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Fredericksburg's famed Civil War 'Angel of the Battlefield' story has supporters, detractors
A re-enactor offers water to wounded rivals at Fredericksburg, as Sgt. Richard Kirkland is said to have done in 1862.
ROBERT A. MARTIN/THE FREE LANCE-STAR
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BY KEVIN KIRKLAND
FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR
As wave after wave of blue-coated Yankees fell before Confederate fire 150 years ago this week, then lay dying on Fredericksburg's battlefield, a 19-year-old's killer instinct deserted him.
"All night and all day I have heard these poor people crying for water, and I can't stand it no longer," Sgt. Richard Rowland Kirkland said to Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw on Dec. 14, 1862. "I came to ask permission to go and give them water."
With his commanding officer's consent, Kirkland risked his life to offer wounded Union soldiers water and blankets below the stone wall on Sunken Road as both armies watched, guns silent, for nearly an hour and a half.
Or did he?
Kirkland died nine months later in the Battle of Chickamauga, never mentioning what he had done at Marye's Heights in letters home to Kershaw County, S.C. Neither did Gen. Kershaw--until January 1880, when he recounted the story for a Charleston newspaper.
Kershaw's account was so compelling that residents of Camden, S.C., dug up Kirkland's body and moved it to their most prominent cemetery. In 1910, a large monument was unveiled to the man now known as the "Angel of Marye's Heights."
In 1965, the states of Virginia and South Carolina joined with Kirkland's descendants to erect a larger-than-life statue of him cradling a Union soldier near the Fredericksburg hillside where the Confederacy won its most lopsided victory.
Now, with the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, questions about Kirkland's deed have come to life. During the re-enactment of the epic fight last weekend, four gray-clad soldiers offered canteens to Union "casualties" while others went through their fallen enemies' pockets and haversacks.
Looking on from the Union side was re-enactor and enthusiast Michael Schaffner, who created a stir three years ago on the "Civil War Memory" blog when he challenged Kershaw's account. He noted that after-action reports filed by officers on both sides, including Kershaw, do not mention an hour-and-a-half cease-fire or Kirkland's act of mercy.
Schaffner says Kershaw's account is essentially a children's story that not only trivializes the horror of Civil War battle, but does a disservice to soldiers such as Kirkland.
He knows it's an unpopular stance.
"It's a little like shooting down Santa with a Stinger missile on Christmas Eve," he said.