With this being the anniversary of Fredericksburg, I thought it appropriate to share some busting of the Sergeant Kirkland Myth. A myth that has a statue erected to it at Fredericksburg, MD.
The following is reposted with permission from Michael Schaffner, a fellow historian and personal friend:
The Legend of Sergeant Kirkland
It may be I was not worthy to see either of the two apostles. But if so, since there were more than four hundred soldiers in our company, as well as Cortes himself and many other gentlemen, the miracle would have been discussed and evidence taken.... Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain
In 1965, a group that included the states of South Carolina and Virginia, the Collateral Descendents of Richard Kirkland, and the Richard Rowland Kirkland Memorial Foundation, erected a statue at Fredericksburg to the memory of Sergeant Kirkland of the Second South Carolina Volunteers. The inscription reads, “At the risk of his life, this American soldier of sublime compassion, brought water to his wounded foes at Fredericksburg. The fighting men on both sides of the line called him ‘The Angel of Marye’s Heights.’”
The deed for which Kirkland earned this accolade received its first and most extensive description from J. B. Kershaw, commander of the brigade in which Kirkland served, in a letter to the Charleston News and Courier dated January 29, 1880 (Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. VIII. Richmond, Virginia, April, 1880. No. 4).
After providing some background on Kirkland’s family, Kershaw describes the scene on December 14, 1862 at his head quarters in the Stevens’ house by the sunken road and stone wall at the foot of Marye’s Heights. The previous day, a series of failed Union assaults had left thousands of casualties. As Kershaw surveyed the carnage a sergeant in his brigade interrupted him to ask permission to carry water to the wounded Union soldiers, whose cries had moved him since the previous evening. Due to the danger from a day-long “murderous skirmish” with Syke’s regulars, Kershaw only reluctantly approved the young man’s request. Even then he refused Kirkland permission to show a white flag or handkerchief to lessen the danger. Despite this, Kirkland went over the wall, gave water to the nearest wounded Yankee, pillowed his head on his knapsack, spread his overcoat over him, replaced his empty canteen with a full one, and went on to the next. The firing ceased as his purpose became clear. Other wounded soldiers cried out to him and for “an hour and a half” Kirkland continued “until he relieved all the wounded on that part of the field.”
An Elusive History
Kershaw provides a moving account, well portrayed in the statue. Yet contemporary references to the act prove difficult to come by. Kershaw provides the earliest source, repeated nearly intact in later retellings. But an examination of the Cornell University “Making of America” website, which provides a wide range of books and periodicals published in the United States between 1815 and 1926, uncovers no versions of the story. A Google book search produces some, including the original Kershaw letter, as well as an appearance of the same letter, unchanged, in the works The Camp-fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, published in 1886, and Christ in the Camp: Or, Religion in Lee's Army by John William Jones, published in 1887. The story also appears in The Army of Northern Virginia in 1862 by William Allen (p. 514), published in 1892, in almost identical language, but with the additional details that Kershaw refused the white handkerchief lest it be interpreted as a flag of truce, that Kirkland collected canteens from his comrades before going over the wall, and that a similar act was performed by artillerymen of Jordan’s battery that evening. But the author gives no sources for these added facts.
An interesting variation on the story appears in Augustus Dickert’s 1899 History of Kershaw’s Brigade. This work, written by a veteran company officer of the Third South Carolina, makes no mention of Kirkland’s act, giving instead a first hand description of a somewhat different scenario (pp. 196-197):
"In one of the first charges made during the day a Federal had fallen,
and to protect himself as much as possible from the bullets of his enemies,
he had by sheer force of will pulled his body along until he had neared the
wall. Then he failed through pure exhaustion. From loss of blood and the
exposure of the sun’s rays, he called loudly for water.... To go to his rescue
was to court certain death... But one brave soldier from Georgia dared all,
and during the lull in the firing leaped the walls, rushed to the wounded
soldier, and raising his head in his arms, gave him a drink of water, then
made his way back and over the wall amid a hail of bullets knocking the
dirt up all around him."
There is something compelling about this account, as an act of individual initiative as well as mercy, but it involves no ministering to the mass of casualties, no cease-fire, and, apparently, no Kirkland.
The After Action Reports
But we should not have to rely on the memory of old soldiers for the story of Sergeant Kirkland. His actions occurred at a known time at a known place, within view of trained observers required to file reports on the incidents of the day. We can find these reports in The War of the Rebellion, the official records of the Union and Confederate Armies, published by the War Department between 1880 and 1891. Specifically Series I, Volume 21 (published in 1881) presents accounts of the battle of Fredericksburg prepared by commanders in the field within days of the actual battle. While we might expect the charitable actions of one noncommissioned officer to escape notice, a key portion of Kershaw’s account – the 90 minutes during which no one fired at Kirkland – must have attracted the attention of one of the many officers commanding on the field.
Brigadier General George Sykes commanded the Second Division of the Fifth Corps opposite Kershaw’s Brigade on December 14th, the day after the charge, on the afternoon of which Kershaw has Kirkland tending the wounded. According to General Sykes (p. 415):
"At 11 p.m. [night of the 13th] these troops [First and Second Regular brigades] relieved the troops in advance (General Howard’s), and held their ground until the same hour the following night. The position assigned these troops was one of extreme peril – in an open field, within 100 yards of the enemy, who was securely sheltered behind stone walls and rifle-pits. They remained under constant fire for twelve hours, and could offer in resistance only the moral effect of that hardihood and bravery which would not yield one foot of the line they were required to protect."
Possibly Sykes did not see actual conditions on the line. One level down the chain of command, Lt. Col. Robert C. Buchanan commanding the First Brigade reports (p. 418):
"At daylight firing commenced between the pickets, and it was soon found that my position was completely commanded, so that if an individual showed his head above the crest of the hill he was picked off by the enemy’s sharpshooters immediately…"
Buchanan ordered his men not to return the shots, but notes no general cessation of Confederate fire. In fact (p. 419):
"The enemy shot my men after they were wounded, and also the hospital attendants as they were conveying the wounded off the ground, in violation of every law of civilized warfare."
Captain John Wilkins, commanding the Fifth Infantry notes (p. 420), “At daybreak I found the pickets entirely unprotected, and exposed to a murderous fire from the enemy’s rifle-pits…” Captain Hiram Dryer, commanding the Fourth Infantry, stated that daylight found his men within 100 yards of the Confederate position, and under continuous fire until they occupied a brick tannery, from which they “succeeded in keeping the enemy’s fire under until midnight, when we were relieved…” (p. 422).
Captain Matthew Blunt, commanding the Twelfth Infantry reports his men taking position within 200 feet of the enemy and receiving “a continued fire” (p. 423) until relieved Sunday night. Captain John O’Connell, Fourteenth U. S. Infantry, reports holding a position that Sunday about 150 yards from the enemy “under almost continuous fire of musketry from the enemy’s rifle-pits, with occasional shots from heavy guns during the daylight…” (p. 424).
The Second Brigade had it no easier. Its commander, Major George Andrews, reported of that Sunday (p. 426):
"Our line was now about 80 yards in front of a stone wall, behind which the enemy was posted in great numbers… To move even was sure to draw the fire of the enemy’s sharpshooters, who were posted in the adjacent houses and in tree-tops, and whose fire we were unable to return. Thus the troops remained for twelve long hours, unable to eat, drink, or attend to the calls of nature, for so relentless were the enemy that not even a wounded man or our stretcher-carriers were exempted from their fire."
Captain Salem Marsh, commanding a battalion of the First and Second U. S., reports the fire on the 14th as “terrific” and “passing not more than a foot over the ground.” He also notes that “The firing of the enemy ceased at dark.” (p. 427) Captain Henry Maynadier, commanding a battalion of the Tenth Infantry, reports “a continuous fire” (p. 428); Captain Charles Russell of the Eleventh Infantry similarly states that the enemy “continued the fire all day” (p. 429).
Thus the relevant Union after action reports not only fail to confirm Kershaw’s story, they all describe conditions that make it extremely unlikely.
Confederate reports provide another perspective.
Colonel Kennedy of the Second South Carolina (Kirkland’s regiment) mentions fifteen officers and two orderlies by name for meritorious conduct, but Kirkland is not among them (p. 593). Colonel James Nance of the Third South Carolina similarly ends his account on the 13th, when he was wounded. Captain John Nance takes up the story, having taken command after two more senior officers were struck down, but tells only of the relief of the regiment on the evening of the 13th and notes nothing further until the regiment returned to camp on the 15th (p. 596).
Lieutenant Colonel Elbert Bland of the Seventh South Carolina describes the battle, and then tells of his regiment relieving Philips’ Legion on the stone wall: “We held this position with the wings doubled, occasionally exchanging shots with the enemy, until Tuesday morning (16th)…” (p. 597).
Captain Stackhouse of the Eighth South Carolina states, “On the 14th, we confined our fire to select parties of the enemy” (p. 598), but makes no note of a general cease-fire, or of Kirkland.
Colonel De Saussure of the Fifteenth South Carolina reports that his regiment moved on the evening of the 13th to support the Second South Carolina at the wall, “and there remained until the evacuation of the city…” (p. 599). He makes no mention of Kirkland, but does commend his surgeon, assistant surgeon, and chaplain for their attention to his wounded.
Kershaw’s own after action report (p. 590) spends but one short paragraph on Sunday the 14th:
"At daylight in the morning the enemy was in position, lying behind the first declivity in front, but the operations on both sides were confined to skirmishing of sharpshooters. We lost but 1 man during the day, but it is reported that we inflicted a loss upon the enemy (Sykes' division) of 150."
Kershaw mentions eight officers as having distinguished themselves, as well as Captain Cuthbert’s company and Captain Read’s battery, but makes no mention of Kirkland.
In short, Kershaw’s 1880 letter to the editor receives no support from contemporary after action reports, including Kershaw’s own.
Other Accounts of Fredericksburg
Kershaw had another opportunity to insert Kirkland into the official record, or something like it, when he wrote the editors of the Century Magazine for their “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War” series, on December 6th, 1887. But here he confined himself to technical corrections of General Ransom’s letter concerning Fredericksburg, and fails to note anything of interest occurring on December 14th.
A story in the Richmond Daily Dispatch of January 12, 1863, provides a contemporary view, titled “The Carnage at Fredericksburg – Graphic Account From a Yankee Soldier.” In this an unnamed Union soldier writes to a friend in Baltimore, describing the battle and aftermath. He notes that the main attack “was fought on a remarkable small space of ground,” that each wave was virtually annihilated, that a slight rise within 150 yards of the stone wall gave some shelter, that a “criminally negligent” ambulance corps did not carry off the wounded till after midnight, and that the troops laid out all the next day expecting the attack to be renewed. But he did not see Kirkland.
It seems significant that the Kirkland story also does not appear in some of the better-known histories of the war. Douglas Southall Freeman makes no mention of the Sergeant, and of the scene on December 14th writes (Robert E. Lee, Vol. II, Chapter 31, p. 469):
"Union troops were burying the dead within their lines and were carrying off such of the wounded as they could reach. Now and again the skirmishers engaged in angry exchanges, and the Federal batteries fired a few half-hearted rounds. That was all."
His picture of the following day provides a marked contrast with the acts of mercy ascribed to Kirkland (p. 470):
"On the morning of the 15th, with his own line still further strengthened, Lee observed that the enemy had dug rifle pits and had thrown up fortifications on the outskirts of the town, as if to repel attacks. He saw a ghastly sight besides: The Federal dead that still remained between the lines had changed color. They no longer were blue, but naked and discolored. During the night, they had been stripped by shivering Confederates, many of whom now boasted overcoats, boots, and jackets for which the people of the North had paid. It was ghoulish business, reprobated by the enemy but excused by the beneficiaries, who asked whether it was better for them to freeze or to take clothing the former owners would not miss."
Shelby Foote, who might fairly be said to have never met an anecdote he didn’t like, similarly omits Kirkland, repeating Freeman’s account of southern soldiers treating the Federal casualties as a source of winter clothing.
Not all recollections of Fredericksburg leave out the Sergeant. T. Rembert of Company E, a comrade of Kirkland’s, left a tribute to him in the form of a letter to The Confederate Veteran, in 1903. However, his story repeats the highlights of Kershaw’s 1880 letter, with no details that would distinguish his as an original account.
A Closer Look at Kershaw’s Letter
Given the paucity of corroboration, it seems appropriate to reexamine the story as Kershaw told it, and see how key elements accord with other accounts of the battle as well as the logic of the situation. We start with the setting itself:
The ground between the lines was bridged with the wounded, dead, and dying Federals, victims of the many desperate and gallant assaults…
A field carpeted with wounded provides the essential setting for the tale of Kirkland’s charity, but where were the wounded, and how many were still there?
General McLaws, commanding the Confederate division along the wall, stated that “The body of one man, believed to be an officer, was found within about 30 yards of the stone wall, and other single bodies were scattered at increased distances until the main mass of the dead lay thickly strewn over the ground at something over 100 yards off…” (OR, Series I, Volume 21, p. 581).
That is, the mass of Federal casualties lay within what would soon become, according to the after action reports, the picket lines of Sykes’ Regulars. Though their officers withdrew these men to less exposed positions during the day, such wounded as remained would still lie much closer to the Federal than Confederate lines.
But in any case the Federals did not simply abandon those wounded in the assaults of the 13th. Private William McCarter (My Life in the Irish Brigade, pp. 190-194) describes small parties of soldiers, backed up by ambulances, searching for wounded between the lines on that night, as well as his own efforts to drag himself back. Brigadier-General Humphreys, commanding the third division of the Fifth Corps, which made the final charge against the wall, reported on his own efforts (OR, Series I, Volume 21, p. 433), stating “The wounded were nearly all brought in before daylight, and some of the dead, but many of the latter were left upon the field.” The unnamed Union private quoted in the Daily Dispatch expresses bitterness at the ambulance corps for not coming till after midnight, but they came.
Altogether, between the efforts of the walking wounded and ambulance parties, and considering the effect of lying through a winter’s night and day in the field, there seems considerable reason to doubt that many wounded remained to “bridge” the space between Sykes’ and Kershaw’s lines on the 14th.
…the General sat in the north room, up stairs … when Kirkland came up …
Kirkland, a sergeant in a company in one of several regiments under the command of General Kershaw, passes by or through his company commander, his regimental commander, and the general’s staff, to make a personal appeal to relieve the Federal wounded while his unit is engaged with the enemy or awaiting an attack. Either he left the ranks without their knowledge or he reported to each link in his chain of command in turn, which each kicking the request upstairs until finally he meets the general himself. Both scenarios seem improbable.
"General, can I show a white handkerchief?” … “No, Kirkland…”
This exchange has the effect of accentuating the danger Kirkland encounters – apparently Kershaw sees himself as having no authority to call for a truce, however limited. Yet he has no difficulty authorizing an enlisted man to take an action forbidden to the rest of the army.
Unharmed, he reached the nearest sufferer…
Fortunately for Kirkland, Sykes’ division has been ordered not to fire, though Dryer’s men in the tannery may have come into action by this time.
This done, he laid him tenderly down, placed his knapsack under his head…
Most accounts of the Federal assault on the wall mention the dropping of knapsacks before going into action. McCarter left his on the other side of the Rappahannock; others removed them in town. Colonel Stevens of the 13th New Hampshire noted that the soldiers did not stop at knapsacks: “We moved at so rapid a pace that many of the men relieved themselves of their blankets and haversacks, and, in some instances, their greatcoats...” (OR, Series I, Vol. 21, p. 340)
…spread his overcoat over him…
The wounded Federal had either cast his overcoat aside, or Kirkland must have wrestled it off him, losing precious minutes and possibly increasing the unfortunate sufferer’s pain. In any case, based on Freeman’s account, the coat will soon find its way to the Confederate lines.
…replaced his empty canteen with a full one, and turned to another sufferer…
Kershaw doesn’t tell us that Kirkland takes several canteens, but he must have either done that or traveled repeatedly back to his own lines for more water, or both. It is only now, however, that the danger from the enemy has passed:
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, water…”
For an hour and a half did this ministering angel pursue his labor of mercy…
At this point the story, building on its initial improbabilities, asks us to bear with several more:
Ø A general cease-fire has broken out, involving the forces for hundreds of yards in every direction – otherwise “all danger” would not yet have passed. As remarkable as this seems, it would be even more remarkable had troops continued to shoot each other while leaving Kirkland to go about his labors unmolested – so remarkable that, by this point, we could expect Kershaw to mention it.
Ø Even more remarkably, although the wounded cry from all over the field, only Kirkland attends them, and only with water.
Ø For the next ninety minutes no medical personnel on either side – not the Confederate surgeons and chaplain praised by De Sausseur, nor the Union hospital attendants that Buchanan reports as having been fired upon – take advantage of the lull to perform their duties. Nor does the Georgia soldier reported by Dickert; nor does any other soldier. Everyone in view seems paralyzed by Kirkland’s act. They neither remove nor treat any of the casualties “bridging” the positions; the best the wounded can hope for is a drink of water.
Ø Not only do the observers fail equally to fire on or assist Kirkland, but within days, when writing up their after action reports or letters to friends in Baltimore, or years later, composing their memoirs, they make no mention of the incident. This despite the fact that the deed occurs on an afternoon when the sun will set, according to McCarter, at 4:30, so that the halt in the firing and the public act of mercy occupies a significant portion of the day, on an open field in view of thousands on both sides.
All this makes Dickert’s story that much more compelling. Here a single soldier, seeing a suffering foe who has dragged himself near the wall, just leaps over, gives the man a drink, and leaps back under fire. A foolhardy act, but a merciful one. For not only does it provide relief to a wounded enemy, but it spares the reader from having to believe everything that he must in order to credit Kershaw’s account of Kirkland’s act.
A Defense of Kershaw’s Account
At this point we must recognize one popular historian who does fully credit Kershaw’s story. Mac Wyckoff, who served for many years as the chief historian for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, saw and provided substantive criticism on the pages above based on his own twenty-five years studying the legend. His objections concerned the focus on online sources, the reliance on after-action reports, and the absence of references to his file on Kirkland at the Park.
Each concern deserves respect. But the objection to online sources carries a little less weight when these consist of primary source documents that originally appeared in print. It seems indisputable, for example, that the Official Records lose no value simply because we can now look them up online, and that every serious study of a civil war battle must start with after action reports from the men on the scene. And the Park’s file only has relevance to the extent it includes information not available elsewhere.
In that light Mr. Wyckoff himself has stated, “While there is no contemporary evidence that Kirkland performed this act, there is not evidence that he did not. There are eye witnesses who wrote later of the incident and no eye witnesses challenged Kershaw's story or that Kirkland performed it.” But the fact that the same twenty-five years of research that failed to uncover any contemporary corroboration of Kershaw’s account also failed to uncover objections to the handful of anecdotes that might, seems a slim basis for believing the story, especially in the face of the contemporary sources that argue against it.
Further, the very few “eye witnesses who wrote later” either repeat Kershaw’s story with similar rhetorical embellishments or tell a story differing in several key regards. For example, the “Hagood” account (a second-hand, “as told to” story, ostensibly written before 1870 but existing only in typescript) essentially repeats Dickert’s Georgian story: one man rushes out to give water to one wounded Yankee and hurries back, with no cease fire. The “Rentz” story, written in 1919, claims Kirkland had a helper and thinks the incident may have occurred at Gettysburg. Walt Whitman’s second-hand account tells of an unidentified soldier wounded at Fredericksburg who received whiskey and water from a middle-aged man, possibly a civilian, on one of the evenings after the battle, not during the day on the 14th.
If these “eye witnesses” count, then any story of any one giving water to a wounded Yankee at some point on or after the 14th of December 1862 provides evidence for Kershaw’s version of the Kirkland story, no matter what any first hand account might have said at the time. Nor does it matter that decades of research have yet to augment these anecdotes with a single contemporary letter, journal entry, newspaper report, or official document, much less a single statement from any of the Yankee wounded, or their officers, comrades, or family members.
In contrast, the accounts that do exist would seem to have in fact “challenged Kershaw's story or that Kirkland performed it,” in that they describe a situation that positively omits Kirkland, his alleged act, the “bridge” of wounded from one line to the other, and the cease-fire. And Augustus Dickert challenges Kershaw’s story by default. Though serving in the same brigade and in the same battle, he seems never to have heard the Kirkland story. Nor does he seem to have read it in Christ in the Camp or The Camp-Fires of General Lee. Instead he heard about the Georgian. Unfortunately, according to Wyckoff, Dickert was wounded on December 13th and did not witness any action on the 14th. This however not only under-cuts the story of the Georgian, but removes the only first hand account that suggest anything like the story Kershaw tells.
Indeed, as Wyckoff’s successor, John Hennessey, concluded, “It all comes down to Kershaw.”
But this raises another question. Which Kershaw? Kershaw not only left Kirkland out of his after action report, he left him out of the “Battles and Leaders” account of Fredericksburg published nearly eight years after the letter to the News and Courier. Kershaw may have seen a difference between a human-interest story told to a local paper at a time when papers published lyric poetry and lurid scandals and everything between, and the actual historical record. There is a certain logic in reserving for the latter the literal truth while offering to the former the sort of tale that perhaps ought to have been true – the kind of civic parable that Plato in The Republic recommends that the elite tell to commoners, the kind of story incorporated in inspirational messages in sermons, and books like Christ in the Camp. In that context, the literal truth would matter less than the spiritual truth of the noble youth who confronts the brutality of the battlefield with an act of Christian charity and later dies heroically for his country.
So we need to choose which Kershaw to believe — the Kershaw who wrote an after-action report to his superiors subject to punishment for falsification, and a note to amend the historical record subject to the criticism of his peers in “Battles and Leaders,” or the Kershaw who wrote, not in an official or historical capacity, but for the popular audience of the News and Courier.
The Context of Kershaw’s Story
It helps greatly in answering this question that Mr. Wyckoff’s research has led to his finding and publishing the letter that inspired Kershaw’s account. In this earlier version published by the Charleston News and Courier the sergeant sets off as Kershaw states but receives a serious wound before the Yankees cease fire, whereupon several other rebel soldiers take up canteens, which results in a small flock of “angels” on Marye’s Heights. The subject of this version later dies in the Wilderness attempting to repeat his kindness. Unfortunately the real Kirkland fell at Chickamauga a half a year before the overland campaign, and the author does not claim to have witnessed either incident himself, only to have heard the story from an unnamed informant.
Who wrote this earlier version? It carries the byline “C. McK.” Thanks to fellow enthusiast Robert Mosher we know that this was almost certainly Carlyle McKinley. A Confederate veteran, poet, and author, McKinley was also a correspondent for the very same News and Courier. Somewhat unreconstructed in his political beliefs, he would go on to write the book An Appeal to Pharoah (1889), which proposes a “radical solution” to the “Negro problem” via the mass deportation of black Americans to Africa.
The News and Courier itself published in addition to journalism such works as the human-interest collection Our Women in the War (1885). This documents the heroism and strength of southern womanhood in language fully as colorful as that in either of the versions of the Kirkland story it published. But in the early 1880s an audience existed for such: reconstruction had ended in 1877 and Kershaw belonged to a group of politically strong conservatives known as “Bourbons” who, under the leadership of Wade Hampton, focused on “ousting the carpetbaggers and undoing as much of Reconstruction as they could” while intending “to re-create as much as possible the world of antebellum South Carolina, a world in which they and their kind held sway” (Walter B. Edgar, South Carolina: a History, p. 407).
This leads us to one last look at “Kershaw’s” letter. I put the General’s name in quotes because I now question whether he even wrote the account himself. After all, he only signed his name to the introduction; the rest of the letter tells the story in the third person – it has no “I,” only “the General,” and the language bears far less resemblance to that of Kershaw’s original after action report or subsequent article in “Battles and Leaders” than it does to the more florid prose of a Carlyle McKinley.
The story did, nonetheless, serve a cause of more immediate interest to Kershaw and like-minded “Bourbons” at the time. It limns the portrait of a noble representative of southern manhood who, in the aftermath of the Confederacy’s defeat, devastation, and “reconstruction,” rises from the ashes to bequeath “to the American youth — yea, to the world — an example which dignifies our common humanity.”
In addition to the cultural imperatives of the “Bourbons.” the story serves a useful purpose for “Lost Causers” and southern partisans generally. It changes the fundamental narrative of the battle of Fredericksburg from one of heroic and hopeless self-sacrifice on the part of northern soldiers, to one of southern chivalry and charity. On the field of mythos, the green flag of Erin and the Irish brigade with boxwood in its hats fall not to a stone wall lined with muskets but a noble young man burdened with canteens.
But the popularity of the story goes even further than that. The story of the “Angel” and his “Christ-like” mercy offers those of us who read military history for its questionable pleasures – and those of us whose votes may lead to future wars – a kind of solace, and an absolution. On this battlefield, humanity stays the hand of the grim-faced sharpshooter and acts of mercy go forward without impediment. No one shoots Lt. Col. Buchanan’s wounded or guns down his ambulance attendants. Major Andrews’ men need not go twelve hours without a drink of water, nor relieve themselves in the mud where they lie under fire the entire day. From this battlefield, we need remember only one man with a canteen in his hand, not the more than 18,000 with lead in other parts of their bodies. Here, war is evil in the abstract but noble in its particulars.
The legend of Sergeant Kirkland remains as good a story as ever. But in the end it tells us considerably less about the actual battle of Fredericksburg than the cultural and political milieu in which it first appeared, and our continuing need to avoid confronting the reality of war.
The account of Sergeant Kirkland’s heroics, originally published in the News and Courier in 1880, makes no earlier appearance in history. It contradicts the official reports and other contemporary accounts of the battle of Fredericksburg. It first appears under the byline of a partisan of the “lost cause” in a newspaper promoting the same. Further, Kershaw, the alleged author, does not appear to have ever attempted to inject the tale into an official history of the war. But no matter: the story’s continuing popularity derives from the variety and depth of its emotional appeal, which will doubtless continue with or without support from the historical record.
With all this, questions remain – what did Sergeant Kirkland actually do at Fredericksburg, and what can it matter now?
We cannot answer the first question. The record that fails to corroborate Kershaw’s story also fails to replace it. Kirkland died at Chickamauga less than a year later – as a lieutenant, according to Kershaw, but still a sergeant according to his service record. It seems reasonable to assume that Kirkland was a worthy young man – he gave his life in the war, and earned the admiration of his general, who perhaps never really meant us to take “his” story literally, but only to convey the moral message in the newspaper writer’s final lines.
Does it matter? From one perspective, we can say that it does not. We do not need a real action to praise the virtue of aiding a wounded foe. Yet when we memorialize an act of such singularity and uncertain provenance to the exclusion of a greater reality, we lose the concrete to the fanciful. Hundreds – thousands – of other American soldiers died before and behind the wall at Fredericksburg in an attack that quickly became equally famous for futility and heroism, and a defense that triumphed against great odds.
Kirkland himself died less than a year later. But in celebrating an action that from the balance of the evidence probably never occurred, the statue fictionalizes one man’s courage even as it overshadows the courage, and squalid suffering, of thousands of others on both sides. In effect, the real soldiers – including Kirkland – have no statue. In its place stands a monument to a myth.
 See the comment dated December 22, 2009: http://cwmemory.com/2009/12/22/is-the-richard-kirkland-story-true/