I'd like to read an essay from my book The Southern Cross that presents the extraordinary event that became the cornerstone of Kirkland's legacy:

"Every Civil War writer has quoted either Union General William T. Sherman's statement of 'War is all Hell...,' or the Confederacy's supreme commander, Robert E. Lee, when he said 'It is well that war is so terrible-lest we should grow too fond of it.'

Both of these men were among the greatest generals ever to set foot on a battlefield, yet their obvious distaste for the very acts that made them legendary resonates from these lines. As a historian, one must always be careful not to "over-romanticize" war and to be constantly aware of the cold, sometimes harsh realities of the people and times that they portray. This is a dilemma that has plagued critics for centuries, resulting in both revisionist and apologist histories being written again and again.

However, for every heartbreak in wartime there has also been heroism, and for every tragedy, there has also been triumph. This is what makes the history of warfare worthy of our attention and justifies the energy we spend to preserve its memory for future generations. It is the good stories, the ones that reflect life (not death), the ones founded on courage and mercy that demand our interest. This is the side of war that truly needs to be glorified.

One such incident is the story of Sergeant Richard Rowland Kirkland, otherwise known as 'The Angel of Marye's Heights.' Perhaps the most compassionate and heroic character of the entire era, this lone Confederate soldier's conduct has become one of the most touching and inspirational subjects ever to come out of the War Between the States.

By the winter of 1862, Gen. Robert E. Lee's forces had claimed more decisive battlefield victories than their Northern counterparts due, in part, to the majority of engagements that took place on Southern soil. Throughout the first year of the war, the Confederates had managed to capitalize on a clear 'home field' advantage by dictating both the time and place of most major engagements. As a result, the Confederate States of America appeared to be well on their way toward achieving independence.

One of the biggest and most one-sided victories took place during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Early in the morning on December 13, 1862, Union forces began a desperate and doomed assault on a fortified position, known today as the 'stone wall at the sunken road.'

After crossing the Rappahannock River and taking possession of Fredericksburg, the Federal Army of the Potomac set its sights on taking the surrounding area where the Army of Northern Virginia had withdrawn. Perhaps a little too confident after experiencing only minor skirmishes in the town, the Union commanders failed to realize the brilliant tactical deployments established by Lee's lieutenants.

By intentionally leaving the town to the enemy, Confederate forces were able to fortify their positions in anticipation of the arrival of the Federals. The most impenetrable of these positions was a long stone wall at the base of a sloping hill known as 'Marye's Heights.'

Overlooking the field stood another 'virtual' wall of Confederate artillery, cavalry and support troops that extended for miles in both directions. An attack would be a suicide mission. In order to reach the enemy, Union soldiers had to ford a canal ditch and then cross a vast open field with little or no cover. As soon as they left the tree line, a massive artillery barrage, joined by almost uncountable rifle fire, rained down upon the advancing men. Those that were able to escape the cannon were slowed by a slope that led to a fortified stone wall lining a sunken road. Behind the wall, soldiers knelt two and three ranks deep, with the front line firing and the rest reloading musket after musket. The result was a continuous hail of fire that cut rows and rows of men down before they could even get into position.

Wave after wave of Union soldiers left the safety of the canal ditch and were slaughtered. The death toll was staggering. In just one hour the Federals suffered more than 3,000 dead. After fifteen unsuccessful charges, the fighting ceased for the night, leaving the field littered with thousands of bloody bodies. Around midnight, Federal troops ventured forth under cover of darkness to gather what wounded they could find, but many were too close to the Confederate line to retrieve. Throughout the night, screams and cries of the wounded penetrated the peaceful silence of the cease-fire.

A Confederate soldier stationed at the wall later stated that it was 'weird, unearthly, terrible to hear and bear the cries of the dying soldiers filling the air -lying crippled on a hillside so many miles from home-breaking the hearts of soldiers on both sides of the battlefield.'

One soldier, Richard Rowland Kirkland, an infantry sergeant with the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, struggled to rest amidst the horrid sounds of suffering that echoed across the field. A combat veteran, he was accustomed to the dead and dying, having seen action at Manassas, Savage Station, Maryland Heights and Antietam. By the morning of the 14th, he could take it no longer and requested permission to aid the enemy.

Initially, his commanding officer was reluctant, as Kirkland would likely be shot dead by Union sharpshooters when he cleared the wall. He later granted the persistent soldier his request, but forbid him to carry a flag of truce. Determined to do the right thing and with total disregard for his own safety, Kirkland grabbed several canteens and leaped over the fortification.

Instantly several shots rang out as the Union soldiers thought their wounded were under attack. Realizing the sincerity of Kirkland's effort, the Federal marksmen lowered the barrels of their rifles. Thus, the fatal shot never came and both sides looked on in amazement as the sergeant moved from one wounded man in blue to another. Going back and forth over the wall for an hour and a half, Kirkland only returned to the safety of his own lines after he had done all he could do.

A fellow soldier in Kirkland's company later recalled the incident in part of a short narrative for The Confederate Veteran that was published in 1903. He wrote, 'The enemy saw him and supposing his purpose was to rob the dead and wounded, rained shot and shell upon the brave Samaritan. God took care of him. Soon he lifted the head of one of the wounded enemy, placed the canteen to his lips and cooled his burning thirst. His motivation was then seen and the fire silenced. Shout after shout went up from friend and foe alike in honor of this brave deed.'

In the end, this soldier's action resulted in much more than a moment of mercy. It was a moment that stopped the entire Civil War and reminded those around him that, regardless of their circumstances, one should always strive to show compassion for his fellow man."

Mercy is the only way (in my opinion) that man can retain a sense of decency amidst the primitive circumstances of war. Perhaps that is why Kirkland's selfless action is celebrated even to this day?

Years later General Kershaw himself would write to the editor of The News and Courier in January of 1880 presenting what he called "an accurate record of the events surrounding Richard Kirkland at Fredericksburg." He stated:

"With profound anxiety, he was watched as he stepped over the wall on his errand of mercy, Christ-like mercy. Unharmed he reached the nearest sufferer. He knelt beside him, tenderly raised the drooping head, rested it gently upon his own noble breast, and poured precious life giving fluid down the fever scorched throat. This done he laid him gently down, placed his knap-sack under his head, straightened out his broken limb, spread his over-coat over him, replaced his empty canteen with a full one, and turned to another sufferer.

By this time his purpose was well understood on both sides and all danger was over. From all parts of the field arose fresh cries of 'Water, for God's sake, water!' More piteous still, the mute appeal of some one who could only feebly lift a hand to say, here too is life and suffering. For and hour and a half did this ministering angle pursue his labor of mercy, nor ceased to go and return until he had relieved all of the wounded on that part of the field."

His commanding officer wasn't the only one touched by the Sgt's compassion. The Confederate veterans of Kershaw County so admired Richard Kirkland that they bypassed six Confederate generals born in Kershaw County and later named their organization "The Camp Richard Kirkland."

I had noticed while flipping through the bound volumes at the NPS archives that tributes abounded to this event, especially in publications that were issued during the Civil War Centennial period. I wonder if this is also an example of people looking to shine alight on a positive story from a war that had so few things to celebrate. One piece in particular that was published in 1962 by the Carolina Museum personifies this concept of elevating a mythical hero, by taking the truth and presenting assumptions that may or may not have been completely accurate. Clearly there is an agenda with articles like this. And I quote:

"The public must remember that this unassuming South Carolina farm boy held no bitterness or malice towards his enemies. He simply believed in a cause, and, for that cause, he died during the Battle of Chickamauga. At the instant of his death Richard Kirkland ceased to belong exclusively to the Confederacy and became a hero of national magnitude."

That is certainly a wonderful tribute, but in retrospect, it seems a tad inflated. At best this piece is compromised by some personal speculation. However, perhaps this is exactly what the descendants of the war's participant's wanted, or even needed at the time. In other words, maybe the public begged for Kirkland's story to justify the right to commemorate the war in the first place. It may therefore be case of simply embellishing something that transpired on the battlefield even though it was already worth remembering.

Why? Perhaps the tragic memory of brother versus brother was simply too painful to pursue.

The biggest proof (in my opinion) of this intentional focus on 'presenting the positive' came in the form of a declaration that is printed in the Congressional Record Appendix from January 23, 1961. The record includes a formal statement that says:

"The Civil War Centennial Committee has decided not to attempt to reenact any part of the battle in its program commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg to be held on December 13, 1962. But rather would the committee and the people of the North and South expand their energies in giving to their fellow countrymen and the world the story of Richard Kirkland who fought here and hallowed the ground upon which this bloody battle was fought."

Isn't that amazing? Here you have members of the U.S. government, South Carolinians, telling Virginia not to focus on the battle, but rather on the human interest story of a single soldier. It appears that the Battle of Fredericksburg became palatable only through this story of a Confederate's compassion.

Still, Fredericksburg was not the end of Kirkland's story. His life continued on and he accompanied his comrades in the victorious, yet bittersweet Battle of Chancellorsville, then up north to face the Federals on the fields at Gettysburg.

Following the battle here, Kirkland was able to return home for a short time. There he was able to spend weeks with his sister Caroline and also his sweetheart, who was Susan Evelina Kirkland, the daughter of Major Daniel Kirkland and his second cousin. Little did they know it would be the last time they would meet.

Richard returned to the ranks of the Army of Northern Virginia just in time for the fight at Chancellorsville. Once again, the gods of war smiled upon the sergeant and he was able to emerge from the horrific engagement without a scratch.