Compassion for Others – Even the Enemy

Of all the attributes that make up a Southern gentleman, compassion is probably the one that ties them all together. The ability to view life from where others stand and then act accordingly is a part of high Southern culture. Compassion is an integral part of heroism, for that is what motivates men to risk their lives to help others. The story of Richard Kirkland probably puts human compassion into sharper focus than any other. Kirkland was a sergeant in the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers on December 13, 1862. Take a look at this video and the story below it to see true heroism combined with compassion.

…for every heartbreak in wartime there has also been heroism, and for every tragedy, there has also been triumph. This is what makes the history of warfare worthy of our attention and justifies the energy we spend to preserve its memory for future generations. It is the good stories, the ones that reflect life (not death), the ones founded on courage and mercy that demand our interest. This is the side of war that truly needs to be commemorated as it reminds us all what it means to be human.

One such incident is the story of Sergeant Richard Rowland Kirkland, otherwise known as “The Angel of Marye’s Heights.” Perhaps the most compassionate and heroic character of the entire Civil War, this lone Confederate soldier’s conduct has become one of the most touching and inspirational subjects ever to come out of the War Between the States.

By the winter of 1862, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces had claimed several key battlefields in the Eastern Campaign. One of the biggest and most “one-sided” southern victories took place during the Battle of Fredericksburg. In retrospect, the term slaughter would perhaps be more appropriate for this affair. Early in the morning on December 13, 1862, Union forces began a desperate and doomed assault on a fortified position, known today as the “stone wall at the sunken road.”

After crossing the Rappahannock River and taking possession of Fredericksburg, the Federal Army of the Potomac set its sights on taking the surrounding area where the Army of Northern Virginia had withdrawn. Perhaps a little too confident after experiencing only minor skirmishes in the town, the Union commanders failed to realize the brilliant tactical deployments established by Lee’s lieutenants. By intentionally leaving the town to the enemy, Confederate forces were able to fortify their positions in anticipation of the arrival of the Federals. The most impenetrable of these positions was a long stone wall at the base of a sloping hill known as Marye’s Heights. Overlooking the field stood another “virtual” wall of Confederate artillery, cavalry and support troops that extended for miles in both directions. An attack would be a suicide mission.

In order to reach the enemy, Union soldiers had to ford a canal ditch and then cross a vast open field with little or no cover. As soon as they left the tree line, a massive artillery barrage, joined by almost uncountable rifle fire, rained down upon the advancing men. Those that were able to escape the cannon were slowed by a slope that led to a fortified stone wall lining a sunken road. Behind the wall, soldiers knelt two and three ranks deep, with the front line firing and the rest reloading musket after musket. The result was a continuous hail of fire that cut rows and rows of men down before they could even get into position.

Wave after wave of Union soldiers left the safety of the canal ditch and were slaughtered. The death toll was staggering. In just one hour the Federals suffered more than 3,000 dead. After fifteen unsuccessful charges, the fighting ceased for the night, leaving the field littered with thousands of bloody bodies. Around midnight, Federal troops ventured forth under cover of darkness to gather what wounded they could find, but many were too close to the Confederate line to retrieve. Throughout the night, screams and cries of the wounded penetrated the peaceful silence of the cease-fire.

A Confederate soldier stationed at the wall later stated that it was “weird, unearthly, terrible to hear and bear the cries of the dying soldiers filling the air -lying crippled on a hillside so many miles from home-breaking the hearts of soldiers on both sides of the battlefield.”

One soldier, Richard Rowland Kirkland, an infantry sergeant with the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, struggled to rest amidst the horrid sounds of suffering that echoed across the field. A combat veteran, he was accustomed to the dead and dying, having seen action at Manassas, Savage Station, Maryland Heights and Antietam. By the morning of the 14th, he could take it no longer and requested permission to aid the enemy.

Initially, his commanding officer was reluctant, as Kirkland would likely be shot dead by Union sharpshooters when he cleared the wall. He later granted the persistent soldier his request, but forbid him to carry a flag of truce. Determined to do the right thing and with total disregard for his own safety, Kirkland grabbed several canteens and leaped over the fortification. Instantly several shots rang out as the Union soldiers thought their wounded were under attack. Realizing the sincerity of Kirkland’s effort, the Federal marksmen lowered the barrels of their rifles. Thus, the fatal shot never came and both sides looked on in amazement as the sergeant moved from one wounded man in blue to another. Going back and forth over the wall for an hour and a half, Kirkland only returned to the safety of his own lines after he had done all he could do.

A fellow soldier in Kirkland’s company later recalled the incident in part of a short narrative entitled “The Confederate Veteran” that was published in 1903. He wrote, “The enemy saw him and supposing his purpose was to rob the dead and wounded, rained shot and shell upon the brave Samaritan. God took care of him. Soon he lifted the head of one of the wounded enemy, placed the canteen to his lips and cooled his burning thirst. His motivation was then seen and the fire silenced. Shout after shout went up from friend and foe alike in honor of this brave deed.”

In the end, this soldier’s action resulted in much more than a moment of mercy. It was a moment that stopped the entire Civil War and reminded those around him that, regardless of their circumstances, one should always strive to show compassion for his fellow man. 1

For more on the story of Richard Kirkland, see the 30-minute movie, The Angel of Marye’s Heights. Their web site includes movie trailers and more information about the story.

2 3


  1. The Angel of Marye’s Heights
  2. Credit goes to Richard G. Williams, Jr., at the Old Virginia blog for bringing this story to my attention.
  3. Also, see Michael Aubrecht’s web site.

About Stephen Clay McGehee

Born-Again Christian, Grandfather, husband, business owner, Southerner, aspiring Southern Gentleman. Publisher of The Confederate Colonel and The Southern Agrarian blogs. President/Owner of Adjutant Workshop, Inc., Vice President - Gather The Fragments Bible Mission, Inc. (Sierra Leone, West Africa), Webmaster - Military Order of The Stars and Bars, Kentucky Colonel.
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16 Responses to Compassion for Others – Even the Enemy

  1. Lady Val says:

    Sadly, I believe that the reason the South LOST the war might well have been the “Christian compassion” that motivated so many of its leaders.

    Stonewall Jackson – a genuine Christian – held no such feelings for the enemy. Jackson proclaimed that the war should be fought “under the black flag” from the beginning. He pointed out that these armies – their leaders and their soldiers – were attacking not some military objective, but the homes, people and culture of the South with the intention of destroying everything and everyone who refused to accept their overlordship and that this was a war, quite literally, of genocide intended by the North FROM THE BEGINNING. Jackson realized that the invader was not the same as his own people, that these weren’t just brethren who only wished to end slavery and restore the Union; that these were not “well intentioned” folk who had merely made a wrong choice in an attempt to affect reconciliation. Jackson was right. Indeed, if Union troops had been slaughtered in the beginning when those fighting were the husbands, fathers, husbands, brothers and sons of Northern women, the Union would soon have shown no stomach for the struggle and within a year or less, the vast majority in the North would have concluded that the game was not worth the candle. One doubts that even the war-monger Lincoln could have kept armies in the field once the Governors of Northern states began to be pressured by their constituents who wanted their man home and let the South go to the devil!

    Unfortunately, by the time at least SOME in the South realized the wicked nature of the enemy, the ranks of the Union army were being filled with the sweepings of Europe arriving daily at Northern ports and thus, the “butcher’s bill” at places like Cold Harbor did not make the same impression upon the people of the North that would have been the case a mere two years earlier. As well, as the war continued and the South instead of being swiftly and soundly beaten was able to stand her ground and deliver blow for blow, the people in the North who already hated the South and her people became hardened and resolved to destroy their enemy once and for all militarily, politically, socially and even religiously. So the small window of opportunity to which Jackson alluded was all too soon gone and the paths of history irredeemably set upon.

    Yet, anyone who studies the war and the countless (often needless) cruelties inflicted on the South – combatant and non-combatant alike – realizes that the South’s attempt to wage “honorable war” was a mistake. It didn’t deflect the iron hand of Northern cruelty either during or after the war and one wonders how much WORSE the South could have been treated if in fact it had been barbaric in its treatment of the invader or of the invader’s civilians when Southern armies crossed into their territory. In fact, I have done a great deal of research among the newspapers of the day and to read the accounts, one would believe that in fact, the South DID perform atrocities at every opportunity! So the chivalry and Christian compassion thus exercised did nothing but embolden the enemy to ever greater horrors and wickedness as the military strength of their compassionate enemy weakened from the waging of total war against them.

    No, I fear that sometimes humane and compassionate treatment of an enemy who respects nothing but strength and the will to use it does more harm than good to BOTH sides. If the South had made the war SO costly to the North from the beginning, who knows how MANY lives might have been saved on both sides – and the South liberated – before the end?

  2. Suzette says:

    This is a wonderful story. It’s great to know of people who look past a blue uniform and see a real person with real feelings. Whether Kirkland was those dying men’s enemy or not, what he did what was the RIGHT thing to do, and I respect that.

  3. Yes, it was definitely the right thing to do. While war is all about killing the enemy, these were men who had been shot and were no longer a threat. The key though, is that they were men. They were brave men. They were the enemy, but they were brave men. What Kirkland did was every bit as brave, and I am certain that when the Yankee soldiers saw what he was doing (and word of that spread), they had to question why they were there as an invading army.

  4. Lady Val says:

    Yes, it was a lovely story. But read, if you will, the comments made by MOST of those who fought for the Union. I fear you will find very little genuine understanding of that compassion any more than the Union considered the humanity and compassion of Col. John Mosby, the Virginia partisan. Mosby and his command’s good treatment of prisoners was well known by the prisoners and doubtless shared with their superiors when they returned North. But it never translated into any good feeling towards them. Grant ordered Mosby and his men hanged without trial if caught and doubtless, that would have been at least MOSBY’s fate if he had been caught even before Grant came on the scene. He was a successful warrior and that made them hate him. They accused him of terrible atrocities without proof and one doubts that even proof would have altered his fate had he been captured.

    No, I fear that if you read the stories, comments and reports of Union soldiers, newspapers and the Yankee government, you will certainly find no admission of Southern courtesy and compassion and only contempt and vilification of the very men you say acted in such a Christian fashion.

    I may be “unChristian”, but to my mind, the South should have thought of its own first – and the Yankees a distinct and distant second. Doubtless there were decent Union soldiers who returned good for good, but they were few and far between and certainly they never influenced the deportment of their government or its military. I don’t know about anybody else, but I’d prefer that my enemies fear me and restrain their hand as a result of that fear than hold me in contempt because they believe that I’m too weak-minded to fight back.

  5. Thank you Stephen for the nice post and for quoting my video and story. The memory of Richard Kirkland resonates with people on so many levels and has been especially embraced by the Christian community. I hope that you can attend one of our upcoming screenings and we look forward to releasing the DVD version of this film w/ many bonus features. Thanks again and God Bless.

  6. It is an honor to have you post a comment here, sir! Thank you for stopping by. I will be looking for the release of the DVD and will be sure to spotlight it here on Confederate Colonel when it comes out.

    There are two of your books that I am eager to get the opportunity to read: Onward Christian Soldier, and The Southern Cross (find out more about them here). Both sound like they are both inspiring and fascinating.

    Thank you again, sir. Take care and God Bless.

  7. Dick Stanley says:

    Wonderful story, but probably untrue. This blogger reasonably, thoroughly and without rancor burns the Angel’s wings to ashes:

  8. We will, of course, never really know for certain. Is there more evidence for the story or against the story? Like much in history, it is left to the individual to judge the accuracy of a report.

    I’ll quote Richard G. Williams, Jr., of the Old Virginia blog on this topic:

    Despite what appears to me to be a manufactured controversy about the story and film, there’s no reason to suggest or believe the event which this film explores didn’t happen or, that it has been grossly exaggerated or influenced so some could “choose to remember our Civil War” a certain- assumedly inaccurate – “way”. Frankly, that sounds more like psychotherapy than historical analysis to a simple buff like me. Like most stories that are handed down through first hand oral accounts, there are things we don’t know and, like much of our history, it is left up to historians and researchers to do their best, using the information available, to “fill in the blanks.” As NPS historian, Mac Wyckoff pointed out:

    “It is significant that not a single member of the 2nd South Carolina challenged the veracity of the story which became quiet well known in South Carolina by 1900. Kershaw was a prominent figure in South Carolina politics after the war so had naturally developed some political opponents. Not one of them challenged Kerhaw’s statement about the Kirkland incident.”

  9. Lady Val says:

    Certainly, there were too many stories told by both sides of Southern chivalry and Christianity to deny that it existed. However, I believe that you will find both then and now, the the supporters of the Union tend to disbelieve and deny them. During the Grand Bargain that existed between the late 19th Century and about half way through the 20th, such stories were given credence and much was made of the decency of men like Lee and Jackson. But before and certainly AFTER that period, the South is permitted NO “gold stars”. Everyone and everything is condemned as a combination of the inhumanity of slavery and the evil of treason. Even poor old Marse Robert has been knocked down from his pedestal and made into just one more treasonous slaver.

    But this does not change my own feelings that the South attempted to wage a war that the North had no intention of fighting. They quite literally brought a knife to a gun fight. “Total war” was the order of the day by the Union FROM THE BEGINNING. It wasn’t something that just “happened” as the South’s resistance broke through the ordinarily kindly behavior of the Yankees. The Yankees were thieves, rapists and murders from the beginning. Oh, not all of them, of course! But enough. This is obvious when you read the letters of ordinary Yankee soldiers sent home to their families and loved ones. It is obvious from them that the Southern people were considered inferior and deserving of every bad treatment and calamity. And their actions were countenanced by their leaders both military and political. A very good example of that is the infamous Richmond Raid headed by Dahlgren and Kilpatrick. Contrary to efforts both at the time and to this day, this matter was hatched by the Lincoln government and only Kilpatrick’s loss of nerve when he backed off Richmond and left Dahlgren to his fate saved the Confederate government from mass murder and Richmond from the torch.

    I always get a real kick out of the sanctimonious horror demonstrated by Northern apologists then and now when it comes to the Lincoln assassination! Admittedly, however, it’s a shame that Booth suceeded because the act has placed a tyrant and a war criminal on a pedestal from which he will probably never be dislodged.

  10. I posted this response on another board (I believe Mr. Stanley was part of that conversation too.) and wanted to share it here as well.

    We have become very aware of the recent debate over this event and of course we are in the camp that believes it did indeed take place. During our documentary prep and in my own research, we had access to the archive materials at the Fredericksburg, VA NPS, as well as the Camden SC Historical Archives.

    Without having any of those materials in front of me to quote as I type this, I reference the authority on the subject, Mac Wyckoff, retired and former NPS historian who assembled those files and provided the following statement during on an online discussion. He stated: [As a historian I wanted to know what motivated Kershaw to tell the story of Richard Kirkland and why he waited so long to tell the story. I did not expect to find an answer to my questions, but I did.

    The answer was found in the South Carolina newspapers of 1880. It turns out that a reporter for a newspaper was told by a member of the 2nd South Carolina (Kirkland’s unit) that a member of his unit had performed a noble act of giving water to Union soldiers at the Battle of Fredericksburg. The veteran told the reporter that he could get more details from General Joseph Kershaw, the original commander of the 2nd South Carolina and brigade commander at Fredericksburg. The reporter wrote the story and asked if Kershaw could provide details. Kershaw’s article appeared in the newspaper six days later telling the story as we know it today.

    Kershaw’s motivation was simply he had been asked to do so. Over the next few years, several members of the 2nd South Carolina confirmed the details of Kershaw’s story and the name of Richard Kirkland. It is significant that not a single member of the 2nd South Carolina challenged the veracity of the story which became quiet well known in South Carolina by 1900. Kershaw was a prominent figure in South Carolina politics after the war so had naturally developed some political opponents. Not one of them challenged Kerhaw’s statement about the Kirkland incident. The details of my research on Kirkland including the 1880 newspaper articles and the statements by other members of the 2nd South Carolina are in the Kirkland file in the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center.]

    BTW: All of these files are open to the public to come and look. So in fact, Kershaw, although given primary credit, was actually a follow-up interview. I find it telling that not a single person ever challenged this account at the time it was made public. Surely there would have been an outcry if it was a total fabrication. (I also find it difficult to accept that a single blogger can debunk hundreds of years of shared history with a single piece.)

    That said, we do acknowledge that there is certainly room for speculation in the details. We did our best to incorporate a balanced presentation and acknowledge that fact. We use the term ‘memory’ in the opening. Thanks again for linking to us and I hope you will be able to view our film at a screening or when the DVD is released.

  11. Hi friends. Here is that piece from Mac Wyckoff that responds in detail to the Kirkland true-or-false debate. Enjoy:

  12. Thank you, Mr. Aubrecht. I was just getting ready to post this same link myself after reading about it on the Old Virginia blog.

    Be sure to look at the PDF document that is linked at the end of the article.

  13. I just wanted to invite everyone to our next screening at Liberty University this Saturday. All ticket proceeds benefit the National Civil War Chaplains Museum. We will have a panel discussion following the film, as well as refreshments and music by Liberty’s Victorian Society. Please pass the word.

    More info here on our blog:

  14. It is with great pleasure that Right Stripe Media announces the immediate availability of “The Angel of Marye’s Heights” on DVD. This long-anticipated release commemorates the beginning of the Sesquicentennial (150th) of the American Civil War.

    In addition to the 30-minute documentary, 7 additional Bonus Features (1+ hour) are included: Dramatic Mercy-Scene, Richard Warren’s “Portrayal of a Hero” Monologue, “Living History” with Kathleen Warren, Cast and Crew Outtakes and Behind the Scenes Slideshow with Will White’s ‘Fredericksburg 1862’ title song, Director and Producer Premiere Comments and Scans of Richard Kirkland Letters.

    This Widescreen DVD is now available for purchase online for $12 (+ shipping) at

    *Bulk-discounts available. Vendor and Media inquiries email For more information, visit the film’s official website at

  15. Pingback: Mercy and Chivalry | Confederate Colonel

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