Soldier. Born in Flat Rock Township near Camden in August 1843, Kirkland was the second-youngest of seven children born to John A. Kirkland and Mary Vaughn. In April 1861 Kirkland enlisted as a private in the Camden Volunteers, which later became part of the Second South Carolina Volunteer Infantry. Attached to the Army of Northern Virginia, Kirkland and his regiment saw extensive action in Virginia. He was promoted to sergeant in the summer of 1862.
Kirkland was immortalized at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862. In the aftermath of a failed Union assault on Marye’s Heights, he witnessed hundreds of wounded and dying Union soldiers begging for water. Touched by their cries, Kirkland went to his brigade commander, Joseph B. Kershaw, and declared, “General, I can’t stand this.” Convincing Kershaw to allow him to aid the Union wounded, Kirkland gathered up a dozen or more canteens and went out onto the battlefield to comfort and assist his fallen enemies. Union soldiers assumed that Kirkland was plundering their dead. When they realized that the Confederate sergeant was aiding the Union wounded, all shooting ceased. Kirkland was cheered as a hero and a humanitarian by both sides.
Promoted to lieutenant after the Battle of Gettysburg, Kirkland was killed in action at Horseshoe Ridge on the second day of the Battle of Chickamauga, September 20, 1863. His remains were interred at the family cemetery on White Oak Creek in Kershaw District. Published accounts of Kirkland’s act of heroism circulated in the years after the war, and he was gradually immortalized as the “Angel of Marye’s Heights.” He was reburied in 1909 at the Quaker Cemetery in Camden. In 1965 a bronze statue was dedicated in his honor at the Fredericksburg battlefield.
Carroll, Les. The Angel of Marye’s Heights: Sergeant Richard Kirkland’s Extraordinary Deed at Fredericksburg. Columbia, S.C.: Palmetto Bookworks, 1994.
Kershaw, General J. B. “Richard Kirkland, the Humane Hero of Fredericksburg.” Southern Historical Society Papers 8 (April 1880): 186–88.
Trantham, William D. “Wonderful Story of Richard R. Kirkland.” Confederate Veteran 16 (March 1908): 105.