Primary tabs


Pictures and Illustrations.

Joseph Kirkland. From the frontispiece photograph of The Captain of Company K.


Joseph Kirkland's Company K

By Clayton A. Holaday.

Clayton A. Holaday is a member of the English department at western Michigan College, Kalamazoo, Michigan, which he joined after seven years of teaching at Louisiana State University. He received a Ph. D. degree from Indiana University in 1949 and has had articles published in Hoosier Folklore, American Literature and the New England Quarterly.

THREE articles in this Journal during recent years call attention to the work of a long neglected Illinois novelist and historian, Joseph Kirkland. The earliest of these, by professor John T. Flanagan, mentions Kirkland's first two novels, Zury, The Meanest Man in Spring County (1887) and The McVeys: An Episode (1888), in connection with his study of the midwestern historical novel. In a subsequent issue, Professor Clyde E. Henson sketches Kirkland's life, comments briefly on the two novels mentioned by Professor Flanagan, and then discusses in some detail the biographical and historical elements of the introductory chapters of Kirkland's third novel, The Captain of Company K (1891), a Civil War story. The most recent Kirkland article in the Journal contains the only thorough analysis of The Prairie Chicken (1864-1865) to be found in print.

In so far as Illinois history is concerned, Kirkland's last


novel, The Captain of Company K, is the most interesting of the three. It is, probably, the only realistic novel about the Civil War based upon the actual experiences of midwestern volunteers. For this reason, if for no other, it deserves more complete analysis than it has heretofore received.

To understand what Kirkland was trying to do in this novel, how he used factual materials, and what relation the novel bears to actual history, it is first necessary to review briefly that portion of the author's life directly concerned with the war.

When war broke out in 1861, Joseph Kirkland, then thirty, was living with his family in Danville, Illinois, where he was an agent for the Chicago and Carbon Coal Company. Having met Lincoln when Lincoln was riding the old Eighth Circuit, and having entertained him at least once in his home, Kirkland wrote to Lincoln on January 6, 1861, to offer his services as a private secretary when Lincoln should take over the duties of the presidency in March. Failing to obtain this position, Kirkland volunteered for active service in the Army on April 25, 1861, in Danville. Possibly because he had lived in Chicago for several years previous to coming to Danville and still had many friends there, Kirkland joined Company C, Twelfth Illinois Infantry Regiment (three month volunteers), which was considered a Chicago regiment. Along with John McVey and several other boys from the Danville area, he caught the troop train of the Illinois Central at Champaign and headed south for training at Camp Defiance, just outside Cairo. On the train or shortly after their arrival in camp, the men of Company C elected Kirkland Second Lieutenant.

During most of the month of May, Kirkland drilled,


learned discipline, and practiced tactics with the other volunteers of the Twelfth Illinois. Very probably like the others, he also became impatient with delays and longed for some real action.

In the meantime, another former Chicagoan, George B. McClellan, had been recalled to active duty and given the task of organizing the Department of the Ohio which consisted of the states of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. On one of his early inspection tours of military installations in the area, he renewed his acquaintance with Lieutenant Joseph Kirkland, a young man whom he had met five years earlier in Chicago when both were working for the Illinois Central Railroad. Late in May or early in June when McClellan took the field in preparation for the invasion of western Virginia, Kirkland joined him as an aide on detached service from the Twelfth Illinois Volunteers. Although he was serving with McClellan during the battles of Rich Mountain and Laurel Hill in the West Virginia campaign, he seems not to have participated actively in either of these actions since there are no references to him in connection with them in The War of the Rebellion: Official Records or in George B. McClellan, McClellan's Own Story (New York, 1887).

After successfully carrying out the West Virginia campaign, McClellan left for Washington, D. C., on July 22, 1861, to replace General McDowell as commander of the Army of the Potomac. At the same time Kirkland apparently returned to Camp Defiance to await further developments. He did not have long to wait, for shortly after McClellan arrived in Washington, he offered Kirkland a promotion to the rank of captain and a position on his personal staff to assist him in


the reorganization of the Army and the preparation for the campaign against Richmond. Kirkland left the Twelfth Illinois Volunteers permanently on August 26, 1861, to join McClellan in Washington.

Serving first under McClellan and later Fitz-John Porter, Kirkland fought through the entire Peninsular Campaign, and the Official Records carry five reports by his superior officers attesting to his bravery and self-sacrifice under fire. Unfortunately, however, this close association with two of the most controversial figures of the early war years involved him indirectly in the struggle for power in the Army that was going on between General McClellan and his supporters on the one hand, and General Pope and Secretary of War Stanton on the other. Although Kirkland tried to stay on the sidelines — he was serving as volunteer aid to General Butterfield in the battle of Fredericksburg during the court-martial of General Porter — he found himself, late in 1862, reduced in rank and completely unassigned. Realizing that through no fault of his own his effectiveness to the war effort was ended, he resigned his commission on January 7, 1863, and returned to civilian life in Danville.

Kirkland was not embittered by his experiences in the war, but he had come to know personally of the delay and sometimes even the subversion of the primary purpose for fighting which behind-the-lines battles can have on the war effort. As a result, his complete sympathy lay with the common soldier who, as he stated some thirty years later, "is like a blind horse in a quarry; a precipice on every side and a lighted blast under his feet; his only comfort the bit in his mouth and the feeling of a human hand holding the reins over his back."

Ironically, within a few months after Kirkland left the Twelfth Illinois in order to "get into the war," it began a


series of campaigns that were to carry it first into Kentucky, then to Tennessee and Mississippi, and eventually all the way to the Atlantic in Sherman's march to the sea. That Kirkland did not lose track of his old regiment is proved by the fact that in the April 1, 1865 issue of The Prairie Chicken he published an original poem entitled "From Atlanta to the Sea" which he wrote in the dialect of central Illinois, and later, in the November 1, 1865 issue, a letter from John Shipner, a Tilton, Illinois boy who had lost a leg in battle (an incident which may have suggested the injury to the central character, Fargeon, in The Captain of Company K). The subsequent report of the death of "Dick" Skinner and John Kinzie, sons of two of his old Chicago associates, reminded Kirkland and other Chicagoans of the toll which four years of service takes on any regiment.

The circumstance which brought Kirkland and the Twelfth Illinois Volunteers together again in 1889 grew out of the composition of his first two novels, Zury, The Meanest Man in Spring County, and The McVeys. Although he never actually articulated a plan of development, it is quite apparent from his letters to Hamlin Garland in 1887-1888 that he came to think of his novels as a sort of three-part fictional history of the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century in Illinois.Zury told of the hardship of farm life in the early years and the effect which this life could have on a sensitive person; The McVeys covered much the same period but dealt with life in the small town and in the growing railroad and mining industries; The Captain of Company K would bring together representatives from the various areas to show the influence of war upon the common soldier, the product of these varied forces.

Because Kirkland's novel was to represent Illinois' effort in the war, he could not use his own experiences in the Peninsular


Campaign as source material since most of the troops in McClellan's army had been drawn from the New England states. He finally solved this problem by combining his own memories of scenes and situations with the actual record of the battles in which the Twelfth fought as obtained from magazine articles, pictures, and conversation with veterans.

The Captain of Company K opens with a vivid picture of the recruiting activities in the noisy, dust filled old Wigwam in Chicago where Lincoln had been nominated as the Republican candidate for President less than a year before. Kirkland shows the enthusiastic but completely disorganized efforts of the people to equip a volunteer regiment, and the tearful departure of the men for camp. Following the troops to Cairo, he describes in realistic detail the monotony and boredom of the life of the trainee and introduces us to several typical soldiers: the braggart-coward; the humble, steady country boy; the frightened new officer; the dependable, businesslike "regular Army" lieutenant.

The first battle in which Kirkland's Company K engages can be equated with an abortive raid in which the Twelfth took part near Paducah, Kentucky, called the Grand Hill Skirmish. Although Kirkland supplied a few accurate details such as the fact that the "Sixth" (this is, the real Twelfth) was carried to the scene of the skirmish aboard the steamer J. R. Graham, the description of the fighting probably closer resemblance to his own first experience under fire in Virginia than to the actual exploits of the Twelfth. The Confederate officer, Captain Huger, for example, with whom Fargeon in the novel discusses an exchange of prisoners, was actually General Benjamin Huger of South Carolina, an officer in the Confederate Army opposing McClellan in the Peninsula; and it was the soldiers of South Carolina who were called "Fire Eaters," not those of Louisiana as in the novel.


Though Kirkland's account of this minor engagement is no doubt historically inaccurate, it is noteworthy in the development of realistic fiction as possibly the first example of a description of battle in which the "hero" of the story became so frightened that he not only did not lead his troops to victory, but actually ran from the fighting. It is important, too, as a realistic picture of new soldiers marching off to battle loaded down with useless equipment, some even carrying their tent floor boards strapped to their backs. This first stage in the transformation of the civilian soldier into the battle hardened veteran was a ludicrous one, and Kirkland did not spare either his own feelings or those of his old comrades in order to throw into sharper perspective the subsequent picture of the grim visaged, humorless fighting machine that these men became.

The second stage in this transformation for Kirkland's "Sixth Illinois," as it was for the real Twelfth, was the capture of Fort Donelson. In his description of this battle, however, Kirkland follows the historical record much more closely than he had in that of the Grand Hill Skirmish. He describes the landing of the troops in the swamp which guarded the river approaches to the town of Dover, Tennessee and the Fort and he explains in some detail the unsuccessful attempt of the Confederate General Buckner to break through the Union lines for an escape southwestward. He mentions the presence of Taylor's Battery, another Chicago unit that took part in the battle, and accurately analyzes the decision of the Confederate staff to send General Floyd to safety across the Tennessee River, leaving General Buckner "to bear the burden of defeat and ruin. Kirkland's account of the fighting ends, as did the actual battle, with the appearance of the white flag of surrender over the Fort just as the Union forces are preparing for what many thought would be a suicidal attempt to take it by assault.


Of some historical interest, too, is Kirkland's description of General Grant spraddled on a camp stool at the entrance to the hospital tent, "a short, dark man in plain clothes and a slouch hat, smoking a cigar." Kirkland also reports accurately Grant's response when, on Saturday, February 15, 1862, General Buckner proposed capitulation and asked terms: "Unconditional surrender," Grant replied, adding "I propose to move at once upon your works."

The novel, however, contains more than a stale rehashing of the events of the battle. Again we are indebted to Kirkland for a realistic picture of the incredible confusion and lack of planning that characterized the fighting in the early days of the war. Disembarking from the steamer Saginaw, the men of the "Sixth" flounder through the mud and snow to their assigned position only to discover that their supply wagons have not arrived and that they must spend the night in near zero weather without tents or other equipment. Then, late the next day, Company K, which is stationed "on the right," is attacked by a strong Confederate force. When the men, according to instructions from Captain Fargeon, begin to retire, they are fired on by their own men under command of Colonel Puller. This "affair on the right," though probably apocryphal, suggests the inefficiency and appalling lack of wisdom which was typical of the actions of many of the ranking officers of the volunteer regiments since appointments were frequently made for political rather than military reasons.

Another detail in the novel based upon fact but probably altered by Kirkland for purposes of satire, grows out of the visit to Fort Donelson after the battle by Governor Yates and a group of volunteer nurses sent south by the Chicago chapter of the Sanitary Commission. Captain Fargeon, like his creator


Captain Kirkland, has contracted swamp fever; but when "the burden-sharers," including Fargeon's fiancee, arrive, they are so sickened by the sight of the wounded men that all except one spend their time on board the steamer Athabasca or in the little town of Dover entertaining the officers.

The final engagement into which Kirkland sends the men the "Sixth Illinois" is the Battle of Shiloh. Again he bases his account solidly upon fact, modifying events slightly to suit the needs of fiction. He picks up the story of the battle at the time the troops are encamped at Pittsburg Landing in Tennessee, preparing for an attack against the Confederates at Corinth, Mississippi. A discussion of tactics between Captain Fargeon and Lieutenant McClintock reveals that Grant is waiting for reinforcements being brought up by General Buell before attacking. The Lieutenant, however, fears that the Confederates under Generals Beauregard and Johnston may attack first. Since Kirkland is writing from hindsight, that is exactly what happens.

Kirkland's description of this battle is by far the most effective in the novel. He begins with a view of the men lolling indolently about the camp, made lethargic by what seems to them to be unseasonable early April heat. Then we see them strike their tents, strip themselves of extra equipment, and prepare for fighting as the first reports of enemy action filter back from the forward units. We catch glimpses of skulkers sliding from tree to tree as they try to reach safety in the rear, and of officers charging up and down the lines, brandishing their swords and threatening to shoot any man who fails to hold his place in the line. An artillery unit, the Fourth U. S. Artillery, sets up its guns in a businesslike way and begins to shell enemy positions.

As the day wears on, it begins to take on a hideous nightmare


quality. Lines break, companies become completely disorganized, and no one knows where friend or foe stands. We experience this terrifying disintegration of a fighting force through the eyes of Captain Fargeon and Corporal Mark Looney, who become separated from their friends of Company K in the violent fighting during the afternoon of the first day when Company K and the others of the "Sixth" are caught in the thick of the fighting in that area of the battlefield appropriately named the "Hornets' Nest." Kirkland's account of this action seems to be historically accurate, inspired, I believe, by the graphic pictures of the "Hornets' Nest" fighting contained in the Cyclorama of Shiloh which was on display in Chicago at least as early as 1887. Kirkland describes the beginning of the battle, the subsequent action in which the "Sixth" (that is, the real Twelfth) is isolated and flanked, and the final pell-mell retreat in which it is driven back into the lines of a Michigan regiment.

With the lull in the fighting at the end of the first day, Kirkland breaks off his description of the battle and returns to an account of the fortunes of his protagonist, Captain Fargeon, who lies wounded at the edge of the "Hornets' Nest," attended only by his corporal, Mark Looney. Having no idea of where their own lines are, if indeed there are any "lines," they huddle hopelessly in a thicket, listening to the distant thunder of the artillery and the more frightening sounds of corpse robbers close by. This shocking activity, which must


have accompanied many of the battles, becomes even more terrifying as we listen to the robbers fighting over the bodies of the dead soldiers. Fearing their treatment at the hands of the corpse robbers (Confederate or Union) even more than capture, Corporal Looney volunteers to search for aid and is eventually successful. Fargeon is rescued and counts himself lucky to have lost only one leg in the engagement.

Except for occasional references to subsequent battles in which the "Sixth" took part, Kirkland's "history" of the "Chicago Regiment's" participation in the war ends with Shiloh. He does, however mention other subjects of interest to students of Illinois history. The reference to Dr. Brainard whom Fargeon was sure could cure the "swamp fever" he contracted at Donelson is another of those realistic touches Kirkland was so fond of working into his fiction. Dr. Brainard was an eminent Chicago physician, a member of Rush Medical College. Judge Mark Skinner, the friend of Captain Fargeon's benefactor Colin Thorburn, was a well known Chicago barrister, prominent in both city and state politics, particularly in the Democratic Party. General McClellan, whose name appears several times in the novel, needs no further identification. Kirkland obviously held his wartime commander in as high regard as he had nearly thirty years before despite the fact that McClellan had been discredited in the eyes of many people. And the novel shows why. Kirkland believed that McClellan's primary concern during his tenure as General of the Army of the Potomac had been for the welfare of the common soldier, and that he had sacrificed political advantage to preserve this principle.

One example will suffice. When Fargeon and McClintock are discussing tactics before the battle of Shiloh, McClintock suggests that they should be building trenches around


the Pittsburg Landing encampment just in case the Confederates should attack first. Fargeon immediately quotes Section 643 of "Army Regulations" pointing out that "unless the army be acting on defensive, no post should be intrenched," and he reminds McClintock that it was just such cautiousness on McClellan's part that brought him into disfavor with the Northern press.

"I've heard our men laugh at McClellan for a ‘dirt-shoveler’ as the newspapers called him."

"Captain Fargeon, that was before our men ever smelt powder, I guess. You mark a line on the ground and say, ‘Boys, you'll fight there, now do you've a mind to about building breast-works,’ and what do you think will happen?"

Will laughed. "I think I should begin hunting picks and shovels myself; so I suppose others would too."

"Yes, sir! Or bayonets, musket-butts, rails, branches, tin-cups, dinner-plates, caps, shoes, feet, fists, fingers, and finger-nails, if they couldn't find picks and shovels!"

"The breast-work would suit everybody but the enemy, I should think."

"If I were Little Mac, I'd glory in the name of the ‘dirt-shoveler.’ The newspaper fighters — back in their solid brick walls — may laugh and jeer, but you watch and see what the rank and file of the army in the field thinks of McClellan."

What is significant about this and other passages in which McClellan's name is brought up is the emphasis upon McClellan's concern for the safety of his men in clear contrast, by implication, to Grant's "I propose to move at once upon your works." Kirkland obviously still held his former commander in high regard, but he also respected General Grant and his method of conducting war and did not hesitate to praise each for what he did best.

A word remains to be said about The Captain of Company K in relation to other Civil War fiction. It is not, as Professor Henson implies, merely a fictionalized account of the author's brief period of service in the Illinois Volunteers


Nor is it, like its contemporary, Corporal Si Klegg and His Pard, by Colonel Wilbur F. Hinman, simply a series of humorous, incidents based upon the author's knowledge of soldiers and soldiering gained through several years of service in various theatres of the war. It is, rather, a serious attempt on the part of the author to record in fiction the actual exploits of an identifiable group of soldiers. As Professor Flanagan has demonstrated, it is an inferior novel; but one explanation for its inferiority lies in the fact that Kirkland could never bring himself to sacrifice history to fiction. Furthermore, in its unadorned picture of the horrors of war frequently made worse by the bungling and downright stupidity of incompetent officers, and in its insistence upon the dignity of the common soldier, it clearly marks the path to what has come to be thought of as the "modern" approach to the theme of war in fiction. Illinois is indeed fortunate to have such an unusual memorial to her participation in the most significant of all civil conflicts.



1. John T. Flanagan, "The Middle Western Historical Novel," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. XXXVII (March, 1944), 7-47.

2. Clyde E. Henson, "Joseph Kirkland's Novels," ibid., Vol. XLIV (Summer, 1951), 142-46.

3. "The Prairie Chicken: A Rarity," ibid., Vol. XLVII (Spring, 1954), 84-88; see also John O. Mabbott and Philip D. Jordan, "The Prairie Chicken," ibid., Vol. XXV (Oct., 1932), 154-66.

4. For Kirkland's account of this evening, see The Prairie Chicken, July, 1865; see also Mabbott and Jordan, "Prairie Chicken," 164-66.

5. Robert Todd Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress, Letter 5833.

6. Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Illinois (Springfield, 1900 I: 340.

7. Ibid.

8. George B. McClellan, Report on the Organization and Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac: To Which Is Added an Account of the Campaigns in Western Virginia (New York, 1864), 11. "It was not until the 13th May that the order, forming the Department of the Ohio and assigning me to the command, was received."

9. Ibid., 35-36. McClellan says Kirkland was on his staff "at the time of taking the field," which could refer to May 27, 1861 the date when he first issued orders for the formation of an army, or to June 14, 1861, when he actually began to move troops east.

10. Ill Adjt. Gen. Rept., (Springfield, 1867) I: 205.

11. Joseph Kirkland, The Captain of Company K, (Chicago, 1891), 187.

12. For Kirkland's letters to Garland see Clayton A. Holaday, "The Captain of Company K, A Twice-Told Tale," American Literature, XXV (1953), 62-69.

13. For a more detailed account of this part of the novel and possible biographical elements in it, see Henson, "Kirkland's Novels," 144-45.

14. Kirkland, Captain of Company K, 188-210; see also Lew Wallace, "The Capture of Fort Donelson," in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, (4 vols., ed. by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel of Century Magazine, New York, 1887), I: 420-26.

15. Kirkland, Captain of Company K, 203; Wallace, "Capture of Ft. Donelson," 205, says, "In dress he [Grant] was plain, even negligent. . . at the council — calling it such by grace-he smoked, but never said a word."

16. Kirkland, Captain of Company K, 214.

17. Bessie Louise Pierce, A History of Chicago (New York, 1940), II: 258n.

18. According to Gen. Don Carlos Buell, "Shiloh Reviewed", Battles and Leaders, I: 538, H and M companies of the Fourth U. S. Artillery, Capt. John Mendenhall commanding, were attached to the Fourteenth Brigade and fought throughout the battle.

19. For a factual account of the fight in this area, see ibid., 504-6.

20. Ibid., 504, 505, 511, includes pictures of four scenes from that section of the Cyclorama which covers the Hornets' Nest action. Kirkland's account can be found in Captain of Company K, 284-94.

21. U. S. Grant, "The Battle of Shiloh," Battles and Leaders, I: 473, says, "In one of the backward moves, on the 6th, the division commanded by General Prentiss did not fall back with the others. This left his flanks exposed, and enabled the enemy to capture him, with about 2200 of his officers and men." On p. 472 there is a drawing of the Confederates charging into the Camp of Gen. Prentiss.

22. According to Gen. Buell, "Shiloh Reviewed," pp. 496-98, the Twelfth Illinois was commanded by W. H. L. Wallace under General Smith (see diagram pp. 496-97); the Michigan troops into whose midst Kirkland's "Sixth" is accurately described as retreating was a part of the Sixth Division commanded by General Prentiss. The fierceness of the fighting is attested by the fact that Wallace was killed and General Prentiss taken prisoner.

23. Kirkland, Captain of Company K, 229.

24. Pierce, History of Chicago, II: 399.

25. Kirkland, Captain of Company K, 327.

26. Pierce, History of Chicago, II: 225 and passim.

27. Kirkland, Captain of Company K, 264.

28. Ibid., 265.

29. John T. Flanagan, "Joseph Kirkland, Pioneer Realist," American Literature, Vol. 11 (1939), 279-80.