From Mac Wyckoff:
[Note: Several years ago, we hosted a couple of guest posts from Mac Wyckoff about Richard Kirkland. You can find the first of those posts here, with links to the others therein. Mac is a former historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP, and is the author of several books related to the service of Kershaw’s brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia. Here, on the 154th anniversary of Kirkland’s deed, Mac shares some recently discovered evidence that bears on the Kirkland story.]Historians constantly face the issue of what is factual. Unable to question and cross examine participants and witnesses, we have to make decisions on the volume of specific information and whether that testimony is credible. In the case of “The Angel of Marye’s Heights,” several soldiers wrote about someone giving humanitarian aid to suffering Union soldiers in front of the stonewall at Fredericksburg. General Joseph Kershaw and others supplied the name of this hero, Richard Kirkland, 2nd South Carolina.
Interestingly, each of the stories left wiggle room for questioning details of the testimony. A recently discovered article in The Bamberg Herald, a South Carolina newspaper, includes the story of a soldier who assisted Kirkland in giving water. The story is told by Confederate veteran J.B. Hunter, a childhood friend of Isaac Washington Rentz, of the 2nd South Carolina.
Hunter summarizes the basic story and then adds additional details. After Kirkland received permission to carry water to wounded Union soldiers and went to administer the liquid, Hunter states, “Just then, Isaac Rentz, seeing it, filled several canteens and carried water to Kirkland and they gave water to every crying man and was not hurt.”
Hunter’s account contains two things that a lawyer in cross examination would question. Hunter admits that he does not recall which battle it was. He describes a big battle that “may have been Gettysburg.” However, the 2nd South Carolina retreated several hundred yards from the Union wounded at Gettysburg so it could not be that battle. Fredericksburg matches the details of his account.
A second point is that although Hunter and Rentz were close friends, they did not serve in the same unit. Hunter was in the 1st South Carolina (Hagood’s), Jenkins Brigade which during the fighting on the 13th held a position several hundred yards south of the stone wall, but after dawn on the 14th reinforced Kershaw’s South Carolinians behind the stone wall. Hunter, therefore, may have been an eyewitness to the Kirkland/Rentz incident and as life long friends, it is conceivable that Rentz and Hunter discussed the incident. Interestingly, Hunter’s brigade commander, James Hagood, is among the soldiers to tell the Kirkland story and his account closely matches Hunter’s except for the addition of Rentz’s role.
We will never know precisely all the details of what happened on that December day in Fredericksburg. Although the accounts each leave some details open to question, it is the number of accounts as well as the lack of any evidence to the contrary, that leads me to conclude that someone (most likely Kirkland and Rentz), gave humanitarian assistance to wounded Union soldiers at Fredericksburg.