The Civil War was not going well for the Union during the first two years. The Union was suffering defeat after defeat at the hands of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia and it seemingly had no answer. Backstabbing and in-fighting among the Union’s Army leadership were rampant. President Lincoln had appointed a series of commanders looking for the one who would be able to take on Lee and beat the outnumbered but resilient enemy.
By the time of the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, Lincoln had given command over to Ambrose Burnside. Burnside had the opportunity to surprise Lee but a series of failures would ultimately cause another Union debacle. In the battle of Fredericksburg Burnside’s army of 114,000 would engage Lee’s 72,500; it would be the largest battle of the Civil War.
It was during the bloody battle of Fredericksburg, that one soldier, Richard Rowland Kirkland, would display compassion for the wounded soldiers of both sides. He’d be recognized as a humanitarian of such accord that he would become known as “The Angel of Marye’s Heights.”
Background to the Battle
Burnside was given command of the Army of the Potomac on November 7. Lincoln wanted a bold plan and Burnside gave it to him. He planned on attacking the South and taking the Confederate capital of Richmond.
While Burnside’s plan was sound but its execution wasn’t up to par. On November 15, Burnside quickly moved a Corps down to Falmouth to secure a crossing of the Rappahannock River. Once the Union had secured the river bank opposite of Fredericksburg on the 17th, the rest of the army soon followed.
Burnside had surprised Lee and the Confederates. But there was a major issue in the Union’s plan. The pontoon bridges, which Burnside needed to get across the river, were delayed by bureaucratic bungling. Lee anticipated that the Union would push quickly across and he didn’t have the troops in the area to stop them. He planned on defending the next strategic location, along the Anna River. But once he saw how slow the Union troops were moving he ordered all of his troops to Fredericksburg. In fact, the pontoons Burnside needed were nearly two weeks late in arriving. It wasn’t until December 11 that Union engineers built five pontoon bridges, under fire, to get the troops across.
Confederate sharpshooters from Mississippi, under the command of General Barksdale, were pouring lethal fire on the engineers. Burnside ordered 150 guns on his side of the Rappahannock to open fire. They were largely ineffective as the Rebs just took cover in the basements and cellars of the town. Burnside then ordered troops to cross the river in pontoon boats to push the Mississippi men out of the town. It was the first amphibious river crossing operation under fire in the U.S. Army’s history. Barksdale’s men eventually had to retreat up the heights but by then, Lee’s army had arrived. General James Longstreet’s corps occupied the long sloping heights that dominated the town known as Marye’s Heights. The rest of the army crossed on the 12th but the element of surprise was long gone and the Confederates had control of the high ground.
The Battle Begins
Burnside’s verbal orders on the 12th indicated that the main attack was to come in the south by General Franklin’s “Grand Division.” But Burnside didn’t use his numerical superiority; in fact, rather than attacking with all of Franklin’s 60,000 men, the Union decided to attack with one division of just 4,500 men under General Meade. Meade’s men initially broke through a gap in the Confederate lines. Had they been supported on time and with enough men, they could have turned the Confederate line. By the time Meade’s men were joined by General Gibbon and his men, the Rebs had solidified the lines and had pushed them back with heavy casualties. Nearly every high ranking officer under Meade was either killed or wounded. Burnside’s hope for a breakthrough in the south had disintegrated.
Massacre at Marye’s Heights
Burnside then turned his attention to the center of the Confederate’s line in the middle of the town. About 600 yards west of Fredericksburg was a ridge that rose out of the plain about 60 feet above the open fields and led to the town. The Telegraph Road, known after the battle as the Sunken Road — was protected by a four-foot stone wall, built up in places with log breastworks, making it a perfect infantry defensive position. From there the Southerners could fire into the advancing troops virtually impervious to return fire.
As the Union troops began to move up the slope, the open terrain made them easy targets for the Confederate gunners and they were cut down mercilessly before they could advance no nearer than 125 yards from the defensive position. Some of the troops got to within 40 yards of the enemy lines but they were forced to hug the ground as they were blasted by withering fire. Casualties rates were between 30-50 percent for the first units attempting to take the heights. The Irish Brigade, the 69th New York made several charges only to meet the same fate. Their courage was so great, that their Irish Confederate enemies from Georgia behind the Stone Wall cheered their valor and gave them a hurrah from behind the stone wall, as depicted in this clip from the film Gods and Generals.)
Burnside stubbornly kept at it. He sent seven Union divisions and made 14 charges against the heights, using a brigade at a time. Each one failed, resulting in carnage for the Union troops. By the time darkness fell, the Union troops assaulting Marye’s Heights had suffered 8,000 casualties. Burnside railed at his subordinates and announced that he’d personally lead his former XI Corps in a bayonet charge the next day. His generals thankfully talked him out of that folly.
Kirkland Steps Forward
Kirkland was born in 1843 in Flat Rock, SC. He grew up on his father’s farm as his mother died when he was just two years old. He enlisted in April 1861 in Company E of the 2nd S.C. Volunteers. Three days later, Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter.
He fought at Bull Run, outside Manassas, VA. Other battles followed: Savage’s Station, Malvern Hill, Antietam. By the time of the battle at Fredricksburg in December 1862, he was a sergeant and a seasoned veteran.
The 2nd S.C. was at Marye’s Heights and after the disastrous Union assaults, had 1,000 dead, with nearly 7,000 more wounded and unable to move without being killed.
The pitiful cries of the wounded were resounding across the battlefield as the men cried out for water. But neither side dared to venture out in the open field.
Kirkland, who was a devout Christian, felt that he could not ignore the pleas of the dying soldiers. He approached his commander, Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw, and asked permission to help the wounded Union soldiers. Kershaw, worried about Kirkland’s safety, at first, denied the request.
“Kirkland, don’t you know that you would get a bullet through your head the moment you stepped over the wall?” Kershaw said.
But finally, Kershaw relented. Kirkland asked if he could go out under a flag of truce. But Kershaw explained that only the commanding general could negotiate a truce. Kirkland was undeterred. “All right,” he replied, “I’ll take the chances.”
He gathered about a dozen canteens and leaped over the wall. Immediately, bullets began cracking around his feet, but he was not hit. As soon as he reached the first wounded soldier, the firing stopped. He cradled the man’s head on his chest and began to give him water.
Once the Union troops realized what he was doing, they stopped firing and some even cheered him for his bravery and compassion. Kershaw observed Kirkland moving from man to man for an hour and a half, giving aid to the wounded. He didn’t stop until he gave aid to every wounded soldier in front of his position.
This is how Kirkland received the epithet “The Angel of Marye’s Heights.” It isn’t known how many men were aided by Kirkland on that day he earned the respect of friend and foe.
On the night of December 13, Burnside asked for a truce from Lee to attend the wounded. Following the truce, he began slipping his troops back across the Rappahannock. Fredericksburg had been another disaster for the Union.
The Union army suffered 12,653 casualties (1,284 killed, 9,600 wounded, 1,769 captured or missing)at Fredericksburg. Two Union generals were mortally wounded: Brig. Gens. George Bayard and Conrad Jackson. The Confederate army suffered 5,377 (608 killed, 4,116 wounded, 653 captured or missing), with the majority of their casualties in the early fighting on Jackson’s front. Confederate Brig. Gens. Maxcy Gregg and T. R. R. Cobb were both mortally wounded.
Burnside was relieved of his command about a month later. He tried an abortive second attempt at invading the South in January. That attempt was bogged down in the winter mud and derisively described as the “Mud March” by his detractors.
Kirkland’s Later Actions and Death
Kirkland would eventually be promoted to 2nd Lieutenant and fight at both the Battle of Chancellorsville and the Battle of Gettysburg. During the Battle of Chickamauga on September 20, 1863, his men had advanced too far in front of the line. Realizing this, Kirkland, tried to cover their withdrawal when he was shot and mortally wounded.
His last words were, “I’m done for… save yourselves and please tell my Pa I died right.”
His body was returned home to Kershaw County, South Carolina, and he was buried in the “Old Quaker Cemetery” in Camden. Later, General Kershaw would be buried in the same cemetery.
In 1965, sculptor Felix de Weldon unveiled a statue in front of the stone wall at the Fredericksburg battlefield in Kirkland’s honor.
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