Within sight of the Rappahannock River as it flows through the Virginia countryside and past the city of Fredericksburg, a gently-rising green hill is home to one of the most visited military cemeteries in America. “This spot”, as one sign proclaims, is “the final resting place in death of 1,500 Union soldiers who in life were unable to reach this summit”. In fact, 15,243 Civil War Union dead lie here, more than half of them “unknown” and sharing multiple-burial grave-sites.
To walk upon this hallowed ground is to revisit the events which transpired here on a cold December night in 1862 and – perhaps -- to feel a connection with some of the suffering of the thousands of wounded and dying young men who littered the ground here, untended and unapproachable in the face of withering gunfire from both sides.
Following the costly Union “success” at Antietam in September, Lincoln had pushed for a rapid drive on Richmond only to be met with delay and intransigence on the part of Major General John B. McClelland. Finally, Lincoln removed his Army Chief and called on a somewhat reluctant Major General Ambrose E. Burnside to take over the Army of The Potomac. And so another month was lost and winter was on hand when Burnside chose to assault the Confederate forces headquartered in and around Fredericksburg. Slowed in trying to get his Divisions across the Rappahannock on two bridges while under fire, followed by the war’s first street-by-street urban fighting, Burnside’s 17,000 man Army arrived on the scene of battle in truncated sections and almost totally unprepared for what awaited them on the three fortified hilltops lying to the west of the embattled town.
Named for a family who had pioneered the area and an eponymous residence still standing, Marye’s Heights offered General Robert E. Lee’s 17,000 man defending force a commanding position from which to control what was about to become the Battle of Fredericksburg. In addition to four ranks of infantrymen capable of sending virtually continuous rifle and musket fire down-slope, Confederate artillery arrayed along and behind the summit was able to rein deadly canister on the Union troops who were sent by Burnside in fourteen ill-considered “suicide” attacks throughout December 13th, feeding seven Union Divisions – one Brigade at a time! – into what was an unprecedented slaughter. Even before the bloodbath began, the brilliant young Confederate artilleryman Lt. Col. Edward Porter Alexander had told Lt. General James Longstreet “A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it”.
Among the ranks of Confederate soldiers who were confronted with the wreckage of human life littering the scorched hillside, stone wall and sunken road, amid the cries of the dying and wounded at day’s end was a young trooper from the 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. Born and raised in Flat Rock, Kershaw County, South Carolina, Sergeant Richard Rowland Kirkland had enlisted even before the first shot was fired at Ft. Sumter. (The 2nd Regiment had been in action since First Manassas, and by war’s end would be involved in more battles than any other unit on either side.)
Overcome by the plight of those enemy boys crying for help in a literal “no man’s land”, Sgt. Kirkland begged for permission from his Commander to attempt to perform a dangerous service. Warned his action would only get him killed, the South Carolinian gathered up all the canteens he could carry, and began ministering to the wounded Yankees, making trip after trip onto the scarred hillside, giving water and encouragement to hundreds, all the while exhibiting an indifference to personal danger which brought silent admiration and an end to combat activity from North and South alike.
Known afterward as “The Angel of Marye’s Height”, Richard Kirkland would go on to distinguish himself at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, only to die as a Lieutenant at Chickamauga on September 20th, 1863. He is buried in an old Quaker cemetery near his home in Kershaw County, South Carolina.
As I walk between the rows of graves on that poignantly beautiful hillside, and remember still the actions of one man that long ago December day, I recall several lines from Theodore O’Hara’s poem:
The muffled drum’s sad roll has beat,
The soldier’s last tatoo;
No more on life’s parade shall meet,
That brave and fallen few.
A heroic size bronze sculpture by Felix de Weldon, completed in 1965, stands not far from the reconstructed stone wall and “sunken road” at Fredericksburg National Battle Park.