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Who was known as 'The Angel of Marye's Heights' during the American Civil War?

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It has been often said that while the American Civil War entailed immense destruction and tragedy, it did not always engender hate. Twenty months into the war, the Union's Army of the Potomac under the command of Major General Ambrose E. Burnside comprised of about 114,000 men fought the Confederate's Army of Northern Virginia under command of General Robert E. Lee with an estimated 72,500 men at Fredericksburg, Virginia. The two armies at the Battle of Fredericksburg "represented the largest number of armed men that ever confronted each other for combat during the Civil War." In an attempt to seize the high ground to the west of the city, the Union forces conducted frontal attacks on 13 December 1862 against entrenched Confederates located in defensive positions on a strongly fortified ridge known as 'Marye's Heights.' The Union had sent in seven divisions conducting a total of fourteen individual charges against 6,000 Confederate troops standing behind a stone wall and atop the slope behind. The Union forces were repulsed with heavy losses estimated at 6,000 to 8,000 casualties and Confederate losses at about 1,200.

"For two days following the battle, wounded Union soldiers, caught between the lines, cried out for water. Though exposure to enemy fire even for a moment meant almost certain death, Sergeant Richard R. Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers tried to help. Filling several canteens with water, the young Confederate stepped over the stone wall to care for his wounded enemies. When Union soldiers understood Kirkland’s purpose, they ceased firing at him and cheered. For nearly two hours he continued his ministrations. Kirkland has since been known as 'The Angel of Marye's Heights'." Kirkland belonged to one of the units posted behind the stone wall at the base of Marye's Heights. The Battle of Fredericksburg is remembered as one of the most one-sided battles of the Civil War, with Union casualties and losses more than twice as heavy as those suffered by the Confederates (about 12,600 killed, wounded, captured or missing for the Union in comparison to the estimated 5,400 for the Confederates).

Richard Rowland Kirkland (20 August 1843 – 20 September 1863) was born in Flat Rock, Kershaw County, South Carolina. He served with Company G, of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, The Confederate States of America and saw action at the First Battle of Bull Run (also known as the battle of First Manassas) in July 1861, the Battle of Savage’s Station in June 1862, Maryland Heights and the Battle of Harpers Ferry in September 1862, the Battle of Antietam (also called the Battle of Sharpsburg) in September 1862, the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, the Battle of Chancellorsville during April-May 1863, and the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 where he was promoted from Sergeant to Second Lieutenant. He was killed in action at age 20 at the Battle of Chickamauga (Georgia), in September 1863 when a rifle ball pierced his chest. Brushing away aid, he knew the wound was mortal, "No, I am done for. You can do me no good. Save yourselves and tell Pa good-bye and I died right. I did my duty. I died at my post." His body was returned home to Kershaw County, South Carolina, and he is buried in Section 14 of Quaker Cemetery (also known as Quaker Burying Ground). As would be expected, canteens are often found lying at the base of a monument erected at the cemetery by the John D. Kennedy Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Shown in the photograph is a commemorative bronze and granite monument that was dedicated in honor of Richard Rowland Kirkland and "to national unity and the brotherhood of man" on 29 September 1965 at the Fredericksburg Battlefield, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (Virginia) by "the State of South Carolina, the Commonwealth of Virginia, collateral descendants of Richard Kirkland and citizens of the United States." It was Dr. Richard Nunn Lanier (21 January 1896 – 13 April 1964), a former Private in the Student Army Training Corps during World War I, director of the Fredericksburg Centennial Commission and executive director of the Richard Rowland Kirkland Memorial Foundation who had conceived the idea and spent years spearheading a drive to raise funds and support for "a memorial to hold up Kirkland’s example." The sculpture was cast in Rome and the monument was built at a cost of $24,000. Sadly, Dr. Lanier died seventeen months prior to its official unveiling in September 1965 which was presided by Mayor Josiah P. Rowe III (24 February 1928 – 3 November 2018). Also present at the ceremony was the monument's sculptor, Austrian-born American Felix de Weldon (12 April 1907 – 3 June 2003) who also designed the United States Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima Memorial) at Washington, D.C.

Although there are several unofficial accounts of Sergeant Kirkland's deed and none placed in historical records, there was always the question if this story was literally true. There are other similar stories of such a deed having taken place in other battles during the Civil War and perhaps in this situation, perception matters more than the greater reality. On that fateful day, while over a thousand soldiers died defending the stone wall, eight times as many died before that wall in an assault which became famous for its futility and heroism. This monument may have been erected to commemorate an action that never occurred but its impact on acknowledging simple acts of humanity and heroism among many other acts of bravery which took place is also an important message to bring across during times of war and conflicts. While some of these soldiers have had a statue or memorial erected in their honor, there are a thousand-fold other people who also deserve to be recognized and remembered. This conceivable mythical monument is a testament to untold or unknown stories of people long gone and forgotten.

On this day, 20 September 2021, we commemorate the 158th anniversary of the death of Second Lieutenant Richard Kirkland and mark 56 years since the unveiling of a statue in his honor as 'The Angel of Marye's Heights' during the American Civil War and dedicated "to national unity and the brotherhood of man."

André M. Levesque

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