Richard Kirkland was a young man of eighteen when he enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861. He was assigned to the 2nd South Carolina infantry and would survive some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, including the First Battle of Bull Run and Antietem. But it was at the battle of Fredricksburg that Kirkland’s courage and humanitarian actions guaranteed him a lasting place in American history.
There, at Marye’s Heights on December 13, 1862 Kirkland’s unit withstood a fierce Union attack, and by morning of the next day hundreds of Union soldiers lay wounded or dead on the other side of the great stone wall the Confederate soldiers had used for protection. Both sides listened helplessly to the cries of agony from the wounded, but no one dared to do something about it. At some point, however, Kirkland approached Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw and requested permission to help the Union soldiers. At first Kershaw refused, stating that Kirkland would almost certainly be shot by Union soldiers. However Kirkland insisted, and eventually was granted permission. However, Kershaw forbade him using a white handkerchief to signal the Union army not to fire on him.
Quickly Kirkland gathered all the canteens he could find and filled them with water. Then, as his unit watched, he left the safety of the wall and ventured out onto the battlefield to care for the wounded. Again and again he went back to refill the canteens and then return to the battlefield and the wounded. He also brought warm clothes and blankets to the soldiers, to combat the frigid winter temperatures. No one from either side fired a shot as this amazing scene unfolded.
For two hours Kirkland worked tirelessly and alone until each and every one of the Union soldiers had been ministered to. Six weeks later the great poet Walt Whitman, who at the time was working in a Washington D.C Hospital as a nurse and a war correspondent reported being told this story by a Union soldier who had been wounded at Fredricksburg.
Kirkland continued to distinguish himself for bravery at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and was eventually promoted to Second Lieutenant. However, less than a year after he became “the angel of Marye’s Heights”, Kirkland was shot and killed at the Battle of Chickamauga. He was 20 years-old.
In 1965 a monument was finally erected in front of the stone wall at Marye’s Heights, memorializing Kirkland and his singular act of compassion there….given not to enemies, but to brothers. He embodies for all time the “better angels of our nature.”
Richard Kirkland is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.