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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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Schaffner, who lives in Arlington, is a member of the Brady Sharpshooters, 16th Michigan unit, and helped to organize the Fredericksburg area's "Fire on the Rappahannock" event.
The Kirkland story has its defenders. Mac Wyckoff, a retired National Park Service historian who worked at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for 25 years, has written a book about Kershaw's Brigade and much about Kirkland. Wyckoff has found six eyewitness reports and more secondhand accounts, including one in January 1863 by poet Walt Whitman, who heard a Union soldier wounded at Fredericksburg tell of a Confederate who came to his aid.
"After 25 years of research, there's no doubt in my mind that he was out in front of the stone wall giving water and comfort," Wyckoff said in a phone interview from his home in Oregon. "There may have been others there and in other battles, but Kirkland's the one we can put a name on."
Who is right? Eyewitnesses' memories aren't always reliable, especially 17 years later. But it's not unbelievable that a soldier would take pity on fellow Americans during the Civil War.
Virginia Pvt. Alexander Hunter was one of several Confederates who wrote later of watching Union infantry march into heavy fire at Marye's Heights on Dec. 13, 1862:
"I forgot we were enemies and only remembered that they were men and it is hard to see in cold blood brave men die."
After the battle, the Union's Army of the Potomac counted 12,653 dead, missing, captured and wounded, with 1,284 men reported killed in action. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia suffered around 5,300 casualties, with about 600 reported dead.
There are accounts of other soldiers coming to the aid of injured enemies. A western Pennsylvania soldier tried to aid wounded Confederates at Gettysburg.
In 1880, at the dedication of a monument to soldiers of the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves, Capt. Robert Taggart recalled Sgt. Isaac N. McMunn's efforts:
"There was common assent and approbation when Sergeant McMunn volunteered to carry to those wounded men the water for which they prayed. But Oh! the cruel, treacherous greeting with which that act of Christian charity was met [when a] Rebel bullet came crashing through his face as he bent to cool with water the burning lips of a wounded, helpless foe."
The Battle of Gettysburg, on July 1-3, 1863, was almost a mirror of Fredericksburg. This time, Confederates attacked in waves against an enemy holding the high ground. Casualties for the two armies were about the same--more than 23,000 on each side--but a greater portion of Lee's much smaller army were killed, an estimated 4,700 Confederates vs. 3,155 Federals.
Union soldiers who had fought at Marye's Heights shouted their vengeance at the retreating army: "Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!"
Kevin Kirkland, an editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, worked at The Free Lance-Star in the late 1980s and was sometimes asked if he was related to Sgt. Kirkland. He's not. He returned to Fredericksburg to cover the re-enactment. He can be contacted at email@example.com.