The Angel of Marye’s Heights
His story is one of the most famous from the American Civil War, and it spawned a monument in Fredericksburg, Virginia, that still stands today. His actions atop a blood-soaked battlefield captured imaginations and hearts even in the modern era. This is the story of Richard Rowland Kirkland, otherwise known as the Angel of Marye’s Heights.
The tale first appeared in the Charleston News and Courier in 1880. Written by former Confederate General Joseph B. Kershaw, it goes a little something like this:
The 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, in particular the Union charge up Marye’s Heights, spelled disaster for Uncle Sam. Not far outside the city, the Confederate line had deeply entrenched at the top of a sharp slope behind a sturdy stone wall. It was an optimal position, allowing the rebels a steel free-for-all over the sweeping hillside, while posing little risk to themselves.
Charging such a stronghold would be suicide, but the Union was desperate. The first year of the war had seen one failure after another, and 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 Marye’s Heights, right into the hail of gunfire and artillery coming from behind that wall. A union assault became a blue bloodbath. Although a few came close, no unit breached the wall, 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. No aid came, because nervous sharp shooters fired at anything that moved.
That was when Confederate Private Kirkland, of the 2nd South Carolina, entered the story. Crouching behind the stone wall, the cries of the Union men tormented him. He went to General Kershaw and asked if he could bring water onto the heights for the wounded. Kershaw denied his request, citing the dozens of dangers that still lurked about in the dark. When Kirkland insisted, Kershaw was moved by his compassion and relented.
So it was that a little Johnny Reb took his life into his own hands, and treaded the frighteningly active battleground of Marye’s Heights. For hours, he shared canteen after canteen of water with the enemy wounded. He ran and hobbled 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 didn’t even wear the same uniform.
As a Civil War enthusiast, the story has always pulled at my heart strings. In our turbulent world, stories of extraordinary kindness are always a breath of fresh air. And the concept is so wonderfully human – a little private so irked at suffering that he chose to act, because humanity is more important than uniforms. So, it saddened me to learn that modern historians have questioned the account.
They note 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, include the story either. Experts also question why Kershaw waited until 1880, almost 18 years after the battle, to come forward with this account. Many people 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.
Burning for an answer about this charming tale, I did some research of my own on the subject, and not just Kirkland’s story. The more I read, the more comfort I felt. Because the story, at least in some form, is true. Accounts of compassion towards enemy soldiers are 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 famous 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 lethal forest fire. In Cold Harbor, enemies fraternized during a truce to remove dead from the battlefield. In Petersburg, impromptu cease fires constantly sprung up between men on opposite sides.
The list goes on and on. In almost every memoir or history I’ve read, an account of human compassion stands out. I’ve done a lot of historical reading over the years, and one thing has become abundantly clear. Soldiers fighting a war share a bond that isn’t quite like any other. Their shared suffering cements this bond, making it so strong it extends to soldiers 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. All the ordinary foot soldiers can do is their duty, while struggling to hold on to their humanity.
It helped me believe in the Angel of Marye’s Heights. Because while that specific story may not be true, the concept absolutely is. The Angel doesn’t even have to have a name. He is a symbol of all soldiers in the Civil War who put mercy before the cause, whether they wore blue or gray. He reminds us that kindness, not guns and artillery, is the strongest weapon in our war arsenal.
And so, next time I see that statue in Fredericksburg, whether the story is true or not, it can still serve a purpose. The preservation of humanity, which can shine through even our darkest moments 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.