During the horrifically bloody Civil War battle of Fredericksburg, the Confederate Army devastated Union troops as they tried to charge the hill at Marye’s Heights, leaving wounded and dying soldiers scattered across the battlefield only to be given succor by an unlikely hero.
When night fell after the day’s pitched battle, countless (overwhelmingly Union) soldiers lay freezing and dying on the ground, where both sides could clearly hear them crying out for water, the injured becoming more dehydrated than the healthier men behind cover.
Hearing these dying pleas, Confederate soldier Richard Rowland Kirkland, decided to do something about their pain. Kirkland asked the commanding general if he could head out to the battlefield and provide water to the wounded men, but his request was denied. However, after listening to the men’s cries a while longer, Kirkland pressed the point and the general allowed him to take to the exposed battleground and provide aid. Kirkland’s request to carry a white flag so that he would not be shot by the active Union soldiers was denied. Undeterred, the brave soldier set out with his canteen to soothe the dying men. Though many were apprehensive at first, the Union forces soon caught on to his charity and did not fire on Kirkland. The generous soldier was able to make several separate trips out onto the battlefield with water, each time risking being shot by the tense men on either side.
Kirkland’s selfless actions earned him the nickname “Angel of Marye’s Heights.” In 1965, a statue honoring Kirkland was unveiled at the Fredericksburg battlefield site. The Sons of Confederate Veterans posthumously awarded Kirkland their Confederate Medal of Honor, which was created long after the war’s end in 1977. The lone bronze memorial commemorates Kirkland’s bravery and humanity in the face of imminent death. Kirkland fought in several battles until he fell at the Battle of Chickamauga on September 20, 1863, at the age of 20. His body was returned home and he is buried at the Quaker Cemetery in Camden, South Carolina.
Some scholars have challenged the veracity of Kirkland’s legend, but true or not his memorial and its tale mark an affecting image of wartime humanity.