Hero today, gone tomorrow? Richard Rowland Kirkland, Angel of Marye’s Heights

Fredericksburg, Virginia

Richard Rowland Kirkland memorial at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Photo by Eipert.

I have some ready excuses for not posting in weeks. One is that I’ve been busy trying to finish “Guy Going Under,” my cave adventure/mystery novel. I have to say heroic effort was required at times for me to sit behind the keyboard when spring and summer weather was waiting right outside the door. A second excuse is that I’ve been traveling. One of the places I recently visited was Fredericksburg, Virginia, the site of a Civil War Battle fought in and around the city on December 11–15, 1862. The battle there is noted for being one of the most one sided of the war. The Union army, under pressure to show some progress in the war, attacked a Confederate force entrenched around the heights northwest of the town. The attack proved a disaster for the Union forces. Not only did they fail to defeat the rebels in their frontal assault, their own force was badly mauled and suffered over twice as many casualties as the defenders.

The fighting on the northern flank was especially disastrous for at this point the casualty ratio was eight to one. Not only was the Union lacking scouting, its tactics were both inappropriate and poorly executed. Visitors to this battlefield need no military background to see why the Union Army could hardly have chosen a worse place to attack. Running across the northwestern slope of the Southerners’ defensive position on the ridge known as Marye’s Heights was Telegraph Road. After the battle, the road became known as the Sunken Road because it had been cut several feet deep into the slope terrain and served as a trench for the defenders. The bank was also lined by a four-foot stone wall, which offered additional protection to the heavy concentration of Confederate infantry mercilessly firing down upon the charging Yankees. The attackers were also vulnerable to the murderous fire of the artillery the rebels had amassed behind the infantry, just out of sight over the crest of the ridge hills.

Richard Rowland Kirkland

It is in the midst of this fighting that a hero appears—a hero who was subsequently given a prominent monument at the site of the battlefield. His name is Richard Rowland Kirkland and he has become known as The Angel of Marye’s Heights. On December 13, Kirkland’s South Carolina unit was behind the stone wall as he and his fellow Southerners annihilated the Union attackers. Over 8,000 Northern soldiers were killed or wounded on the Marye’s Heights slope in front of Kirkland. Many of the wounded could not make their way off the battlefield and remained out there suffering and crying out during the night. The following day, the cries of the many suffering survivors continued. Kirkland, after finally receiving permission, was allowed to take water out to the wounded. However, he was not allowed to show a white handkerchief to indicate he was on a mercy mission. Kirkland collected a number of canteens and bravely made his way out beyond the wall. Union soldiers watched him warily at first but withheld fire. Soon they saw he was helping Union and Confederate soldiers alike. He made repeated trips out to men all over his part of the battlefield.

A hero??

That is the account that came out of the war, and it certainly describes heroism. But did it really happen as described? Or did the Kirkland’s deeds (see links 1, 2, and 3 below) get embellished when the need for this type of hero arose? At least one scholar questions the story (see link 4). I have no idea whether only some, or all, of the story is true. In reading the accounts, I did wonder how one man could minister to what must have been hundreds of wounded men in his vicinity in a relatively short time. And I wondered why others didn’t join him when no one fired on him (it wasn’t until the next day that a truce was called to retrieve the wounded). Of course I’ve also long wondered if maybe a little embellishment hasn’t gone into the heroic stories of some of our most famous national heroes.  We’ll never know the answers, but sometimes we just need those heroes and want to believe.

The truth

Whatever the truth of Marye’s Heights is, I have no doubts about Richard Kirkland’s courage or heroism in battle. After Fredericksburg, he fought in both the Battle of Chancellorsville and the Battle of Gettysburg. For his leadership and courage he earned a promotion to lieutenant. In September of 1863, he was one of several men leading a charge at the Battle of Chickamauga. When the men tried to return to their own company after having advanced too far into the lead, Kirkland was mortally wounded. His last words to the other men were reportedly, “I’m done for, save yourselves and please tell my pa I died right.”  I would remember him for his selfless last words alone, if for nothing else!

1) Wikipedia: Richard Rowland Kirkland
2) eHistory Archive: Marye’s Heights
3)  A documentary: The Angel of Marye’s Heights
4) Kevin Levin: Is the Richard Kirkland Story True?


Hero today, gone tomorrow? Richard Rowland Kirkland, Angel of Marye’s Heights — 1 Comment

  1. Great post! Thank you for linking our film “The Angel of Marye’s Heights”. Please let me know if you ever return to Fredericksburg. I live there and provide private tours of the battlefield. – Michael Aubrecht, Historian/Producer

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