A guest post from Mac Wyckoff: What we really know about Richard Kirkland, the Angel of Marye’s Heights: Part 1–Origins

Richard Kirkland

Read Part 2 of this series of posts  here.

[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.]

The Kirkland Memorial at Fredericksburg

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.]

* * * * * * * *

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:

Joseph B. Kershaw

–        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.

The Stevens house. The well likely used by Kirkland is on the extreme right edge of the image. Note the break in the wall.

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.

* * * * *

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.


22 thoughts on “A guest post from Mac Wyckoff: What we really know about Richard Kirkland, the Angel of Marye’s Heights: Part 1–Origins

  1. Well I can offer one suggestion as to the identity of the author of the original item in the Charleston News and Courier – it would appear to be the work of Carlyle McKinley – a Lost Cause poet according to http://www.bartleby.com/226/1914.html
    and an advocate of deportation of African-Americans from the U.S. as he argued in his book “An Appeal to Pharoah,The Negro Problem and It’s Radical Solution” which can be found on Google Books and apparently in reprint. McKinley was also a journalist and then editor of the News and Courier. BTW – the paper itself also appears to have been a supporter of Kershaw’s political ambitions if the references found via Google Books are to be believed.

  2. Thanks to Mac for taking on this project and for providing the additional information. I am looking forward to the next two installments. At this point, I have one question. I found the initial story to be quite interesting, but why are we assuming that this story is about Kirkland? There are a number of details that seem to argue against it. You say the “discrepancies are not the issue here” but how do we know that Kershaw and this author are referring to the same individual. Thanks.

  3. Kevin,

    The correspondent in the Charleston News and Courier’s January 23, 1880 edition, very specifically addresses Kershaw as perhaps a means of clarifying his query. Kershaw’s reply, a week later via the New York Times February 10, 1880 edition, clearly references this query, and acknowledges the discrepancies of detail stating: “Your Columbia correspondent referred to the incident narrated here, telling the story as it was told to him, and inviting corrections.” Kershaw proceeds to relay the story, from his firsthand experience, and does his best to smooth out these details which you point out, “seem to argue against it.” Even with seventeen years intervening, Kershaw would be, at least to my mind, a very valid, primary source on the Kirkland story. One must remember that it was in the 1880s that former commanders, north and south, were beginning to relate their memoirs in a variety of publications, most prominently in the “Century Magazine” which would later publish the collection as the multi-volume “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.” One should also consider the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, published shortly after his death, in 1885. I have not noticed, any great movement to question the validity of these works based on the passage of time in which it took these men to commit them to paper.
    So, no, the “discrepancies are not the issue here”. Kershaw has made it clear that this is the story asked of by the other author. Mr. Wyckoff is very patiently presenting this.

  4. John,

    I am not challenging Kershaw as a reliable source in this matter. I am not even challenging his memory of the incident he recalled in the newspaper. I am simply raising the possibility that the two are not referring to the same individual.

    Since when are discrepancies between stories, especially the two presented here, not an issue for historians to address?

  5. Kevin,

    The initial correspondent apparently was quite comfortable with Kershaw’s notice of discrepancies, and the version with which Kershaw relayed. Perhaps someday, down the road, someone will turn up a letter from the initial correspondent wherein he says something to the effect that no, that was not the incident he was thinking of, but until that day, the way I see it, and Mr. Wyckoff sees it, and evidently 130 years worth of the majority of people see it, the story of Richard Kirkland is believable and assuring in that it suggests there are acts of kindness possible in the hearts and minds of even warring factions.

  6. No one is suggesting that “acts of kindness” are not possible during war and I am not even arguing that there is no evidence for such an act during the battle of Fredericksburg. I am pleased to hear that you and Mac are on the same page, but that should not stop me, or anyone for that matter, from asking questions. That’s what historians do.

    Hopefully, Mac will respond to my question.

  7. I’d be interested in hearing Mr. Wycoff’s response, too.

    I’d also be interested in the reaction to Mr. Mosher’s tentative identification of the author of the original letter. This seems to get closer to the motivation for Kershaw’s tale than the other lines of inquiry, and to reinforce the possibility that the legend has less to do with Sergeant Kirkland at the battle of Fredericksburg, than with the cultural, social, and political millieu of South Carolina in 1880.

    • Michael: At the conclusion of Mac’s work, I’m going to do a post that looks at the Kirkland story in the broader context of evidence, memory, and public history. I’ll get into some of the good points you made in your work over at Civil War Memory. I too found Mr. Mosher’s identification interesting, but let’s let the series play out and then throw it in a pot and see what comes out. Thanks for reading… John H.

  8. “The important point: contrary to popular perception, Kershaw did not originate the Kirkland story, and clearly he did not fabricate it.” Sorry, Mac, I’m not convinced by that statement. The News and Courier’s 1880 article does not specify who related the story to “C. McK.,” the unknown author of the newspaper article. In fact, it seems quite possible—I might say highly likely—that the person who related the story to C. McK was Kershaw himself. Consider C. McK’s phraseology: “I do not know his name [meaning “Kirkland”], and his story, so far as it could be related by my informant, was a brief one. Perhaps Gen. Kershaw or some one of his older comrades will supply his name and a better account of his daring deed.” C. McK seems to be calling upon Kershaw, who had just related the story to him, to fashion a written account of the incident. That might explain why Kershaw published his account only one week later: he had already relayed the account verbally to C. McK. Of course, Kirkland-story supporters might say that none of this stamps Kershaw’s account with the blight of falsehood, and I agree with them. I still hold that the Kirkland story may well be true. However, I have yet to see a single Union account referenced to substantiate the whole Kirkland saga. The only Union accounts that exist appear to be postwar plagiarisms of Kershaw’s 1880 article. (yes?) Of the hundreds of Union soldiers huddled at foot of Marye’s Heights, did not a single one of them mention a canteen-toting samaritan, Kirkland or otherwise? Without Union verification, it seems to me, some doubt will always exist. Should not this doubt be recognized? Shouldn’t this uncertainty compel historians to reconsider the legend? If there are no Yankee letters, “standard met,” I say.

  9. Timothy – if you will read through the other comments above, you will note that I found a tentative identity for “C. Mck” – in Carlyle McKinley a journalist working for the newspaper. Mr. McKinley was also a Lost Cause poet and author of works extoling the virtues of the South and its soldiers. This combined with the indications from period publications found via Google Books and references in “The Press and America” by Edwin Emery also indicated that the newspaper’s publisher supported Kershaw’s political ambitions in South Carolina in this period, raising further questions about the motives of the newspaper, its editor Mr. McKinley, and its publisher.

  10. There is a Union account. See Walt Whitman’s account of talking to a Union soldier after Fredericksburg who acknowledged a Confederate soldier assisting wounded Union soldiers in front of the stone wall.

    What difference does it make if some who wrote of the Kirkland story were Lost Cause supporters? Whatever there political beliefs has nothing to do with the veracity of the story. To follow this logic, none of the stories of heroic efforts by the New York Fire and Police Departments on 9/11 are fabrications because the reporters had strong personall political beliefs. And what is wrong of being proud of the humanitarian efforts at risk to their lives by one or more Confederate soldiers? Whether some of the soldiers wrote of the story were Lost Cause supporters is irrelevant.

    • Hmmm… I’m still hung up on this silence by the Union soldiers. Whitman’s account is interesting, but he was not present at Marye’s Heights. Is there not a single eye-witness account from a Union soldier? At Spotsylvania, just about everyone—Union and Confederate—saw that 22-inch oak tree topple down and then they wrote about it. It surprises me that no Union soldier ever mentioned seeing “the Angel of Marye’s Heights.” What do we make of this silence?

  11. Whitman’s account, like McKinley’s, is second hand and also differs in important aspects from Kershaw’s. No one disputes that isolated acts of mercy (and abuse — read Whitman’s full account here: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_r=1&res=9506E0DD1E3DE53BBC4952DFB467838F679FDE) may have occurred. What we question is, first, the literal truthfulness of the story told in Kershaw’s 1880 letter. This is, after all, what the statue purports to honor. And for that it looks like we have very little indeed. Even you question certain aspects of it.
    The next question that arises is the particular appeal of the story. The identification of “C. McK.” is interesting because it sheds light on that appeal when the story first came out. It shows that the person who invited Kershaw’s letter was not a witness himself, but a writer for the “News and Courier,” which itself was not an uninvolved journal of record, but a publication that actively promoted positive human interest stories about the south (e.g., “Our Women in the War”). And Kershaw wasn’t just an old general reminiscing on days gone by, but politically active in the revival of the democratic party in post-reconstruction South Carolina, a judge, and on at least one occasion a senate candidate. I wouldn’t call “C. McK.”, the paper, and the judge “Lost Causers,” but I would say that they shared an interest in putting forth a particular image of the south at a time when it needed such. That doesn’t make them bad, but it does explain how an incident that might have been as brief and prosaic as Dickert’s “Georgian” blossomed into the full blown legend of Sergeant Kirkland, and was then repeated in a couple of contemporary publications like “Christ in the Camp.”
    Later on the story took on a different significance. Years after Dickert’s history, in which Kirkland fails to appear at all, “Confederate Veteran” picks it up, and later still, in 1965, it’s just the image one would want to offset that of the Pettus bridge. Today, with the nation again in the midst of war, it continues to resonate as a picture of an American fighting man who holds on to his humane values in the most barbarous circumstances.
    But that doesn’t make it true.
    One more observation. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, your analogy to 9-11 underscores the weakness of the support for the Kirkland legend. We have many contemporary sources documenting the heroism of the first responders at the WTC, including audio and video recordings. For Kirkland we have basically nothing beyond Kershaw’s letter in a partisan journal years after the fact. We have less contemporary evidence for Kirkland’s act than for the courage of the Regular army hospital attendants who, in Lt. Col. Buchanan’s eyewitness account, actually were shot (not just shot at) while trying to aid the wounded.

  12. Michael: I don’t presume to speak for Mac, but let me offer up a couple of things. No doubt there problems with the source material. There are problems with source material related to almost every issue I’ve dealt with. Should the context of Kershaw’s 1880 article–including the prompt from McKinley–cause us to pause, wonder, and ask questions? Yes. But, erego, did he fabricate the story? Based on what I have seen, it’s impossible to get to that conclusion.

    Let’s hypothetically leap ahead here. Let’s have the NPS declare the Kirkland story a fabrication. What evidence do we have to stand on to prove that? I certainly couldn’t make the case.

    But, we are mindful of the mists and mud that obscure the view…and we will continue to discuss the fabric of the story, its evolution, and its use over time.

    I’m curious, though: if you were in my place (chief historian and chief of interpretation of the park), how would you manage the issue differently, mindful of the scrutiny any declarationi on Kirkland yeah or nay (or a thousand other issues we deal with) would get?

  13. John,

    I think this boils down to a philosophical difference on how to handle evidence. You say it’s impossible to say that Kershaw fabricated the story. I’d say it is also impossible, based on the evidence we have, to say that Kershaw told the truth. Would we want to say that something that appears in Longstreet’s memoirs (or Chamberlaine’s, or Walter Taylor’s, or Moxely Sorrel’s, or John Gordon’s, and so forth) uncorroborated should be believed?

    I think this series of posts answers your final question, regarding interpretation. You can’t really say yeah or nay, but doing so doesn’t mean that you are disregarding the Kirkland story. You instead turn it into a teaching tool, both about how the historian functions (including the all important role of evidence) as well as how the National Park Service communicates its findings to the public. This would also certainly entail a discussion of all of the people who aided wounded at Fredericksburg, even though Kirkland himself might be closer to the Angel of Mons.

  14. John, in essence I agree with Peter.

    I respectfully disagree with the conclusion that the evidence does not support fabrication — or an elaboration so extreme as to amount to pretty much the same thing. The AARs from both sides not only fail to omit Kirkland, they describe a situation in which the story as Kershaw tells it could not have occurred. This includes Kershaw’s own AAR. Further, we have Dickert’s history — a history of Kershaw’s brigade by an officer of that brigade whose own account supports the AARs.

    In contrast, the accounts of merciful angels at Fredericksburg appear as mostly second hand or uncorroborated — perhaps best described as apocryphal. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t have happened, just that the evidence is a bit slim for bringing them into front and center of an objective account of the battle and its aftermath.

    As the chief historian of Fredericksburg, you face the same challenge all students of the civil war face — to separate history from hagiography. You of course face it on a much greater scale since you have the public’s expectations to deal with. The challenge is complicated by the fact that the hagiography is itself part of the history. Whitman wanted to believe in mercy, as did the readership of the “News and Courier,” as did many people from that day to this. That’s one great thing the statue in the park actually commemorates — the human spirit that we all hope survives even amidst the horrors of battle.

    But it also commemorates the struggle of the southern white population to reassert its identity and pride after reconstruction. It also says something about the time it was actually erected, as a tribute to a peoples’ belief in themselves and their own good in the face of so many negative stories about the south. It’s interesting that the statue went up just a little while after “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” came out. I forget who had the line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” but it too seems to have a certain relevance.

    If I were in your place I would trust the public to understand that the symbolism of the statue overshadows its literal truth. I would say, “There’s little real evidence that this incident took place as described — in fact it wasn’t described at all till nearly 20 years after the battle. But there still were several stories of mercy on that battlefield, and we want to believe them. We all want to believe in our common humanity. We wanted to believe it then, and we want to believe it now. And that’s what that statue is all about.”

    I think people would understand that. Whatever the literal truth of the story, Kershaw’s closing words still resonate: “he has bequeathed to the American youth — yea, to the world — an example which dignifies our common humanity.”

    But that’s the sentimental side of the history, and it loses all meaning if not kept in the context of the actual killing and suffering. That’s the other part of your challenge — to make sure people understand what actually happened at Fredericksburg. And that part of the discussion involves a discussion of geography, logistics, battlefield communications, 19th century tactics and weaponry — a wealth of subjects compared to which the Kirkland story can sometimes seem little more than a distraction from the battle itself. But it’s not if, as Peter suggested, you use it as a teaching tool, a way of introducing what we do know about the battle.

    • Michael (and Peter too): Thanks for the thoughtful posts. I think we’ll have to disagree on our interpretation of some of the evidence as it relates to the Kirkland story and its origins (or, in your view, its fabrication). I don’t see the same evidence of fabrication you do, and in the absence of that I don’t think anyone is on solid ground simply dismissing the testimony Mac cited. I see problems, yes, but no evidence of fabrication. And as a body, some of the sources discussed by Mac do warrant consideration. But enough of that–we’re clearly not going to come to a middle ground. Our readers will be Kirkland-ed out in short order (as I think I about am).

      On matters of interpretation (and within the confines of our respective views of the source material), we largely agree on how the Kirkland story should be treated. In fact, I think your post over at Civil War Memory, these posts, and the discussions that have resulted have put out there a body of thought that I hope all of the park’s staff will read and think about. Thank you for your contribution to that.

  15. We can argue this until our heads fall off, but really it comes down to who you believe. I have spent many years researching Kirkland for a novel that’s near completion and I’m no closer to PROVING the humanitarian act at Fredericksburg than when I started. However, I don’t believe Kershaw had any sort of hidden agenda or that he used the story for any sort of political gain. There’s even LESS evidence for that than the Kirkland story.

    I do know, however, that in Kirkland’s family today, there’s a watch that was given to Kirkland at the battle of Fredericksburg. This was given to him by a Union soldier who lay in front of the stone wall. Of course, can we trace that watch to a Union soldier who fought for a Union regiment, who fought at Fredericksburg? And can we prove that the watch was given to Kirkland and not scavenged from the dead? Very doubtful. But very little in history can be proven without a shadow of doubt. It is all about probability.

    The research into Kirkland’s life and the quest for more evidence is ongoing, so I invite all of you to go to my website, http://WWW.RICHARDKIRKLAND.COM, and sign up for my email list for updates on the watch, new photos of Kirkland and other exciting finds. The website was just recently launched so it is far from a finished product but it will be updated soon.

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