Any reasonably serious researcher, historian, or student of the War Between the States will immediately recognize the title of this article and know exactly to who it refers. Richard Rowland Kirkland was, at the Battle of Fredericksburg (11 – 15 December 1862), a Sergeant serving with Company G, 2nd South Carolina Regiment, Kershaw’s Brigade. His regimental commander - Colonel John Doby Kennedy - was a Freemason and Kirkland’s original company commander when Kirkland first enlisted into Company E of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment. Kirkland’s brigade commander at Fredericksburg was Brigadier General Joseph Brevard Kershaw – also a Freemason. Both Kennedy and Kershaw would eventually hold the position of Grand Master of Masons in their home State of South Carolina. No obvious evidence has been found that suggests that Kirkland was also a Freemason but, if he wasn’t, he should have been.
The following editorial from The News and Courier, by General Kershaw and dated 29 January 1880, tells Kirkland’s story rather well.
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 indelibly impressed upon my memory.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 1862. The day after the sanguinary battle of Fredericksburg, Kershaw's Brigade occupied theroad 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 the 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 another sufferer.
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 suffering. For an 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.
This incident occurred during a bitter cold spell in December when the thermometer fell to zero.
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 humanity. - 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".