Joseph Brevard Kershaw
We are fortunate to have in the authentic words of General Joseph Brevard
Kershaw the true story of Marye's Heights.
Camden, South Carolina, January 29, 1880
To the Editor of The News and
Your Columbia correspondent referred to the incident narrated
here, telling the story as 'twas told to him, and inviting corrections. As such
a deed should be recorded in the rigid simplicity of actual truth I take the
liberty of sending you for publication an accurate account of a transaction
every feature of which is indellibly impressed upon my
Richard Kirkland was the son of John Kirkland, an estimable
citizen of Kershaw County, a plain substantial famer of the olden time.
In 1861 he entered as a private, Captain J. D. Kennedy's Company E of
the Second South Carolina Volunteers, in which Company he was a sergeant in
The day after the sanguinary battle of Fredericksburg, Kershaw's
Brigade occupied the
road at the foot of Marye's Hill and the grounds about
Marye's House, the scene of their desperate defense of the day before. One
hundred and fifty yards in front of the road, the stone facing of which
constituted the famous stone wall, lay Sykes Division of Regulars, U. S. A.
between whom and our troops a murderous skirmish occupied the whole day, fatal
to many who heedlessly exposed themselves even for a moment. The ground between
the lines was nearly bridged with the wounded, dead and dying Federals, victims
of the many desperately gallant assaults of that column of 30,000 brave men,
hurled vainly against that impregnable position. All that day those wounded men
rent the air with their groans and agonizing cries of " water ! water
In the afternoon the General sat in the North room upstairs of Mrs
Stevens' House in front of the road, surveying the field, when Kirkland came up.
With an expression of indignant remonstrance pervading his person, his manner
and the tone of his voice, he said: "General, I can't stand this" "What is the
matter, Sergeant?" asked the General. He replied: " All night and all day I have
heard those poor
people crying for water and can stand it no longer", I came
to ask permission to go and give them water."
The General regarded him
for a moment with feelings of profound admiration and said: " Kirkland, don't
you know that you would get a bullet through your head the moment you stepped
over the wall?" " Yes, Sir, he said, I know all about that, but if you will let
me, I am willing to try it" After a pause the General said: " Kirkland, I ought
not to allow you to run such a risk, but the sentiment which actuates you is so
noble, that I will not refuse your request, trusting that God may protect you.
You may go."
The Sergeant's eyes lighted up with pleasure. He said "Thank you
Sir" and ran rapidly down stairs. The General heard him pause for a moment and
then return, bounding two steps at a time. He thought the Sergeant's heart had
failed him. He was mistaken. The Sergeant stopped at the door and said: "
General, can I show a white handkerchief ?" The General slowly shook his head,
saying emphatically: " No, Kirkland, you can't do that.' "All right, Sir, he
said, I'll take my chances." With profound anxiety, he was watched as he stepped
over the wall on his errand of mercy, Christ-like mercy. Unharmed he reached
nearest sufferer. He knelt beside him, tenderly raised the drooping head,
rested it gently upon his own noble breast, and poured precious life giving
fluid down the fever scorched throat. This done he laid him gently down, placed
his knap-sack under his head, straightened out his broken limb, spread his
over-coat over him, replaced his empty canteen with a full one, and turned to
By this time his purpose was well understood on both
sides and all danger was over. From all parts of the field arose fresh cries of
" Water, for God's sake, water!" More piteous still, the mute appeal of some one
who could only feebly lift a hand to say, here too is life and
For and hour and a half did this ministering angle pursue his
labor of mercy, nor ceased to go and return until he had relieved all of the
wounded on that part of the field. He returned wholly unhurt. Who shall say how
sweet his rest that Winter's night beneath the cold stars.
occurred during a bitter cold spell in December when the thermometer fell to
Little remains to be told. Sergeant Kirkland distinguished himself
in battle at Gettysburg
and was promoted Lieutenant. At Chickamauga he fell
on the field of battle in the hour of victory. He was but a youth when called
away and had never formed those ties from which might have resulted a posterity
to enjoy his fame and bless his country; but he has bequeathed to American
youth, yea, to the world, an example which dignified our common
J. B. Kershaw
Note : General Kennedy of whose Company
E., Kirkland was an original member, also testified that " the enemy, as soon as
they divined his mission ceased their fire and cheered".
FEATURES: CIVIL WAR UNITS: Kershaw's Brigade, CSA