Angel of Marye's Heights
December 13, 2006 2:14 PM   Subscribe

On December 13, 1862, Sgt. Richard Rowland Kirkland of the 2nd Carolina stood in the Sunken Road at the bottom of Marye's Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg. The 19-year-old Kirkland was part of Longstreet's First Corps; across from him was Hooker's Center Grand Division, part of the Army of the Potomac under Ambrose Burnside. (More boring history stuff inside.)
posted by forrest (26 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
On this day, Burnside sent 6 Union divisions, brigade by brigade, across two tiny bridges and 400 yards of open ground to attack Confederate infantry lined up six deep in the Sunken Road. The Confederates were backed up by Edward Porter Alexander's artillery; Alexander had stated that "a chicken could not live on that field when we open up on it". The Federal forces lined up and charged 16 times. Not one of them made it closer than 30 yards to the wall where Kirkland stood and 8,000 Union soldiers lay dead or wounded in the field when darkness fell. Soldiers in the last charge said that they never set foot on ground because it was completely covered with the bodies of those who had charged before. Robert E. Lee, watching the carnage, shook his head and muttered to Longstreet, "It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow so fond of it."

During the night, the temperature dropped and snow soon covered the men in the field. Their cries for help continued through the night and into the next morning. Strickland left his position on the line and sought out his commander, asking for permission to raise a flag of truce so the wounded could be attended to. The commander refused the flag of truce, but allowed Strickland to do what he could. Sgt. Strickland gathered up as many canteens of water he could carry, hopped the wall at the Sunken Road and stepped out into the No Man's Land between the opposing lines.

Federal sharpshooters took shots at him, but a Union officer soon realized the Confederate soldier was not a threat and shouted, "Cease fire! Do not shoot that man -- he is too brave to die." Both sides cheered as Sgt. Strickland moved among the wounded, giving them water and what aid he could. When he ran out of water, the Angel of Marye's Heights returned to the Sunken Road and took up his post once more.

Nine months later, after fighting at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, Sgt. Strickland covered the withdrawal of two of his soldiers after a failed charge during the Battle of Chickamauga and was mortally wounded. His last words were, "Tell Pa I died right."

What makes this act stand out? In the simplest terms, Sgt. Strickland gave some water to some wounded enemy soldiers. Not unique and only reasonably remarkable, yet there's a statue of him and both Union and Confederate soldiers lauded him. Could the hatred between the armies really have run so deep that a gesture like this became magnified? Was it just that they were seeking some trace of sanity and goodness amidst the slaughter that went on that day? What Sgt. Strickland did is laudable, but I can't put it into any modern context that would warrant the reaction.
posted by forrest at 2:14 PM on December 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

posted by The White Hat at 2:33 PM on December 13, 2006

Er, surely the account you have given explains it -- he acted to succor the enemy at great risk to his own life, since he was not acting under a flag of truce. Fortunately the Union side recognized what he was doing and ceased its fire, but that does not retroactively devalue his bravery.
posted by Dolukhanova at 2:52 PM on December 13, 2006

I grew up right across the river from where the battle happened. The Union camps were there as well as some artillery positions. As a kid I used to find minie balls, horseshoes, and uniform buttons in the yard from time to time.
posted by smoothvirus at 3:27 PM on December 13, 2006

Until a few years ago, Sunken Road was a public street. I used to walk along it on my way to school, and it always blew me away to see the photographs of the Union dead right where I walked.

I passed through Fredericksburg this summer, and the area that used to be a road is now closed off and turfed over, and there's more of an effort to show the historical events that happened here. (As opposed to when I lived there in the late '70s, early '80s, when there was just a big sign and a house that was standing there at the time of the battle. Oh, and a museum.)

Anyway, it's definitely worth a trip. You should also check out the Confederate cemetary overlooking the battlefield.
posted by John of Michigan at 3:33 PM on December 13, 2006

Dolukhanova: I'm not unimpressed by Sgt. Strickland's bravery. The last paragraph in my post was added as an afterthought when I looked at the post with my MeFi cynicism switched on. In the annals of US fighting forces, this can't be the only time someone gave aid to a wounded enemy under fire -- I just wonder what set this incident apart from the rest.
posted by forrest at 3:34 PM on December 13, 2006

He'd be thrown in Guantanomo today.
posted by bardic at 3:52 PM on December 13, 2006

I wonder if the paucity of comments is due to you warning us all that it was going to be boring. It wasn't, as it turns out, but I had to force myself to go back and assume you were lying about that..
posted by imperium at 4:02 PM on December 13, 2006

Could the hatred between the armies really have run so deep that a gesture like this became magnified?

I think you have the wrong idea. The soldiers on each side didn't hate the other.

At the Siege of Petersburg, in 1864, there were parallel lines of fortifications belonging to the two sides. In many ways, those lines presaged the trench warfare of WWI. But there were differences.

Union soldiers were ordered to take ten shots each at Confederate lines every day. Confederates usually returned the favor. But the soldiers on both sides realized that such attrition didn't do anyone any good, so it was routine for a soldier to shout "Down, Yank!" or "Down, Reb!" just before firing, to give the other guys a chance to take cover.

In some sections of the front the lines were quite a ways apart, with rough woods between them. Soldiers on both sides were supposed to make regular patrols of the area between, but no soldier likes to march. There was one place where there turned out to be an abandoned shack with a wood stove in it, and since it was winter, Union soldiers supposedly patroling that area would just go there and wait for a while before returning to their lines.

It turned out that Confederate soldiers doing night patrols had also also been using that shack. One time they ran into each other.

Did they fight? Hell no. They sat down and did some talking, and some dickering. Union soldiers had a regular supply of coffee and had better and more plentiful food, and Confederate soldiers had tobacco, and maybe a bit of corn whiskey. So they did some trading.

After that, patrols from each side would leave a fire burning in the stove for the other side so they didn't have to light it.

When there were battles, everyone fought and fought hard. When it mattered, they tried to kill one another, and the bravery and dedication manifested by soldiers on both sides is legendary.

But it wasn't motivated by hatred. It wasn't like that at all.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:13 PM on December 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

I suppose I should mention something: a white division on one section of the Union line at Petersburg was relieved by a Colored division. And after that Confederate snipers on that section of the front shouted no warning and aimed to kill. It's one of many reasons why Colored divisions suffered such terrible casualties in the war.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:23 PM on December 13, 2006

He did die right. Lived right, too.
posted by QIbHom at 4:25 PM on December 13, 2006

This wasn't Burnside's first bloody failed assault. At Antietam, nearly two months before Fredericksburg, he sent three assaults in three hours across to take a bridge over waist-deep water.

Sideburns are named after Burnsides.

Is it Kirkland, or Strickland? Did he change his name during the battle?
posted by kirkaracha at 4:35 PM on December 13, 2006

By the way, that kind of thing has happened in other wars. A beautiful example of that is from WWII in the Pacific.

The 77th Division was fighting on Okinawa and one part of it assaulted the Maeda escarpment. Problem was that Japanese soldiers were well dug in, and the Americans were repulsed with heavy losses.

Everyone who could retreated back over the hill, but Americans left many wounded behind. An American medic named Doss stayed on top and started bringing wounded soldiers to the edge, lowering each one down by rope. No one knows exactly how many men he saved, but the number cited in the bill that awarded him the Medal of Honor was 100.

The Japanese didn't fire on him. Certainly they could have killed him if they'd wanted to.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:47 PM on December 13, 2006

On July 2, 1962, Roland Kirk of the Vibration Society stood on the stage at the Newport Jazz Festival. The 26-year-old, blind Kirk, with his self-modified stritch and manzello and his circular breathing, were part of Charles Mingus's group; across from him was Andrew Hill's grand piano, part of the outfit put together under Walt Dickerson...
posted by Pollomacho at 4:49 PM on December 13, 2006

As Marcus Tullius Cicero, astute Roman statesman, orator, writer (c.106-43 BC), so aptly deduced some two thousand years ago, "The evolvement of civilizations has allowed the weaklings and cowards among us to enjoy quality lives, too."

he was trolling ... eventually people got sick of it and had him killed ... and how many guys did mr badass take with him?

zero, zilch, zip, nada

he didn't even like bitchslap the guard or nothing

some motherfucker HE was
posted by pyramid termite at 5:13 PM on December 13, 2006

World War I's Christmas Truce, December 24, 1914.

Thanks for a nicely written and poignant post, forrest. History is never boring, only forgotten, and you've reminded us that human beings are the ones who create it.

May the day come when there are no more stories like this to tell.
posted by cenoxo at 6:08 PM on December 13, 2006

fautedemieux: first of all, it's Forrest, not Forest. I surmise from your instant analysis springing from one word in my post that you are the type who would spew ignorance regardless of the context. Surely you would weigh no dumbass idea of yours so lightly that it could pass unsaid. As Weenie Walsh, keen observer of the human condition and carwash attendant deduced after reading all both of your comments to MeFi: "Trolls can still be pissy little popcorn farts. As a matter of fact, they usually are."

Steve CDB: Many contemporary accounts show that there was hatred between the troops on both sides. As you pointed out, Petersburg has examples of friendliness, but I don't think you'd argue that those examples were typical of every part of the war. (My favorite anecdote about Petersburg involved a trench the Union soldiers were digging. The miscalculated the angle and the end of the trench would have ended up behind the Confederate lines. The Confederates -- this being towards the end of the siege where they recognized the imminent loss -- told the Federals that they would pull back so the effort of digging wouldn't be lost.) For every instance of friendliness and fraternization you could cite, I could counter with something that indicated hatred. That still wasn't my point, though -- I don't believe the troops at Fredericksburg were frothing with hatred for each other. I put that out as a possibility for why Sgt. Kirkland's act is lauded to a degree that other similar acts aren't.

BTW, Desmond Doss is well known to me. I'm glad to see someone else remembers his heroism. He WAS under fire from the Japanese during the action you describe (the citation is linked in that post). Not only that, the citation says he saved 75 lives: the Army said 100, Doss said it couldn't have been more than 50, so they settled on 75.

Is it Kirkland, or Strickland? Did he change his name during the battle?
He used a fake name and sunglasses in the hope the Yankees wouldn't recognize him. (My bad. Total brain fart.)

Pollomacho: you forgot the "boring music stuff" part, but you're probably braver than I am. Thanks, made me laugh.
posted by forrest at 7:36 PM on December 13, 2006

Not boring, nice post, thank you.
posted by marxchivist at 7:38 PM on December 13, 2006

It's incredible to me that someone would mention Roland Kirk's blindness, yet leave out "Rahsaan."

As for Kirkland's heroism, and hatred, war is complicated. Haven't we learned that yet?
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:35 PM on December 13, 2006

He wasn't Rahsaan until 1970.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:17 PM on December 13, 2006

Forrest, when you're talking about military forces numbering hundreds of thousands on both sides, it's obvious there will be a great variety of feelings and no single simple summary will be universally applicable.

But your post, and your question, seemed to assume that the most common feeling on both sides was to hate the guts of the soldiers on the other side. There probably were men, and places, and times, like that but it was not the norm.

The kind of thing I wrote about was more usual.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:23 PM on December 13, 2006

SCDB, your examples are the ones that prove the rule. For every instance of kindness on the battlefield (and certainly there are many singular, heroic instances) there is the overwhelming fact that war is about killing as many of your enemy as possible.

I hadn't heard about the medic on Okinawa, but the story is surprising for the fact that it was Japanese military policy to shoot American medics first.

As for the Civil War, Kirkland was obviuosly a hero. But events like the Ft. Pillow Massacre were far more common (and Union attrocities against Confederates were not unknown, but I've read a few books about Ft. Pillow and am more familiar with it, not trying to demonize Rebels as being the only ones capable of such actions).
posted by bardic at 1:00 AM on December 14, 2006

I'm fairly certain I'm related (biologically) to the subject of this post, but as that's uninteresting to all but me, I'll just leave it at this: excellent post.
posted by joe lisboa at 2:33 AM on December 14, 2006

I remember seeing a painting of the scene -- not this one, but one similar to it -- at the South Carolina State House in Columbia. Kirkland's Confederate Medal of Honor was on display alongside the painting.
posted by pax digita at 3:04 AM on December 14, 2006

There's another statue of Kirkland here in Central Pennsylvania at The National Civil War Museum. It was sculpted by Terry Jones. No, not that Terry Jones.
posted by Man-Thing at 7:31 AM on December 14, 2006

Wow. This fellow fought under my Great-(great?)-grandfather. The 2nd Carolina was an interesting group of low country money, poor dirt farmer and small-town middle class fighters. Somewhere I have my relative's memoirs of the war and it's a pretty interesting read. More interaction between North and South than I had ever considered. My favorite story of his was about going back to the Gettysburg Battlefield for some reunion or another (I forget how many years later) and they re-staged the charge of Little Round Top. When the old Rebel soldiers reached the top, their Yankee counterparts met their attackers and hugged them.

(pax - I'll have to walk over to the State House and look that one up, I can't believe I've lived here in South Confederacy this long and still never heard this tale)
posted by 1f2frfbf at 1:52 PM on December 14, 2006

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