Kirkland– a hero or bandwagon? Evidence, memory, and public history

From Hennessy (for Mac Wyckoff’s prior two posts about Kirkland, click here and here):

Before I plunge in, let me thank Mac Wyckoff for sharing his research. I also want to share with you his conclusion about the evidence he has presented on the Kirkland story.

Mac's daughter Melinda in front of the Kirkland memorial on the 125th anniversary of the battle, in 1987.

“Historians constantly face the issue of what is factual. Unable to question and cross examine the deceased participants and witnesses of a historical event, we have to make decisions on whether the testimony is credible. In the case of the “Angel of Marye’s Heights,” there is overwhelming testimony, in both quantity and quality, that someone gave humanitarian aid to suffering Union soldiers in front of the stonewall at Fredericksburg. Although there may have been more than one person providing the aid, the only known name is that of Richard Rowland Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina.  We will never know precisely what happened on that December day in Fredericksburg, but the evidence points to a remarkable event. Too many accounts exist for the story to be a fabrication.”

There is no question that cases like Kirkland present the NPS or any caretaker of history with an immense challenge. When a story or a place becomes a cultural icon–told and retold, interpreted and reinterpreted–it’s easy to lose track of what we really know and what we don’t know. It’s also easy to lose the distinction between the story itself and how that story has been used.  We have dealt with recent examples of this in this forum: the auction block in downtown Fredericksburg and Stonewall Jackson’s arm. But neither of those have the charged aura that surrounds Richard Kirkland. His is a case study that embodies evidence, memory, and the practice of public history (in this case, by an agency of the federal government).

William Ludwell Sheppard's image of Kirkland at Fredericksburg. Many would follow.

Let’s start with the evidence. Some have postulated (see Michael Schaffner’s thoughtful post over at Civil War Memory) that the Kirkland story may have had its origins in a conscious post-war attempt to forge a specific and favorable view of the Confederate soldier and the war at large, i.e. the story is not the product of history and fact, but rather may be the product of memory–“the cultural, social, and political milieu of South Carolina in 1880.”  In light of that, what do we REALLY know, and what can we reasonably conclude?

–  We know there were wounded left on the field in front of the stonewall at Fredericksburg for most of two days after the battle (a 10-minute review of sources in the park’s collection produced several references beyond Whitman’s and Kershaw’s. Click here for some examples.)

–  We know that within six weeks of the battle, Walt Whitman recorded being told by a wounded Union soldier that as he lay between the lines, “several of the rebels, soldiers and others, came to him at one time and other” and that one “middle-aged man” moved about the field, “among the dead and wounded for benevolent purposes.” It is not clear if this particular Samaritan was a soldier or one of the “others” mentioned by Whitman.

–  We know that before his death in 1870, James Hagood wrote specifically of a soldier from Kershaw’s brigade going over the wall to assist Union wounded.

–  We know that in 1880, after being asked to identify a man from his brigade who went over the wall, Kershaw named Richard Kirkland, providing extensive additional details because, he said, his interaction with Kirkland that day was “indelibly impressed on my memory.”

–  We know that in the decades after Kershaw identified Kirkland, at least five members of the 2d South Carolina stepped forward to retell the story, by implication endorsing if not confirming it.

What we don’t know:

–  We can’t say that any of the Samaritans described by either Whitman or Hagood was Kirkland.

–  We cannot say whether those who stepped forward after Kershaw’s 1880 account were reinforcing or simply restating Kershaw’s account. With one exception—the story of Isaac Rentz, written by a friend in 1919—the post-Kershaw accounts offer few additional, distinguishing details that would allow us to speculate that the writer witnessed the event rather than simply read about it at Kershaw’s hands.

–  Though apparently prompted to record his (Kershaw’s) memories by a newspaper editor, Carlyle McKinley, who became known for his romantic, sentimental portrayals of the South (thank you Robert Mosher, a reader, for adding this to the record), we can’t document (beyond speculating) that or why Kershaw might have fabricated his story about Kirkland.

So is Kirkland a hero or a bandwagon?

I’d offer he is both.

Having wrestled with some very tangled historical issues over the decades (rarely is any event or historical question framed in anything but mud), the progression of evidence in Kirkland’s case seems fairly straightforward. First, we know that one or more Confederates went over the wall to aid the Union wounded.  Second, we have been given the name of one of those men: Kirkland.  Is there really any basis for doubting Kershaw’s statement about this?  Why would we?  Certainly, if we’re using an evidentiary scale here, the evidence that would discredit Kershaw’s statement is far, far weaker than the evidence that suggests his statement about Kirkland is in its fundamentals (if not details) based in some fact.

It seems to me that in dealing with these things, it’s vital to distinguish the event (or story) itself from the way that story has been used. There is no doubt that Kirkland became a bandwagon, and there is no doubt that his story, as relayed by Kershaw, other veterans, later historians, and (especially!) artists (see here here here here here) became a stone in the foundation of the Lost Cause, used to demonstrate the virtue and humanity of the Confederate soldier (even, recently, to the point of reducing the battle itself to insignificance in some eyes). But, Kirkland’s status as a Lost Cause icon does not render his story untrue (just as the slave auction block’s imagined threat to Southern virtue has little to do with the evidence that speaks to its historic use). As Gary Gallagher points out, the Lost Cause endures because enough of it is based in fact to make it arguable (at least to some).

With the Kirkland Memorial as a backdrop, Historian George Rable speaks at the 2005 dedication of the restored Sunken Road.

Let’s pass the Kirkland legend and monument to the realm of public history. It’s a classic case of public historians being buffeted on one side by the emerging and growing historical record and on the other by the force of tradition. What do we do with it? In fact, historians at the park for years have been acutely aware of the vagaries embodied by the source material. While we largely accept the essentials of the Kirkland story, we are also quick to discuss the uncertainties that surround it and, significantly, the cultural values that have overlain it—the use of the story for cultural, political, and social ends. (Michael Schaffner’s piece at Civil War Memory is a highly useful cautionary note on this account). And know too that if evidence emerges that disproves the Kirkland story, we’ll lead the way in shifting our interpretation away from the event itself and to the creation and use of the story as a stimulus for postwar reconciliation and sustenance of a Southern identity.

But the evidentiary standard for demolishing legend must necessarily be high. With Richard Kirkland, that standard has not been met. The story is due careful handling and a great deal of context, but not (at least now) outright reconsideration. And, for the diligent one of you who might some day turn up a body of evidence that forces a reconsideration or rejection of the story, bear in mind that a greater understanding of history does not always portend the revision of memory (as those of us in the history business have learned the hard way).

9 thoughts on “Kirkland– a hero or bandwagon? Evidence, memory, and public history

  1. An interesting discussion, but perhaps a bit limited. The Kirkland story purportedly occurred on December 14th, in daylight. According to the accounts provided here, though, it is clear that some Confederates were over the stone wall during the night of December 13/14. Again, according to the accounts, some of them were a bit rough with the suffering Yankees, but others attempted to provide some level of relief. From other accounts we know that Confederate troops stripped some of Union dead for clothing. On a cold winter night, who could blame them. Though no one has said so, it is conceivable that some of the clothing was stripped from soldiers who were not quite dead, which of course comes across as brutal (unless one was there and exposed to the weather and more worried about survival instead of posterity). In the sentimentality of late nineteenth century reconciliation, who would want to bring up unpleasant details? A heroic Confederate, instead of freezing and callous troops was surely a better story. I do not have specific evidence that this occurred, except for the Union dead being stripped of warm cloths, but if we are to discuss history, we need to handle evidence carefully. It is not so much what someone wrote or said. Anyone can write and say pretty much anything. The historian has to figure out why something was written or said. There should be no question that some Confederates tried to relieve the suffering of wounded men, but we ought not to assume it occurred in broad daylight or under fire.

  2. Eric
    There was undoubedtly pillaging and theft by Confederates on the dead and wounded in front of the stone wall, but that was not the point of this article. My purpose was simply to state the evdience I have found on the Kirkland incident as a growing number of people are questioning whether the Kershaw story of Kirkland’s activites was a fabrication. The evidence overwhelming supports Kershaw’s story of Kirkland’s humanitarian efforts, but the evidence also strongly suggests that there may have been others. A friend of Private Rentz states that Rentz assisted Kirkland. There is also an account of a Georgian and one of either a masculine looking women or male soldier dressed as a woman providing assistance to wounded Union soldiers in front of the stone wall.

    Your interest in other things going on in front of the wall which are less virtuous is worthy of another discussion.

    • Mac,
      I don’t think we can separate the pillaging from the humanitarianism when discussing the Kirkland story. As historians, we always need to examine the motive behind whatever evidence we have. What went on in front of the stone wall was not something that all of the participants were going to be proud of. It is also pretty typical to put a veneer on war’s ugliness, after the fact. There was often more sentiment than reality in what many folks wrote about in the late nineteenth century and that context makes our twenty first century discussion more difficult.

  3. I don’t think you can get too far with the Rentz story. Rentz’s friend can’t recall the battle, but can correctly recall that there is a water fountain to Kirkland in Camden? It seems more likely that J.B. Hunter, when writing about the death of his friend Rentz, was inspired by the story behind the local monument and embellished the account. So basically, as post 2 points out, the only evidence that Richard Kirkland himself performed these acts comes from Kershaw (with a hots of others basically repeating the story). So the question hinges solely on “do you believe Kershaw?”

    • Peter: I don’t disagree. Clearly the Rentz story is a minor thread in all this. But, with so few threads available, it’s worth looking closely at every one. You are correct, it all comes down to Kershaw… John H.

  4. I’d qualify the statements “do you believe Kershaw?” and “it all comes down to Kershaw” with the observation that we need to choose which Kershaw to believe — the Kershaw who omitted Kirkland from his own after action report of Fredericksburg, as well as his later article for the “Battles and Leaders” series in The Century Magazine, or the Kershaw who wrote, not in an official or historical capacity, but for the popular audience of the “News and Courier.”

    I think I’d give more credence to the latter Kershaw if he didn’t sound so little like the first, and so much more like a Carlyle McKinley. The story-telling tone holds right down to the repeated third person references to “the General” rather than “I.” It strikes me as telling that even Kershaw’s letter doesn’t sound like a first-person account. But that’s basically all we have.

    • Just a couple of final observation on the omission from the Official Records of any mention of Kirkland’s act–and the suggestion that that somehow supports the theory that the story was fabricated. Official reports were written for three reasons (among others):
      – To fulfill the organizational requirement that a unit’s actions be documented.
      – To present the activities of that unit or its commander in the best possible light.
      – To promote the qualities that were vital to the success of the organization.

      I have spent much of my adult life working with a heavy mix of official records and personal accounts. There are hundreds, thousands of stories of valor–some of them incredible–that gain no mention in official reports. Read O’Reilly’s Fredericksburg, or my Second Manassas, and look at the sources as they relate to stories of valor and humanity (Kirkland would have qualified on both accounts). Rarely are they derived from the Official Records. Moreover, when such stories do emerge from the ORs, they almost always reflect acts of valor, not humanity. Commanders had an organizational interest in noting and promoting acts of valor. They had little organizational interest in promoting stories of humanity in their official reports. They were not historians trying to capture a full range of events. They were purposeful recorders of a very narrow view of an event, intended to serve the needs of the organization. That Kirkland doesn’t appear is typical. If he had, it would be highly unusual.

      More than that, think about the context within which Confederate officers wrote their post-battle narratives at Fredericksburg. The South was in a state of uproar over the bombardment and looting of the town by the Union army. Arabella Petit of Fluvanna County, for example, declared to her spouse, “Shoot them, dear husband, every chance you get.” It was not an environment where any officer was likely to see personal or organizational advantage in identifying and promoting one of his soldier’s compassionate acts toward a member of the Union army.

      This is not to offer up any conclusion on Kirkland (my argument here makes it no more or less likely that the story is true). But if we’re going to look at the environment that might have helped shape a narrative of valor in 1880, we need to also recognize the environment that would have discouraged the telling of the same story in December 1862.

  5. Michael,
    I don’t disagree, but we can imagine plausible reasons for a change. After the first articles, relatives of Kirkland might have talked to Kershaw, and asked him why didn’t you include the story of Kirkland? Maybe Carlyle McKinney had collected from a local person a story about Kirkland, and Kershaw offered “yes, I remember a soldier giving water to the wounded” and then McKinney wrote it up from there. Basically, I think there is no good reason to believe Kershaw, but no good reason to call it a fabrication (or even that Kershaw misremembered). I’d have to say that the lack of any corroboration before the initial story (one that refers to Kirkland by name, or even letters of soldiers trading these stories and suggesting that it might have been Kirkland, either contemporaneously or near-contemporaneously) raises my suspicions enough to not repeat the story as fact. Which is all to say that I more or less agree with you.

  6. John, first and foremost, thank you for your continued patience with me. I had a similar concern about the after action reports, but I reasoned thus:

    True, individual soldiers get mentioned most often for “acts of valor, not humanity” but Kirkland’s valor (“At the risk of his life…” the statue’s inscription begins) is what elevates his story above, say, Whitman’s middle-aged Samaritan with the biscuits. Along those lines it may be worth notice that the AAR of Colonel Kennedy of the 2nd SC does name a number of officers as well as two enlisted orderlies, but no Kirkland. De Saussure mentions his own medical staff, and chaplain, and Buchanan notes the sacrifice of his hospital attendants, but again, no Kirkland.

    More important, Kershaw’s letter has an hour and a half (half the winter afternoon) devoted to an impromptu cease fire while Kirkland carries out his ministrations. None of the after-action reports, north or south, mentions any such thing. While the humanity of one man might not deserve official mention, a significant halt in the action would. In fact the northern accounts universally describe the fire as constant, and Kershaw’s own report notes with satisfaction the infliction of another 150 casualties on the enemy.

    Peter, thank you for your essential agreement. I regret that I allowed the word “fabrication” to slip into my posts. Having spent most of the last half century studying European warfare, and only coming to our own civil war in the last decade, I confess that I did not appreciate the emotional power that this story holds to this day. “Legend” seems to me a better word, because it allows for some factual basis and does not cast the same aspersions on those who believe the story. But better still might be “barracks room tale” – the term Delbruck used for a wealth of other good war stories told across the water. Every country and every war has them (your earlier reference to the Angel of Mons did not go unappreciated), and I should not be surprised that we are so fond of our own.

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