The Angel of Marye's Heights (or not)
December 22, 2009 11:42 AM   Subscribe

Confederate soldier Richard Kirkland is known as the "Angel of Marye's Heights" for venturing in between the opposing army's lines to give water to his wounded foes. The Union soldiers were mowed down the previous day in a series of futile attacks against the Confederate positions. The story fits in with the narrative of post-war reconciliation and reunion and offers an inspiring tale of humanity amid the carnage of war. There is a statue at the Fredericksburg battlefield and a movie in the works.

But did it really happen? One writer takes a look at the records, and it doesn't seem likely.

Blogger and history teacher Kevin Levin has been writing on Kirkland this week here and here.

[previously]
posted by marxchivist (22 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Being concise does not seem to be something that Civil War scholars aspire to. I could not finish the "it doesn't seem likely" link due to detail far beyond what any casual reader would expect.

or

tl;dr - Probably not true, historical records from both sides contradict the story.
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 12:13 PM on December 22, 2009


While it's quite possible that J. B. Kershaw simply made it up in the spirit of reconciliation (or embellished the story of an unnamed Confederate soldier giving water to wounded Union troops with the name of a real (and conveniently dead) soldier, years after the fact), I also think that it's quite likely that, assuming that it actually happened, that Confederate officers wouldn't necessarily want to document one of their own giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and Union observers may have refrained from depicting a rebel soldier showing compassion at the risk of his own life.

In other words, who knows? Like the man said, if it ain't true, it oughta be.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:22 PM on December 22, 2009


As inspiring as this sounds, "the narrative of post-war reconciliation" in the late 19th and early 20th centuries often meant in practice that Northern and Southern whites would have a gentlemen's agreement to stop having fights over improving the social condition of black people. This "narrative" and the institutionalization of Jim Crow often went hand-in-hand.
posted by jonp72 at 12:41 PM on December 22, 2009 [5 favorites]


The writer, Michael Schaffner, pretty much demolishes the Kirkland myth without anything in the way of regret. As he points out,

Hundreds of American soldiers died defending the wall at Fredericksburg, holding their ground though it seemed that the whole enemy army was coming their way. More than a thousand other American soldiers died before that wall in an attack that quickly became equally famous for futility and heroism.

Schaffner regrets that the real courage of these American dead goes unmemorialized, while the mythical courage of Kirkland gets its own statue.

But who can blame people for preferring the false to the real, when the reality is the thundering futility of the soldiers' deaths, the pointless suffering of the wounded, and the stupidity of the commanders? Don't forget, the statue to Kirkland went up in 1965, just as the federal government was preparing to send another generation of Americans into a pointless meatgrinder, ordering wave after wave into the war, long after they knew it was futile and useless. Just as they have sent this generation's soldiers out onto the roads of Iraq again and again to encounter IEDs and die like chumps.
posted by Faze at 12:45 PM on December 22, 2009


YourFavoriteImaginaryHeroSucks.

I kind of hate this myth, because it's often touted as an example of the "superior gallantry of the Confederacy" so am glad to see it exploded. There were fine, generous people who fought on both sides; there were venal assholes who fought on both sides. Just like every other war.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:54 PM on December 22, 2009


"the narrative of post-war reconciliation" in the late 19th and early 20th centuries often meant in practice that Northern and Southern whites would have a gentlemen's agreement to stop having fights over improving the social condition of black people.

This. Exactly. I felt I would have been editorializing or at least trying to steer the conversation too much if I'd included this in the original post. Stories like Kirkland's, and the images of the old vets shaking hands at Gettysburg, are a much more easy and palatable way to remember the Civil War rather than deal with the ugly realities of Jim Crow.

Schaffner's analysis of this seems un-concise because he examines about ten other accounts of that day's action. That is how you try do some real analysis and move beyond the simple fables like the Kirkland story that has been handed down to us. The truth is complicated.
posted by marxchivist at 12:57 PM on December 22, 2009


Some Damn Yankee from Jersey presumes to dismantle a gallant Southerner's heroics? He is a priori disqualified. No credibility.

Hamburger . . . mostly.
posted by MasonDixon at 1:13 PM on December 22, 2009


Eventually truth comes down to yes or no, a pretty simple proposition. The story had way more detail than anyone other than a civil war scholar would enjoy. Making the same point ten times over, while sometimes very effective from a logical standpoint, is not easily digested by the uninitiated.

For general consumption some summarization would have been useful. Sometimes readability and kitchen-sink completeness are antithetical. Food for thought.
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 1:14 PM on December 22, 2009


detail far beyond what any casual reader would expect.

Thank goodness for non-casual readers, then.
posted by mediareport at 1:55 PM on December 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


If you ever run into a historical account with straightforwardly moral-didactic implications, you should assume it didn't happen unless there's a really compelling reason to believe otherwise.

For general consumption some summarization would have been useful. Sometimes readability and kitchen-sink completeness are antithetical. Food for thought.


You and your kind are the reason mainstream, non-academic history writing has been such a putrid cesspit since the '60s.
posted by nasreddin at 2:02 PM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


You and your kind are the reason mainstream, non-academic history writing has been such a putrid cesspit since the '60s.

Good god, did I kill your sacred calf by saying non-academic historical writing could be more readable?

Ad hominem attacks are generally discouraged on the blue. if you have a problem with myself or my ilk, I would suggest you call me out on MeTa or bite your tongue.

Go far, young man, go far!
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 2:12 PM on December 22, 2009


Ad hominem attacks are generally discouraged on the blue.

Yeah, so is jumping to be first into a thread with "tl;dr!"
posted by mediareport at 2:22 PM on December 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


Lets see, about 45 minutes after the story was posted, I "jumped" to be first. No-one else seemed to care to comment, I had an observation that one of the links was a bit wordy, seemed like a useful sentiment. My humour apparently did not find your funny-bone.

I did not put an exclamation after my tl;dr. Your quote is mis-attributed. Very sloppy, tsk. tsk.
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 2:45 PM on December 22, 2009


...says the man that quotes the wrong tense of jump.
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 2:47 PM on December 22, 2009


Damn kids think that if its not in the damn tubes its not important, the first comment on the last link gives a reaction by an actual historian...

While the author of this article did a very good job consulting sources available on-line, he missed much information about Kirkland and the incident that is not on line. I have studied this incident for twenty-five years. It appears that the author of this article did not consult my book on the 2nd South Carolina which details the Kirkland innocent and there will be even more detail in my upcoming greatly revised and expanded second edition. Nor did the author of this article consult the huge file on Kirkland at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. It would seem to me that anyone serious about this incident would have started at the battlefield where the incident occurred instead of relying on-line sources. The file at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center contains my research into why Kershaw wrote the newspaper article. He was asked in a newspaper article about the incident a week before to provide more details and the name of the soldier who performed the humanitarian act. That was his motive. It is important to note that as the story grew in popularity, no one disputed Kershaw's story or that Kirkland was the one who did it. In fact, after Kershaw's wrote his account, several members of the 2nd South Carolina came forward confirming Kershaw's account and naming Kirkland as the humanitarian. If the author had checked the Compiled Service Record of Richard Kirkland or consulted the roster of my book he would find that Kirkland was a sergeant at the time of the incident and the time of his death.

Incidents like this were usually not mentioned in the Official Records so the author's arguments that since they don't mention the incident means it did not happen don't hold up. It also could be that humanitarian incidents like this were not that common and so not worth mentioning at the time. With the passage of time, an incident like this may have grown in importance and eventually took on a life of its own. 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 Kersahw's story or that Kirkland performed it.

Anyone wishing to learn more about the Kirkland incident should consult the extensive f ile at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center.
Mac Wyckoff


A quick Google search revealed Mac Wyckoff to be a Park Ranger and a published historian.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:56 PM on December 22, 2009


Damn!! Schooled by Ranger Mac!!
posted by Megafly at 6:47 PM on December 22, 2009


Megafly, I personally imagine him beating the FPP and Antidisestablishmentarianist's fancifully naive assumptions about the simplicity of historical narrative with this hardcover 278 page book in a fit of Wilfrod Brimleyesque majesty.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:28 PM on December 22, 2009


But did it really happen? One writer takes a look at the records, and it doesn't seem likely.

Did what really happen? Which writer? What records? Oh well, it probably doesn't matter because it isn't likely anyway. I'll move on now.
posted by Mike Buechel at 8:36 PM on December 22, 2009


I'll move on now.

That's a great idea.
posted by marxchivist at 3:35 AM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


thanks for sharing that comment from ranger mac. i missed it the first time. nice to know that there's stuff backing the story up in sources that aren't online.

ranger mac is correct in indicating that one has to look at all the sources. if this guy debunked this story without examining any of the archives referred to by ranger mac, then he's pretty incompetent as a historian.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 7:10 AM on December 23, 2009


That whole thing ended up being a pretty good lesson on historical research and the perils of using only online sources. Thanks to the folks who actually took the time to read the linked blog post.
posted by marxchivist at 7:40 AM on December 23, 2009


Well, according to the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, there's at least a record of a R.R. Kirkland from South Carolina of the 2nd South Carolina, who was a sergeant. Course, you'd have to go see the microfilm to confirm when he was a sergeant. But...that'd require doing some research off-line.

The article isn't bad, but I do think it's a bit weak for lack of in person research. I'm at a loss to why the author thinks that including information about how the Confederates were keeping Federal troops pinned down provides evidence that a Confederate soldier could not run out into the open quickly. The Confederates aren't going to shoot their own, and if they're keeping the Union troops ducking with their sniper fire, it would give a compassionate soldier a better chance to go give water to the wounded.

My inclination is that something like this could have happened. Arguing that there's no evidence in the Official Records only makes sense if events like this were commonly reported.

Don't forget, the statue to Kirkland went up in 1965, just as the federal government was preparing to send another generation of Americans into a pointless meatgrinder, ordering wave after wave into the war, long after they knew it was futile and useless.

1965 was the last year of the 100th anniversary of the Civil War.
posted by Atreides at 8:28 AM on December 23, 2009


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