General William Whedbee Kirkland: A North Carolinian at War
by Peter Koch

William W. Kirkland was born Feb. 13, 1833 at "Ayr Mount" in Hillsboro to a family with substantial land holdings in central North Carolina. Life growing up in Orange County must not have been too dull for Kirkland and his many siblings. At age eleven, his twelve-year-old brother accidentally shot him in the hip but the ball was made of oak and he escaped serious injury. Appointed to West Point in 1852, Kirkland was expelled in 1855. He did receive a commission in the US Marine Corps that year, but as one of the few surviving pieces of his writing attests, this was a poor substitute.

I have always desired to be in the army. I deprived myself of this privilege by my improper course at West Point; but this is past. In 1855 I was commissioned in the 1st Regmt of Cavalry by Mr. [Jefferson] Davis-but owing to my having been a cadet, my class being at the Point...I was not permitted to accept the appointment. To relive my disappointment Mr Dobbin [Sec. of Navy] gave me my present commission. There [in China] I saw active service and was fortunate enough to receive a distinguished notice....But I am anxious to return to the army to my old regiment if possible or to any regiment, but I would much prefer mounted service. (Anderson)

General W.W. Kirkland

Nothing came of this 1859 letter to an influential family friend or of his auspicious marriage to Susan Hardee, niece of William J. Hardee. With the growing sectional tensions, Kirkland resigned the Corps in August 1860.

The following March, Kirkland was appointed captain in the new Confederate Army. He helped form the 11th Regiment NC Volunteers, becoming its first Colonel that June. “This efficient and accomplished officer, with vigorous efforts, brought the regiment to a state of perfection in discipline and drill, which was afterwards properly appreciated by those of us who became intimately acquainted with the stern realities of war.” (Clark, 129) Kirkland led this regiment at First Manassas and during the Valley campaign until he was shot through both thighs at First Winchester. It took more than a year to heal although he managed to serve as Patrick Cleburn's chief of staff during the Murfreesboro campaign. In June 1863, Kirkland rejoined the redesignated 21st NCT in time for Gettysburg. He survived and was promoted to Brigadier General in August. Transferred to Pettigrew's old brigade, Kirkland was shot through the arm during the disappointing action at Bristoe Station. After a four-month rest in Savannah, he returned to lead that brigade during the 1864 Overland campaign until he was again wounded in the right thigh at Cold Harbor. Another bout of healing necessitated a change in brigade leadership and William McRae was appointed in Kirkland’s place. After two months of recuperation, Kirkland joined Hoke's division to command James Martin's brigade. After spells of heavy fighting, particularly around Fort Harrison in September, Hoke's men were ordered south to help defend Wilmington.

Kirkland is difficult to track in the ANV as his absences rival Taliaffero and Trimble's in length. His ability showed in the Overland campaign and on other occasions and Robert E. Lee did not push for Kirkland's transfer as he did other sick or injured leaders whom he mistrusted. However, when the very able and more efficient McRae took over his brigade, Kirkland found himself on the outside and transferred to P. G. T. Beauregard’s nearby army. Thus in late 1864, he led his brigade back to the Old North State in one of the few large and well-organized Confederate divisions. After a difficult trip by rail, the men arrived in Wilmington on December 23. Along the way, soldiers in the 42nd NCT built fires in the cars to keep warm while those in the 66th reputedly drank a barrel of corn whisky supplied by Governor Vance.

Upon arriving near Fort Fisher on Christmas Eve, the ex-Marine and his brigade attempted to stop the Federal landing just north of the fort. Unfortunately, his regiments had a great deal of sand to cover and too much ship-borne firepower arrayed against them. Kirkland withdrew his men to a line covering the peninsula north to Wilmington but not before Company A of the 42nd NC was surrounded and forced to surrender in an abandoned battery. Fort Fisher's defense was strong, though, and the attackers were beaten back. As the Federals retreated to their boats, no counter-attacks were made on the beachhead, a small number of whom remained on shore overnight. This failure is attributed to Bragg who had command of the department although Hoke probably should share some of the blame. Had such an attack been made, Kirkland's brigade would have been in the forefront. Instead they spent the next two weeks in bivouac adjacent to Wilmington before the Federal navy again appeared off Cape Fear.

Kirkland’s brigade marched with the rest of Hoke's division in a review at Wilmington on January 12, 1865. That evening, Federal amphibious forces again appeared off Fort Fisher. Yanked from either their bivouacs or from the pleasures of Wilmington, the men were hustled onto steamers for the ride down river to the Sugar Loaf defenses. As in December’s amphibious action, Kirkland's troops skirmished with the Federals close to the water's edge. However, Hoke surprisingly refused to launch a full-scale assault. Over the next two days, Kirkland merely maintained a presence along the peninsula to Wilmington. On the 15th, Clingman and Kirkland's brigades probed the Federal’s but did not attack in strength, a move that again puzzled the troops. Some felt that the Federal lines, in part manned by inexperienced USCT troops, could be driven in. Instead, Hoke kept his men back and the unhindered Federals overran Fort Fisher that evening.

For the next month, Kirkland held the middle of the Sugar Loaf line. While there was constant skirmishing and a drain of casualties, no serious effort was made by the Federals until February 12 when both sides made several attacks and counter-attacks. Kirkland's 17th NCT sustained the heaviest losses but the lines held firm. Only after the Sugar Loaf line was outflanked by the successful Federal attack on near-by Fort Anderson did Hoke withdraw the men towards Wilmington. From the 19th through the 22nd, Kirkland's troops fought in several skirmishes as part of the rearguard. The last action was at McRee's Ferry, a crossing over the Cape Fear north of Wilmington where the retreat was bottlenecked. Kirkland's men helped hold off the Federals while the crossings were destroyed, causing the pursuit to be suspended.

Kirkland and his men retreated slowly to the northwest until March 5 when they took trains eastward as part of a large operation designed to block Schofield's advance on Goldsboro from New Bern. The small battle at Wise's Forks (Second Kinston) was the result of this operation. On the 8th, Kirkland led Hoke's division through a swamp around the Federal flank. In the ensuing attack, Kirkland and his men cut off a Federal brigade, capturing between 800 and 1500 soldiers. Following a day of skirmishing, the Confederates attacked on the 10th with Kirkland again in the forefront. This time, however, the effort was uncoordinated and Kirkland’s brigade advanced alone, becoming stalled in the open against strong Federal positions. They sustained roughly 300 casualties in the two-hour action before withdrawing back towards Smithfield.

The Bentonville campaign, Johnston’s last attempt to slow Sherman’s advance, started for Kirkland’s troops on March 18 with a fifteen-mile march that placed them on the left of Johnston’s ambush. The brigade began the action on the 19th in reserve but was soon placed on the left flank as Federal skirmish lines moved through the woods and swamps looking for the flanks of the Confederate advance. The North Carolinians easily pushed back these light attacks, having entrenched in the swampy ground just minutes before firing. As the general Confederate attack ground through the Federals, Hoke’s division remained stationary until late in the afternoon. At that point, Hoke tried a frontal assault on entrenched Federal lines but the division was repulsed. On the 20th, Kirkland’s brigade was involved in a difficult maneuver as the Confederate army, shifted to the northeast. Withdrawing slowly, the brigade’s skirmishers covered the retreat of the division. The most dangerous moment came when two Federal regiments pressed forward to take advantage of any possible confusion. Johnston, informed that Kirkland faced this assault, reputedly stated, “[L]et them attack. I know of no brigade in the Southern Army I would sooner they would attack.” Kirkland withdrew his brigade into line with the rest of the division, faced the men about and waited for the Federals. Several calmly delivered volleys sent them scurrying back with heavy losses. That night, and for the rest of the battle, the brigade skirmished with the Federals, anchoring the right flank of Hoke’s curved lines.

Kirkland survived Bentonville intact and drew praise for his performance from both contemporaries and recent historians such as Mark Bradley and Nathaniel Hughes. Yet it should be remembered that this was an experienced leader with relatively large battalions of veteran troops. Hoke regularly selected Kirkland to perform the most difficult and dangerous tasks probably because the rest of the division had sustained heavier casualties or was indifferently led. Yet, at Bentonville, Hoke has been criticized for not attacking earlier on the 19th and for not fully utilizing all his forces, Kirkland’s in particular. Indeed, Hughes points out that there is no documentation that Kirkland pressed the attack with any enthusiasm. This echoes the results in January at Fort Fisher and earlier in March at Wise's Forks, two other failures to fully develop desperate but not suicidal situations. A lack of after-action reports or writings by Hoke and Kirkland also raises questions although it might indicate a desire not to point fingers at the other man involved in each of these situations, Bragg.

After Bentonville, Kirkland's brigade moved west with the army. As part of the rearguard, the brigade moved through Raleigh towards Greensboro. Southwest of Chapel Hill, the men encountered rain-swollen creeks that hindered progress and caused several deaths. On April 17, they camped at Redcross, southeast of Greensboro, just into Randolph County. Ten days later, Hoke moved the division west towards Archdale due to concerns that hostilities might break out again. During the time Kirkland's brigade had stayed at Redcross over 700 men had deserted. Now ordered to march again, according to General Hagood, only forty out of the remaining 300 were willing to follow orders. Luckily the last enemy guns had been heard back in Alamance County and Kirkland received paroles for the brigade in High Point on May 1.

William Kirkland lived in Savannah for several years after the war. Like many ex- Confederate officers, he found employment in jobs that seem at odds with his training and career. He worked in the commission business until he moved to New York City. There he took a position in a post office. Possibly he and his wife moved to be closer to their daughter Elizabeth who had become the successful actress known as Odette Tyler. He ended his life as an invalid in a soldier's home in Washington DC, passing away on May 12, 1915 of kidney failure. Kirkland was buried in the family plot of his son-in-law at Elmwood Cemetery, near Shepherdstown WV.


Official Records, Series I, Vol 46, Part I.

Official Records, Series I, Vol 47, Part I.

Anderson, Jean Bradley. The Kirklands of Ayr Mount. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1991.

Barefoot, Daniel W. General Robert F. Hoke: Lee's Modest Warrior. Winston-Salem: John F. Blair Publisher, 1996.

Bradley, Mark L. Last Stand in the Carolinas: The Battle of Bentonville. Campbell, CA: Savas Woodbury Publishers, 1996.

Clark, Walter, ed. Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-65. Vol II. Goldsboro: Nash Brothers Book and Job Printers, 1902.

Fonvielle Jr., Chris E. The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope. Campbell, CA: Savas Publishing Co., 1997.

Freeman, Douglas Southall. Lee's Lieutenants: A Study in Command, Vol. III. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1944.

Gragg, Rod. Confederate Goliath. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.

Hughes Jr., Nathaniel Cheairs. Bentonville. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1996.

Warner, Ezra J. Generals in Gray. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1959.

Welsh, Jack D. Medical Histories of Confederate Generals. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1995.

For more information check out:

Kirkland's Home, "Ayr Mount"