The Angel of Marye’s Heights
His is one of the most famous legends from the American Civil War. His actions spawned a monument in Fredericksburg, Virginia, that still stands today. His name is Richard Rowland Kirkland, and he is known as the Angel of Marye’s Heights.
The story first appeared in the Charleston News and Courier in 1880. Written by former Confederate General Joseph B. Kershaw, it goes something like this:
The Battle of Fredericksburg, in particular the Union charge up Marye’s Heights, was a disaster for Uncle Sam. The Confederate line had entrenched at the top of a slope behind a stone wall. Their position was optimal, as it allowed them free fire over the sweeping hillside while posing little risk to themselves. It would be suicide to charge it, but the Union was desperate. Commanding General Burnside needed a victory to overturn the rising tide of the Confederacy. So, he ordered the charge despite the odds. Unit after Unit of blue-clad soldiers stormed up the heights, only to be met with devastating gunfire and artillery from behind that wall. In short, it was a bloodbath. Although a few came close, no unit was able to breach, and the Confederates held their position.
By nightfall, Marye’s Heights was a swath of bodies in blue, soaked in their own blood. Most were dead. The ones lingering begged for water and aid, their cries haunting every living soul on those heights. Getting to them was impossible, because nervous sharp shooters fired at anything that moved.
This was when Confederate Private Kirkland, of the 2nd South Carolina, entered the story. Crouching behind the stone wall, he was tormented by the cries of the wounded. He went to General Kershaw, and asked if he could bring them water. Kershaw denied his request, citing that it was too dangerous. When Kirkland insisted, Kershaw was moved by his compassion and relented.
So it was that a little Johnny Reb risked his life by treading the active battleground of Marye’s Heights, and ministering unto the Union wounded. He went from man to man, all of them crying out for water at once. Seeing his errand was one of mercy, the Union sharp shooters held their fire, and watched in awe as this lone man aided the dying– men that were not even his own.
As a Civil War enthusiast, this story pulls at my heart strings. In our turbulent world, it is a breath of fresh air to hear stories of extraordinary kindness. A story like a little private being so irked at suffering that he chose to act, because humanity is more important than battle. So, I was a bit sad to learn that modern day historians have questioned the account.
They note that Kershaw’s original battle report, while praising many soldiers for their brave conduct on the field, doesn’t mention Kirkland. No other official reports, Union or Confederate, have backed it up either. It is also a question why Kershaw waited until 1880, almost 18 years after the battle, to come forward with this story. Most historians believe that while Kirkland probably did assist a few wounded soldiers, his heroics might have been inflated by Kershaw. Kirkland couldn’t answer for himself either, because he died later in the war.
I did some of my own reading on the subject, and not just Kirkland’s story. The more I read, the more I was comforted. Because I learned that the story, in some form, is true. In fact, there are accounts of compassion towards enemy soldiers scattered all over the Civil War. Elisha Hunt Rhodes, a Union officer with the 2nd Rhode Island, took his hat off and joined mourners when he happened upon a Confederate soldier’s funeral. General Joseph Polley, of Hood’s Texas Brigade, recalled giving comfort to a mortally wounded Union soldier from Wisconsin. In his memoir, Confederate Artilleryman Edward Porter Alexander said he observed a prisoner from the famed Irish Brigade giving aid to a Confederate colonel who had just been shot in the chest. Warren Lee Goss of the 6th Massachusetts conversed and held hands with a severely wounded Confederate from North Carolina in a battlefield hospital. In the Battle of the Wilderness, a band of rebel privates helped pull Union wounded out of a forest fire. In Cold Harbor, enemies fraternized during a truce to remove dead from the battlefield. In Petersburg, impromptu cease fires were held between men on opposite sides.
It goes on and on. In almost every memoir or history I’ve read, an account of compassion towards the enemy can be found. I’ve done a lot of historical reading over the years, and there seems no bond greater than that between soldiers in a war. Perhaps this holds true even if the soldiers are wearing different colors. Because the war isn’t their fault. It’s the corrupted individuals in seats of power, who send thousands to settle their squabbles with blood. So, all the ordinary foot soldiers can do is their duty, while struggling to keep their humanity.
Whatever it is, it tells me that the Angel of Marye’s Heights story is true, but maybe he just doesn’t have a name. He is instead the symbol of all soldiers in the Civil War who put mercy before the cause, whether they wore blue or gray. It embodies the spirit that kindness, not guns and artillery, is the strongest weapon in our war arsenal.
And so, I can look at that statue in Fredericksburg, and be reminded that even in our darkest moments, humanity shines through if we let it.
“The Angel of Marye’s Heights” – P. Leonard, NYT, 2012
“Recollections of a Private” – W. L. Goss
“A Soldier’s Letters to Charming Nellie” – Polley
“All For the Union” – E. H. Rhodes
“Fighting for the Confederacy” – E.P. Alexander
All photos by M.B. Henry. For more on the Civil War, visit my photo gallery.