A Review of The Angel of Marye’s Heights, by Les Carroll, Columbia, SC: Palmetto Bookworks, 1994.
The famed G.K. Chesterton once wrote: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.” No quote better sums up the actions of one brave Confederate soldier on the field at Fredericksburg who, when moved by the pitiful cries of wounded and dying Union soldiers, risked his life to bring some comfort to an enemy that was also his neighbor as an American.
The Angel of Marye’s Heights by Les Carroll describes the extraordinary scene of Sgt. Richard Rowland Kirkland (Company G, 2nd South Carolina Volunteers) bounding over the wall from where the Confederate forces held the high ground at Fredericksburg on to the battlefield where Union soldiers lay dead and dying. Onlookers in blue and gray would watch in amazement as this one young Confederate soldier gave a few moments of comfort to the men he had been firing at not that long before. The battle would resume when he went back over the wall and stop when he returned to his mission of mercy with more water for those he was ministering to. The canteens he carried were those of his fellow Confederate soldiers who were moved to help their blue clad enemy. He carried no gun because of the number of canteens and carried no white flag because of concerns the Union troops would misunderstand his appearance on the battlefield as a desire by the Confederates to talk. Once his mission was over, he resumed his post ready for the battle to resume.
Kirkland was born in Kershaw County, South Carolina and was a surveyor. Not yet 18 when the war started, he lay down his dreams and aspirations to fight for a cause he believed in and like so many of his compatriots, “He wouldn’t fight so much for a country, but for his home and the life his family had built” (author’s words). Kirkland was at Morris Island during the bombardment of Fort Sumter and would go on to see action at First Manassas (Bull Run) and later Gettysburg and Chickamauga where he died at age 20 having attained the rank of lieutenant after Gettysburg. It would be his simple act of human compassion at Fredericksburg that would earn him fame as “The Angel of Marye’s Heights”.
Those students of the war looking for a book with every event in Kirkland’s life documented may be disappointed and the author freely admits this in his forward. Instead, he states his aim as writing a book for young people to show them that the war was much more than the great issues surrounding it, or about the great men involved. The war was also about young men like Kirkland who performed amazing acts of courage and compassion. The author succeeds in writing a book that is easy to read and one that makes a great introduction for anyone truly interested in the Confederate soldier. Whereas popular entertainment portrays the Confederate soldier as anything ranging from villain to zombie, the reader of this book will see not only Kirkland’s desire to help his enemy but also that of his fellow Confederate soldiers who gave him their canteens and his commanding officers who gave the order even though it may have meant certain death for Kirkland.
Kirkland’s act of compassion is a great example for young people, but it is also a great example to those of us today who are fighting for the legacy of Confederate soldier as well as seeking to preserve all that is true and valuable in the Southern tradition. Part of that legacy and that tradition is compassion for our neighbor who may also be our enemy. While we should study and arm ourselves intellectually and courageously fight against those who seek to distort our heritage, we should also be ready to perform acts of compassion and mercy when the opportunity arises. The war may rage on, but perhaps just for a moment, a battle may cease as those on both sides of our current day fight may stop and watch as an act of compassion is carried out from one enemy and one neighbor to another.