirkland as the heroic figure. But again the discrepancies between the two accounts are not the issue here. The important point: contrary to popular perception, Kershaw did not originate the Kirkland story, and clearly he did not fabricate it.
But is there anything in the historical record that might cause us to question Kershaw’s motivation in responding to the original author and telling the story? To answer this, I went to Camden, Kershaw’s hometown. I talked to several people at the Camden Archives, including Joseph Matheson, and at the Kershaw County Historical Society who were knowledgeable about the Kirkland incident and Kershaw and Kirkland.
I specifically asked if they knew of any relationship between Kershaw and Kirkland and their families. Their answer was that no friendship existed between the two men and that there were not any marriages between the two families that might have given Kershaw reason to tell the story and name Kirkland. In fact, as they explained it, it would have been illogical for there to have been a friendship or family marriage. Kershaw was a general from the city of Camden who was in the first rank of Camden high society. Kirkland was a sergeant from a rural area whose family were middle class farmers. There’s no evidence that Kershaw had a personal motivation to promote Kirkland as a hero.
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Up next Mac will look at other evidence that relates to the Kirkland story and offer up some thoughts on where history stands with respect to Richard Kirkland, the Angel of Marye’s Heights.