Posted by: The staff | August 29, 2010

From Mac Wyckoff: Richard Kirkland, Part 2–other evidence


[For Part 1, click here. A third post will offer up Mac's conclusion, and we'll follow with our own discussion. Again, we thank him for giving us an advance look at his work on this very interesting topic. Wherever possible, we have added links to the original source material that's in the park's collection. The maps and overlays have been added by Hennessy.]

In the years after Kershaw came forward with his story, several members of the 2nd South Carolina–in speeches and in writing–confirmed (or perhaps echoed) Kershaw’s story without adding any substantial details. Among those telling essentially the same story as Kershaw was Captain William Zack Leitner of the Camden Volunteers, Kirkland’s original company (click here and here to see his accounts). Another member of the Camden Volunteers told the Kirkland story, writing under the pen name of “Veteran.” William Terry Shumate and his brother Robert Young Hayne Shumate of the Butler Guards (Co. B) both wrote about the incident. Thomas M. Rembert of the Camden Volunteers and William Dunlap Trantham of the Flat Rock Guards, a close friend of Kirkland, also wrote about of Kirkland’s deed, though both had transferred to other units and were not present with the 2nd South Carolina at Fredericksburg. Edward Porter Alexander, the well-known artillerist and observer of the Battle of Fredericksburg, wrote about the incident two years after Kershaw. There is also a post-war account by a member of the 16th New York that clearly and simply re-states Kershaw’s original account.

But there are two memoirs that post-date Kershaw’s account that do add details to the story.  Most interesting is that of an unidentified member of the 2d South Carolina who in 1919 wrote a tribute to his friend Isaac Rentz of the Brooks Guards.  It’s short and worth reading–click here.

There are three notable things about this account–two related to detail and one to circumstance. This soldier claims that Kirkland asked both his captain and colonel, and was refused permission by both (did he then go to Kershaw?).  The writer also adds a character to the story by claiming that his friend Isaac Rentz joined Kirkland in his efforts–that Rentz “filled several canteens and carried water to Kirkland and they gave water to every crying man and was not hurt.”

Aerial view of the Sunken Road area, with key sites and the extent of the Union advance indicated. While a few Union wounded likely lay between the limit of advance and the Sunken Road, most would have been located to the right of the blue line on the map. We cannot say how far Kirkland or any other samaritans might have ventured. Map by Hennessy. Click to enlarge.

But from an evidentiary and historiographical standpoint, something else stands out. In conveying the story, the writer could not recall which battle served as the setting for this event. Had he simply reflected back the Kirkland tale as told by Kershaw and others, that detail would likely have been forefront in his narrative. But it was not, which suggests an independence from other accounts that, perhaps, accords this telling of the story more significance than others.

Another post-Kershaw account adds an additional detail. R.N. McKinley of the 18th Mississippi Barksdale’s Brigade adds that the Yankees on the field cheered Kirkland.

It was in this battle that Sergeant Kirkland asked permission of General Kershaw to let him fill his canteen with water and take it to the wounded Yankees in our front, who lay all night and that day calling for water. The General consented but told him he would do it as his own risk. When the Yankees saw what he was endeavoring to do, all fighting ceased and they gave him a royal Hu-Yah.

There’s no question that the many post-Kershaw accounts, with the exception of the Rentz story, don’t seem to add much to the historical record.  They may help confirm Kershaw’s account, or they may simply reflect it.  But there are two sources that may be more important than all of these–two sources that pre-date Kershaw’s 1880 description by a full decade.

Perhaps the most significant reference to what may have been Kirkland  comes from South Carolina Colonel James Robert Hagood of the 1st South Carolina.

He was not an eyewitness to the event and he does not specifically name Kirkland, but his description bears close resemblance to Kershaw’s telling. Hagood wrote his memoir prior to his death in 1870. It was not published, so Kershaw could not have known of it.  Here’s what Hagood says.

The following incident occurred before the stonewall the day after the assault which deserves to be recorded. A young soldier of Kershaw’s Brigade, unable longer to withstand the cries for water of a wounded Federal in front of our works, filled his canteen from a comrade’s and in the face of a deadly fire from the enemy’s picket line (not withstanding, too, the entreaties of his companions) advanced to the wounded soldier and relieved his thirst. The poor wretch, grateful for the act of humanity, raised himself with difficulty on one elbow and with the other shook the now empty canteen to his comrades who were firing as a sign of the Confederate mission. The firing at once ceased and the brave soldier, who had risked his life to relieve a fellow creature’s suffering, retreated safely to our lines.

Because Hagood was not present, we are left to wonder both who told him this story and who the Confederate from Kershaw’s brigade might have been. But it is clear evidence that long before Kershaw was prompted to write about Kirkland in 1880, the story of a South Carolinian going over the wall at Fredericksburg was in circulation.

And another account from an unexpected source helps confirm that at least one Confederate went over the wall to aid the Union wounded. It is the most immediate of all, written just over a month after the battle, by Walt Whitman.  In his Memoranda for January 21, 1863 while tending to injured Union soldiers in the Patent Office in Washington, he talked to a Pennsylvania soldier who lay between the lines in front of the stone wall at Fredericksburg. Whitman described the conversation (the ellipses are Whitman’s):

He got badly hit in his leg and side at Fredericksburgh that eventful Saturday, 13th of December. He lay the succeeding two days and nights helpless on the field, between the city and those grim terraces of batteries; his company and regiment had been compell’d to leave him to his fate. To make matters worse, it happen’d he lay with his head slightly down hill, and could not help himself. At the end of some fifty hours he was brought off, with other wounded, under a flag of truce….I ask him how the rebels treated him as he lay during those two days and nights within reach of them – whether they came to him – whether they abused him? He answers that several of the rebels, soldiers  and others, came to him at one time and another. A couple of them, who were together, spoke roughly and sarcastically, but nothing worse. One middle-aged man, however, who seemed to be moving around the field, among the dead and wounded, for benevolent purposes, came to him in a way he will never forget; treated our soldier kindly, bound up his wounds, cheered him, gave him a couple of biscuits and a drink of whiskey and water; asked him if he could eat some beef.

Whitman’s account is strikingly similar to Kershaw’s with some different details. The obvious  discrepancy is the statement that the humanitarian was a middle-aged man. Kirkland was nineteen-years-old at Fredericksburg. Still, once again, a Confederate among the Union wounded at Fredericksburg.

Click to enlarge

The most unexpected account is that of David Augustus Dickert, the historian of Kershaw’s brigade. Writing in 1899 when the Kirkland story was well-known in South Carolina, Dickert places the story during a lull in the charges on December 13 and credits a Georgian rather than a fellow South Carolinian of his own brigade. Significantly, Dickert was wounded on December 13 and would not have been present on the 14th, when Kershaw claimed Kirkland performed his deed of mercy. He may indeed be describing an entirely different event–no accounts have been found that support the story as told by Dickert. Still, it adds to the weight of evidence that Confederates (or at least a Confederate) went over the wall to succor Union wounded.

[In the next post, Mac will offer up some concluding thoughts on where all this leaves us with respect to Richard Kirkland and the legend that surrounds him.  We'll supplement that with a bit of analysis of our own.]

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