The Angel of Mayres Heights
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.”