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Last words: ‘Tell my father I died right’

COLUMBIA, S.C. — In the rotunda of the South Carolina state capitol is a painting of the “Angel of Marye’s Heights.”

The angel was Sgt. Richard Rowland Kirkland of Camden, S.C, a soldier in the Army of Northern Virginia who fought at bloody Fredericksburg. Va., in December, 1862.

During a pause in the battle, both sides stood opposite each other while the dying and wounded remained on the field between them. Neither side would help because of the danger of being shot. Kirkland, 19, emerged with his canteen and began giving water to the wounded in the no man’s land between the armies. He helped both Reb and Yank as he put himself in peril.

Both sides held their fire.

His act of heroism earned him the title of “Angel of Marye’s Heights,” and the Robert Windsor Wilson painting displayed here shows the young soldier giving water from his canteen.

His role in the war came to an end the next October. He was promoted to lieutenant after Gettysburg, and a bullet found him at Chickamauga.

His dying words were, “Tell my father I died right.” He was awarded the Confederate Medal of Honor in 1977 by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He is buried in Camden.

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Here for a funeral at a church a block from the Capitol, I had time on my hands Saturday at noon.

I wandered over to the Capitol only to find a small detachment of Confederate re-enactors, dozens of Confederate flags waving, a cannon, a couple of Southern belles in hoop skirts and people making speeches, reciting the names of soldiers killed in that war.

A monster Confederate flag was draped on the steps of the Capitol, the same building where it once flew from the top. South Carolina treasures its reputation for different. Saturday was Confederate memorial day here.

I didn’t see a single protester.

The service lasted maybe two hours. All the Confederate flags were gone when I left the funeral. The grounds were swept clean of any trace of the ceremony.

I wandered about the beautiful grounds. There’s a larger-than-life statue of U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond. There’s a statue honoring the sacrifice of the Civil War women. There’s a stone marking the location of the South Carolina capitol building burned by Yankee Gen. Sherman’s troops in 1865. There’s a large display showing the experience of blacks in South Carolina from slavery to the present day. And in front of the Capitol, there is a statue erected in 1879 with an inscription that may explain why South Carolinians still honor those war dead 153 years later.

It reads: “Let the stranger, who may in future times read this inscription, recognize that these were men whom power could not corrupt, whom death could not terrify, whom defeat could not dishonor. And let their virtues plead for just judgment of the cause in which they perished. Let the South Carolinian of another generation remember that the state taught them how to live and how to die. And from her broken fortunes she has preserved for her children the priceless treasure of their memories, teaching all who may claim the same birthright that truth, courage and patriotism endure forever.” On the flip side, the monument recalls the soldiers’ sacrifices and says they died “in the belief that at home they would not be forgotten.”

On Saturday, South Carolina again remembered.

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The state also remembers Joel Roberts Poinsettia with a plaque in the capitol rotunda. He was an advisor to presidents Monroe, Madison and Jackson and served as minister to Mexico 1825-30. He brought home a Christmas flower that now bears his name.

— Dwight Sparks