The Angel of Mayres Heights

The Angel of Mayres Heights

Richard Rowland Kirkland Monument at Fredricks...
Richard Rowland Kirkland Monument at Fredricksburgh Battlefield (Photo credit: Bravehardt)

All God’s angels come to us disguised.  ~James Russell Lowell


December, 1862 – The 120,000 man Union Army of the Potomac moved sluggishly south into Northern Virginia, a large clumsy bear trying to swipe a mortal blow against the frustratingly nimble grey fox, Robert E Lee and his 72,500 man army of Northern Virginia – a wounded but dangerous foe still reeling from its near annihilation at Antietam in September.  

The Federal plan called for speed and deception – feigning a move on nearby towns along the Rappahannock, only to cross the river and rapidly claim the town of Fredericksburg, engaging pieces of Lee’s fragmented army.  Through brute force and overwhelming odds, the Federals would carry the war to Richmond and crush the Southern rebellion.  Yet, the Union army suffered from weak and serially indecisive leadership.  The inept Maj. General Ambrose Burnside, a failed Rhode Island businessman wracked with self-doubt, led the Federals.  Months earlier, his ultra conservative brinksmanship on a stone bridge at Antietam turned a certain Federal rout of the Confederates into a desperate draw.  Despite his obvious mediocrity, the corpulent Burnside was deemed by Lincoln as the best available choice to replace an even greater incompetent General George McClellan whose patrician insubordination and penchant for avoiding battle led to his dismissal. 

The Union Right, Center and Left Grand divisions led respectively by Major Generals Sumner, Hooker and Franklin were facing the cream of the Confederacy – Robert E Lee, Longstreet, Pickett, AP Hill, Anderson, Early, McLaws and J.E.B Stuart.  The Federals had wasted a month getting into position to launch their “surprise “attack, electing to wait to assemble pontoon bridges to cross the Rappahannock instead of crossing at shallower fords and more rapidly engaging a divided enemy before the entire army of Northern Virginia could reassemble.  As Burnside equivocated, Lee built formidable defenses, President Lincoln fumed and the fate of thousands of young men was decided.   

The union army 2nd Corps and 4th Corps finally crossed the Rappahannock on December 12th where they proceeded to loot Fredericksburg while dodging artillery and sniper fire. Among those bivouacking on the even of battle was private William O Grady and other Irish soldiers of 63rd, 69th and 88th NY infantry, three Gaelic brigades of immigrants, many conscripted straight off ships as they arrived in America fleeing famine and hardships suffered under colonial England.  Pressed into service to defend their adopted country, the boys from counties such as Sligo, Mayo and Wexford were mustered under Capt. Thomas Francis Meagher in the 2nd brigade of the 1st Division, 2nd Army Corps.  Meagher was a charismatic leader and political fugitive, once indicted for sedition by the English government and sent to Tasmania, only to escape to NY and enlist to lead his native countryman. 

The chaplain of the brigade was Jesuit priest William Corby who would later become the President of Notre Dame University.  On the frigid evening of December 12, a light snow swirled as O’Grady and his comrades from the fighting 69th gathered around makeshift fires playing Celtic Christmas carols on fife, violin and guitar.  Across a quarter mile canyon of killing ground, a young Confederate from South Carolina, 19 year old Sergeant Richard Kirkland, listened to acoustic shadows as he stood picket duty, stomping his feet to warm frigid toes.  Behind him, the men of Kershaw’s 2nd South Carolinians prepared their defense behind a sunken stone wall at the elevated crest of a ridge known simply as Maryes Heights.

The fifth son of a religious, fourth generation Southern family, Kirkland enlisted to defend South Carolina interests against Northern aggression.  In the months preceding Fredericksburg, Kirkland’s idealism was shredded by the shrapnel battles of Bull Run and Antietam where he witnessed friends killed and the terrifying reality of modern warfare.  He lay awake that evening staring at an endless ocean of union fires and dancing shadows.  He knew that the next morning would be the last dawn for many of these men. 

The battle opened slowly with assaults across a field of hard morning frost and swirling ground fog.  Union soldiers moved through fields of fire that sloped up from assault positions, climbing across over 800 yards of open, frozen ground.  “ The generals cannot be foolish as to order us up that hill” reassured Chaplain Corby to his worried men.  He was dead wrong.  At 1pm and again at 3:30pm in the dying flat twilight of the day, O’Grady and 1200 men of the Irish brigade were ordered to launch a suicidal charge.  Clutching their regimental colors that were stitched with the Gaelic expression ”Faugh a ballagh” or “ Clear the way”; Union officers ordered 16 individual charges into a fusillade of Southern rifle, canister and solid shot.  Not a single Union solider reached within 30 yards of the stone bulwark six deep with butternut sharpshooters. 

As dusk descended on the inferno, 6300 men laid dead and wounded in the ebony expanse of no man’s land that stretched between the Confederate and Union lines.  As frozen rain turned to snow and temperatures plummeted, soldiers were tormented by cries of agony and pleas for help from the wounded.  Kirkland covered his ears and turned away at the haunted entreaties.  As the night yielded to an apocalyptic dawn of death, Kirkland could stand it no longer.  He leapt into action, gathering up canteens, risking certain death to administer first aid to enemies that only hours before were seeking to kill him. 

With permission from a very reticent General Kershaw, Kirkland made it to O’Grady and several wounded Irish soldiers, carefully cradling their heads in his hand as he gently offered them water.  A sniper’s bullet pitched up frozen earth near Kirkland’s foot.  Another shot hit an adjacent body with a thud.  Kirkland moved quickly to more men.  Soon, a Union officer ascertained what the young man was doing and ordered his men, “ cease fire.  Don’t shoot that man.  He is too brave to die.”  The dead were stacked like cordwood as Kirkland moved frozen bodies rigid with rigor mortis, attempting to find soldiers in need of attention.   By the end of day, he returned to his lines exhausted but forever immortal. Months later, Kirkland and two friends were leading a Confederate counter attack up Snodgrass Hill at Chickamauga, Tennessee.  Finding himself and his friends too far extended beyond his lines, he turned to retreat to safety and was shot in the back.  As he lay dying, he asked his friend to “ tell my pa I died right”.  He was 20 years old. 

At Christmas, we are moved by the magic of the yuletide season.  It is a time when visions of angels inspire us and goodwill and compassion can transform any man.  It is a time where we reveal our gentler natures and humanity.  We recognize that there are no burning bushes, only people who serve a higher and nobler purpose in life.  To risk one’s life to save a stranger is to express the ultimate love that was proffered by God when he sent his only son to earth to bring the word of God to man. Perhaps the Kirkland memorial at Fredericksburg best defines what it means to be an angel:  “Dedicated to Sgt Richard Kirkland CSA – At the risk of his life, this American of sublime passion brought water to his wounded foes at Fredericksburg.  The fighting men on both sides called him the Angel of Maryes Heights.

 

Buy a T-Rex Book for Someone You Love….

Buy a T-Rex Book for Someone You Love….

We all have that certain special someone in our lives – that angry, disaffected, the world-is-going-to-hell and our President is really an enemy agent kind of friend or relative who needs to either be euthanized like a lame horse or trained to laugh…Arsenic is expensive and unless you live in Oregon, I suggest you give him or her a copy of T-Rex By The Tail or Bicentennial Rex for Christmas or Hanukkah. Hell, get them both books!

At a minimum, do your patriotic bit to stimulate the local economy and buy a copy from Elm Street Books or simply click on this web site’s masthead and help Jeff Bezos make an extra $10k to tip his pedicurist by using Amazon.com.

According to one angry T-Rex, “each dollar you spend helps prime the economy, keeping  people employed and paying taxes – taxes that go to fund do-gooder give-aways, socialized medicine and stitch together a social safety net that is becoming a massive European style hammock….Grrrrrr!”

A few reviews:

5.0 out of 5 stars LOVED IT, July 29, 2012
Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: T-Rex By The Tail (Paperback)

I knew it was going to be a good read, have known Mike for years. All I had to do was get past the first few pages , it was tough, and the rest was easy. I do remember being raised by a “dinosaur” and even see Woody in alot of the chapters. Mike has done a great job of allowing the younger generation to see what child rearing was, and maybe still should be, like . Congrats to a great author, and THANKS !!!!!

5.0 out of 5 stars Not Your Father’s Brady Bunch, July 29, 2013
Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: BiCentennial Rex (Tales of The T-Rex) (Volume 2) (Paperback)

This is a fun book. What self-loving Baby Boomer wouldn’t love to take a trip down a memory lane lined with humor and keen insight? And it’s a very fun and realistic trip at that. Turpin captures the charming idiocy of the adolescent male (I apologize for the multiple redundancies in this sentence) growing up in the 1970’s with wit, verve and understanding. The Patton family is much more realistic (and amusing) than that “other” southern California tribe, the Brady’s. Just as clearly, Central Casting could never have managed to find an appropriate Karl (“Rex”) . . . the Patton patriarch – a cross between an Old Testament prophet and a sleep deprived George Patton.

This is a great and funny read, full of smarts and happy memory ghosts. I highly recommend it.

Give Me Darien or Give Me Death

Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventures of She...
Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He [Moriarty] is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order.” Sherlock Holmes, The Final Problem

The last game of the regular season was a nail biter fought against a motivated rival that wanted nothing more than to prove their prowess as a 8-1 team, secure regional bragging rights and defend their year-long hold on the coveted Turkey Bowl championship trophy. Our boys were 12-0 and recently crowned FCIAC champs, now fighting to stay ranked number one in CT and for the right to join the rarefied pantheon of undefeated teams from their high school.

As with all things New England, the weather proved a fickle twelfth man – denying each squad the ability to leverage some perceived advantage. The scoring see-sawed across missed and executed assignments, made and incomplete plays, turnovers, penalties, and defensive and offensive gems. It was a thrill and agony for thousands of Darien and New Canaan fans who left the warmth of their homes in hopes of sautéing their dinners with a win in the eighty-fourth annual Thanksgiving Day meeting of the two border town rivals.

Over the years, this particular rivalry has become part of our unique, small town mythology. As the parent of a senior player, I was very familiar with the families on both sides of the ball – having shared a decade of sidelines with my fellow New Canaanites and equally invested Darien parents at countless football and lacrosse games. The only thing that separated us over the years had been a thin green patch of field and an invisible geographic line of demarcation that moved like an EKG from east to west across Southern Fairfield County.

In a place where we must endure waiting – for spring, for summer, for a seat on a train, for a storm to stop, for electricity to go back on, for a market to turn and for a second chance to right a wrong, rivalries give our lives discreet meaning. Our rivals teach us much about ourselves – how to overcome defeat, how to behave in victory, how to work hard and how to focus. It’s about periodically having your best laid plans thwarted and not getting too comfortable with press clippings or self charted trajectory. Like the old west, it’s a reminder that on any given day, there may be a guy out there who can draw his gun a little faster.

I was informed upon moving to New Canaan that the tribe to the south was indeed the enemy. Like us, they were successful, war-like and athletic. As in nature, there was only room at the top of the food chain for one champion. Initially, I found it hard to distinguish them from our own – and it seemed that our mutual disdain, like property taxes, was foisted upon us when we signed the mortgage papers. We were in fact, like two twisted oaks arising out of the same single root system. Later in life, my daughter would return home from college across three thousand miles of America and announce that her new best guy friend was a guy named Grant from Darien. Mon enfant? Sacre Bleu?

Personally, I love being a part of the almost century long rivalry between these sibling communities. Competition is the essence of our American ethos and it brings us meaning and purpose. A player is not only competing for the right to assert his/her alpha status – a rank which, by the way, carries only a 364 day shelf life; but, the competitor also gets to experience what it feels like to be a standard bearer for their town. Any regional competition becomes much more than a game, it evolves into a hot stove debate over generational genetics and who has the better coffee shop and diner. And oh, those games can be barn burners.

Like Holmes and Moriarty, Superman and Lex Luther or Batman and the Joker, rivals need each other to fuel their own identities. Closer to home, it helps promote a sense of team and community and it creates life lessons. Irrespective of statistical match-ups, each year it seems our teams prove worthy of one another. As in life, there have been epic struggles and disappointing blow-outs, tear-jerkers and made for TV endings that somehow felt as though one or the other side had been favored by the Gods. More practically, these were the first opportunities for high-bottom kids raised in cocoons of managed self-esteem to have to bite from the bittersweet apple of momentary failure.

Any rivalry that runs deep can get out of hand. Having gratefully grown up before police blotters and social media attacks on kids who (yes, it is true) occasionally make bone-headed choices, I have seen fist fights, petty pre-school exchanges between adults, school graffiti and a Wild Kingdom episode from 2012 where some weak prostate alumnae thought it would be funny to urinate on our players’ gym bags (BTW, most of those gym bags smelled the same even after the incident, so the joke’s on you guys).

Yet, compared to some of the dumb things I saw growing up, most of these bad decisions can be classified as misdemeanors of stupidity. (I did, however, think it would be clever to give the first hundred Darien fans urine specimen cups as a gate prize at this year’s Turkey Bowl but I was dismissed from the adult’s table before I could get much support.) The fact is our kids do get caught up in the rivalry and don’t always have the same evolved filters or restraints that adults are “supposed” to exhibit. The good news is kids all grow up and eventually, with exception of Washington politicians and talk show hosts, they learn not to act on the first thought that comes into their head.

I stared up at the scoreboard as the last Ram pass fell incomplete. For the first time this season, it showed a visitor winning the game, 28-24. It was a very sad moment for the senior players and the fans on the west side of the field but I could feel the elation from those parents and families shivering in the visitor section. Yes, a few Darien students ran on to the field taunting us like protestors at a G8 summit but it is hard to take anyone too seriously wearing designer high tops and a Hermes silk handkerchief tied around their face.

It did sting to lose — especially to our rivals. But, there was something about the loss that added another log to the eighty-five year old fire. It created more conversation, more conviction and a level of focus. It passed a baton to a next generation of underclassmen to protect or wrest back the trophy.

Rivalry is part of any ecosystem. It seems at our core, we are all competing and at the same time, need to identify with something greater than ourselves. We need to benchmark our progress against something that we respect that is immediate. It’s in these rivalries that we discover the best and worst in ourselves as communities and as individuals. An annual grudge match that grew out of a muddy field to give bragging rights to one half of a tiny part of Southern Connecticut, has come of age.

As I watched my son collapse on the couch later that day, I knew there was nothing I could do to console him. Time, friends and copious amounts of food and football would ease his pain. These are quiet moments where a pregnant pause can feel like nine months. However, young adults are resilient and life lessons are important alloys to building stronger characters of steel.

“They played well.” He said sighing to no one in particular. “It was a thousand little things that killed us.”

I just sat listening as he deconstructed the day in random sound bites, finally lifting his bruised body off the couch.

“I sure hope we see them again in States.” He grabbed some food from the fridge and went upstairs to take a shower.

I smiled, slowly climbing out of my vicarious parental funk.

Yeah, I thought, just wait until next time!”