Located near the Stone Wall and Sunken Road at the foot of Mary’es Heights in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the site of intense fighting at the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, is the Sgt. Richard Rowland Kirkland Memorial. This bronze sculpture on a granite base was created by sculptor Felix DeWeldon and dedicated on September 29th, 1965. It was funded by private donations and the states of South Carolina and Virginia during the Civil War Centennial.
Kirkland was a 19 year old sergeant with the 2nd South Carolina Infantry, part of General Joseph Kershaw’s Brigade in General James Longstreet’s Corps. On December 13th, 1862, the Army of the Potomac under Major General Ambrose Burnside, launched several futile assaults against Confederate forces at Mary’es Heights. With artillery on top of the heights and infantry at the foot protected by a stone wall, the Federals who advanced across open ground suffered a huge number of casualties.
The wounded in front of the stone wall called out for water, but any attempt by either side to reach the wounded was met by gunfire. Finally, Kirkland could take no more of the cries of the wounded. He asked Kershaw if he could take water to the wounded northerners. Kershaw told Kirkland he would be shot by the enemy if he went over the wall, but the sergeant replied he was willing to make the attempt. Since a cease fire had not been declared, Kirkland could not carry a white flag on his mission. Kershaw reluctantly gave permission.
Kirkland filled up some canteens and went over the wall and into the field between the lines. He immediately drew fire nut was not hit. Reaching the first wounded man, Kirkland gave the man a drink from the canteen. Realizing that the Confederate was helping their wounded, the Federals held their fire. Kirkland continued on his mission, moving from wounded man to wounded man, for perhaps an hour and a half before returning to his lines.
Some accounts say that other soldiers from both sides took advantage of the de facto cease fire to go on additional missions of mercy to the wounded. Though the story of Kirkland’s bravery was known, he was not identified by name until Kershaw gave an 1880 newspaper interview. Some latter day writers have questioned the story, or at least if Kirkland was the actual soldier who went over the wall, but no other soldier has been identified by name, and the evidence pointing to Kirkland is about as good as it’s going to get barring some as yet unknown contemporary account surfacing that can refute it.
Though many soldiers on both sides wrote postwar memoirs of their experiences, Kirkland never got the chance. Richard Kirkland was promoted to Second Lieutenant during the Gettysburg Campaign, and was killed in action at the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863.
Across the Rappahannock by Bradley Finfrock
The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock
by Francis A. O’Reilly
Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park Website, National Park Service