Sunday, December 5, 2010

Angel of Marye's Heights

This is a script I wrote for  my son's 8th grade history assignment

Angel of Marye’s Heights

Narrator:  I am going to present to you the story of the soldier who became known as the Angel of Mayre’s Heights.  I am going to do this by portraying him, a gentleman who wrote a poem about him, and a fellow soldier.  The gentleman:

Mr Clark:  (at a desk writing) Mr. Walter A. Clark, 1908 The Angel of Mayre’s Heights:

A sunken road, and a wall of stone
And Cobb’s grim line of gray
Lay still at the base of Mayre’s hill
On the morn of a winter’s day

And crowning the frowning crest above
Sleep Alexander’s guns,
While gleaming fair in the sunlit air
The Rappahannock runs.

On the planes below the blue line glow
And the bugle rings out clear,
As with bated breath they march to death
And a soldier’s honored bier.

For the slumbering guns awake to life
And the screaming shell and ball
From the front and flanks crash through the ranks
And leave them where they fall.

And the gray stone wall is ringed with fire
And the pitiless leaden hail
Drives back the foe to the plain below,
Shattered and crippled and frail.

Again and again a new line forms
And the gallant charge is made,
And again and again they fall like grain
In the sweep of a reaper’s blade.

Richard Kirkland:  (best southern accent you can do)  I was born in Kershaw County, South Carolina, Camden town, August 1843, the second youngest of 7 children.  My mother passed when I was 2, so I owe my raising to my grandparents, father and older siblings.  We farmed three large tracts, which kept us busy. 

When my home state of South Carolina seceded from the Union; there was no doubt I would enlist.  You see the Union is like a marriage, if one party is aggrieved, it has every right to leave the union, and that is what my state decided to do, leave the Union.

I thought war was all glory, but quickly I learned otherwise.  Flags waved and woman cheered as we marched out of town to Charleston.  We had visions of easy victory and battlefield glory. 

I participated in most of the battles in the Eastern Theater, Manasses, the Seven Days’ Battle when we repelled the Union Army that was threatening Richmond.  We then fought in Maryland.  However I imagine you are most interested in the battle of Fredericksburg.

If the Union had been able to obtain the high ground, they’d have had us whipped.  The Rappahannock saved us. They had to cross the river, and when their pontoons did not arrive on time, General Lee lead us onto the high ground. We had two days to fortify, before the Union troops could cross the river and join us for the dance.

I served in Kershaw’s Brigade, under General Joseph Kershaw.  By this time I had been promoted to sergeant.  We were stationed to the right of the heights, defending a draw near Hazel’s Run.  To our right were Jackson’s men; and it was there were the fighting began on the morning of December 13.  I understand the Federals gave quite a fight; but Jackson and his men were able to repulse them. 

After they were repulsed on the right the federals tried their luck against our center; the heights beyond Fredericksburg; Marye’s Heights.  This was defended by an old sunken road.  This road, over the years had had a wall built around it when stones were removed from the road.  This defensive position had been improved over the last couple of days.  It presented a formidable defense.   

Under the orders of General Burnside; Maj. Gen. Edwin Sumner's troops began their assault at noon. Targeted by Confederate artillery atop the heights that blasted holes through their formations, the Federal forces doggedly worked their way to a canal spanned by three partially destroyed bridges. Cannonballs continued to tear through their lines at this bottleneck, sending more and more soldiers to an early grave.

Eventually, Sumner's men established their lines under the cover of the canal ditch that afforded some protection. From there it was pretty much an open slope - with very little cover - that led to the fortified stone wall behind which our forces were amassed. The men fixed their bayonets, and, with a Yankee war cry, they charged.

Instantly, the artillery barrage, joined by almost uncountable rifle fire, rained down upon the advancing men, cutting most down where they stood. Those who were not killed sought out any cover they could find ... the lone brick house, a few scattered outbuildings, several slight knolls. Wave after wave, the Union soldiers left the safety of the canal ditch in an ill-fated attempt to breach our lines at the top of Marye's Heights.

The death toll was staggering: in just one hour, they suffered 3,000 dead.

For our part, we defended our front, but we were not pressed as hard as Marye’s Heights.  During this pitched battle, our regiment was called upon to move and reinforce the sunken road.  We first covered the advance of another regiment.  When we repositioned we came under cannon fire; so we double timed and made our way as quickly as possible.

The sunken road was a well defended position.  Our men were in three lines, each taking their turn at firing, so we were able to keep up a steady volley:  Shoot, step back, remove your ramming rod, clean the barrel, Place your powder and a mini ball, tamp down the ball, replace your ramrod, take a powder, open with you mouth, place powder in the flashpan, step forward, aim, fire. 

Despite the impossible odds, the Federals continued to pour out into the killing field where ceaseless cannonballs and bullets ravaged their lines. All through the day, more and more Union soldiers entered the fray, picking their way around the bodies of their dead and wounded comrades with most of the newcomers fated to soon join them. Charge after charge, they carried on, with some of the attackers making it within 25 yards of our line before being cut down in a deadly hail of gunfire.

The smoke lay so thick that we could scarcely see the enemy. The Federals rolled out their dead for shelter, and used dead horses for breastworks.

After 15 separate, unsuccessful charges up the hill, the fighting ceased for the night, leaving the slope littered with thousands of broken, bloody Union bodies. Around midnight, Union soldiers ventured forth under cover of darkness to gather what wounded they could find.

Although the fighting had ended for the day, the suffering continued through the night. With a cold north wind sweeping in across the field, temperatures plummeted below freezing, leaving the remaining wounded to cry out in anguish.

You may know, but perhaps you don’t, that being wounded, losing blood, creates a tremendous thirst.  Weird, unearthly, terrible to hear and bear, were the cries of the dying soldiers - lying crippled on a hillside so many miles from home.  They filled the air, breaking the hearts of soldiers on both sides of the battlefield.  “Help Me!  Water, water! 

As dawn broke, the two armies faced each other.  Our brigade occupied the road at the foot of Marye's Hill and the grounds about Marye's House, the scene of our desperate defense of the day before. One hundred and fifty yards in front of the road and stone wall, lay Sykes Division of Regulars, U. S. A.  Between them and our troops a murderous skirmish occupied the whole day, fatal to many who heedlessly exposed themselves even for a moment.

Still the wounded cried, "water ! water !"  I was grieved at the suffering of the Union wounded. All that day those wounded men rent the air with their groans and agonizing cries.

Finally I could take no more.  I visited the General Kershaw as he sat in his headquarters in the North room upstairs of Mrs Stevens' House. (With an expression of disgust in his voice) General, I can't stand this.  All night and all day I have heard those poor people crying for water and can stand it no longer. I come to ask permission to go and give them water."

The General regarded me for a moment.  He finally said, "Kirkland, don't you know that you would get a bullet through your head the moment you stepped over the wall?" Yes, Sir, 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."

My eyes lit up with pleasure. Thank you Sir, I said.  I ran rapidly from the room and down the stairs. However I paused, turned around and bounded back up the stairs, two at a time, and reapproached the general. Certainly he thought my heart had failed me. He was mistaken.  General, can I show a white handkerchief? The General thought a moment, then slowly shook his head, saying emphatically: "No, Kirkland, you can't do that.”  All right, Sir, I'll take my chances. (salute)
Accepting these conditions, I collected a number of canteens from my fellow soldiers, left my weapon behind, and scrambled over the wall. I filled the canteens at the well behind Mayre’s house.  I then crept onto the field, exposing myself to enemy sniper fire.  The greatest danger was at the outset.  The Union soldiers did not know my intent.  They must have thought I intended to rob the dead and wounded.  I weaved like a snake as quickly as I could, and heard several balls whistle past, that were hurled in my direction.  My fellow Confederates watched expectantly, fearing a shot from the Union line would take my life. I scrambled to the nearest sufferer.  The Union soldiers watched, but did not fire.  I knelt down alongside the wounded man, gently cradled his head, and lifted a canteen to his parched lips. The Union line broke into a loud cheer. This done I 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.  The cheering subsided, and the Federal forces watched in silent awe as I went from wounded soldier to wounded soldier, bringing what little comfort I could to these dying men. After my intent was known, the danger was over.  I would give each wounded man a drink, and then replace their canteen with a full canteen, taking theirs to refill.  For an hour and a half I carried canteens back and forth, returning to replenish them at the well, and then venturing out into the killing field again.  I continued until all the wounded upon our front had been supplied with water, and the cries for water had subsided.

Mr. Clark: 
And then from out of the battle smoke
There falls on the lead-swept air
From the whitening lips that are ready to die
The piteous moan and the plaintive cry
For “water” everywhere.

And into the presence of Kershaw brave
There comes a fair-faced lad
With quivering lips as his cap he tips,
“I can’t stand this,” he said.

Stand what? The general sternly said
As he looked on the field of slaughter
“To see those poor boys dying out there
With no one the help them, no one to care,
And crying for water! water!”

If you’ll let me go, I’ll give them some.
Why, boy, you’re simply mad;
They’ll kill you as soon as you scale the wall
In this terrible storm of shell and ball,
The general kindly said.

Please let me go the lad replied.
May the Lord protect you, then!
And over the wall in the hissing air
He carried comfort to grave despair
And balm to the stricken men.

And, as he straightened their mangled limbs
On their earthen bed of pain,
The whitening lips all eagerly quaffed
From the canteen’s mouth the cooling draught
And blessed him again and again.

Like Daniel of old in the lion’s den,
He walked through the murderous air
With never a breath of the leaden air
To touch or to tear his gray-clad form,
For the hand of God was there.

And I am sure in the Book of Gold,
Where the blessed angel writes
The names that are blessed of God and men
He wrote that day with his shining pen
Then smiled and lovingly wrote again,
The Angel of Marye’s Heights.

Ario Niles:  I served with Richard Kirkland in many battles.  He distinguished himself at Gettysburg and was promoted to lieutenant.  After Gettysburg, we went with Longstreet’s Corp, to support the fight in the West.  We entered the fray around Chattanooga, the Battle of Chickamauga, on the second day of the conflict, September 20, 1863.  We fought back and forth charging and counter charging, for Snodgrass Hill.  Towards the end of the day we broke through the Union line; then met a stiff resistance from their reserves which forced us to make a temporary retreat.  A few of us, with Kirkland, were in front of the line when we found ourselves exposed.  I turned back quickly, but Kirkland insisted on facing the enemy and firing at their advancing troops, covering our retreat.  He was shot in the chest and fell mortally wounded.  James Arrants and I tried to carry him from the field.  “No I’m done for,” he said.  “You can do my no good.  Save yourselves.  Tell Pa I died right.  I died at my post.”  Those were his last words.

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