Thursday, June 20, 2013

What do Elizabeth Keckley, William Whedbee Kirkland, and Gypsy Rose Lee Have in Common?

William Alexander Kirkland
At the tail end of last year I wrote a series of posts that chronicled the enigmatic life of Elizabeth Keckley’s son George W. D. Kirkland (see here and here). As you’ll recall, when Ms. Keckley was a young woman she was relocated from Virginia to Hillsborough, NC where her owner “married” her to his neighbor Alexander McKenzie Kirkland.

Kirkland, a first generation American, belonged to a prominent Hillsborough family and was a graduate of Norwich University, class of 1828. He had made his money in the merchant trade, and used Keckley as a concubine. In her words, Kirkland “persecuted” her for four years, and the entire experience was “fraught with pain.” This abusive relationship resulted in a son being born, whom the father named George. This is the same George W. D. Kirkland whose life and service I wrote of earlier.

Alexander Kirkland died of cancer on May 4, 1843 when George W. D. Kirkland was only 18 months old, but as I learned in the course of my research, George was not the only son of Alexander Kirkland who would serve in the Civil War. Kirkland had a wife named Anna McKenzie Cameron, and this union also produced children.
Ayr Mount

Enter William “Red Bill” Kirkland, Rear Admiral, USN.

William Alexander Kirkland was born at Ayr Mount, the ancestral home of the Kirkland family, on July 3, 1836. He was the oldest of two boys who were the legitimate sons of Alexander Kirkland. His cousin, William Whedbee Kirkland, would rise to fame as the commander of one of the best brigades in the Army of Northern Virginia (the Pettigrew – Kirkland - MacRae Brigade).

It is likely that he never laid eyes on George Kirkland and, if he did, he probably would not have known the child to be his half-brother. When he was 14, Kirkland was appointed from North Carolina to attend the United States Naval Academy. After becoming a passed midshipman, he served on five different ships attached to the Brazil Squadron from 1856 -1863.

Life at sea, far away from the troubles that were brewing in his home state, must have squelched any desire to resign his commission and join the Confederate Navy. Kirkland did not even return to the US until 1864, when he received the command of the U.S.S. Owasco, part of David G. Farragut's Western Gulf Blockading Squadron. Kirkland later commanded the U.S.S. Winnebago, which was involved in the fighting around Mobile Bay during the last days of the war.

USS Winnebago

The Sixth Edition of The Records of Living Officers of the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps (1898) chronicles the rest of his illustrious career:
Commanding steamer “Wasp," South Atlantic Squadron, 1866-70. Commissioned as Commander, 1869 ; commanding store-ship "Guard," special service, 1873; ordinance duty, 1874; commanding "Wasp," and South Atlantic Station, 1875-6; commanding "Frolic" (fourth-rate). South Atlantic Station, 1876-7; commanding "Supply" (fourth rate), special service, 1878; leave of absence, 1879-80; commanding "Shenandoah," South Atlantic Station, 1881-2. Promoted to Captain, April, 1880; Navy Yard, Norfolk, 1883 ; commanding receiving-ship "Colorado," 1883-4; Navy Yard, New York, 1885-6 (from October, ]884, to January, 1885, in command) ; commanding receiving-ship "Vermont," 1887-9; Supervisor of Harbor, New York, from October, 1889, to July, 1891 ; commandant Navy Yard, League Island, July, 1891. Commissioned Commodore, June 27, 1893. Commissioned Rear-Admiral, March 1, 1895.
In 1894, Kirkland was removed from the command of the South Atlantic Squadron after making controversial remarks related to American missionaries in Syria. From 1896 until his death on August 12, 1898, Kirkland commanded the Mare Island Navy Yard. He is buried in the Naval Academy Cemetery at Annapolis.

While William Kirkland’s connection to George W. D. Kirkland will no doubt fascinate Civil War buffs, fans of classic cinema will no doubt be interested to learn that Kirkland’s grandson was Hollywood actor Alexander Kirkland, who starred in such films as Black Beauty (1933) and Strange Interlude with Clark Gable.  Alexander Kirkland also had the distinction of being briefly married to Hollywood heart throb Gypsy Rose Lee.
Gypsy Rose Lee

As I have found to be the case over and over again with the Kirkland family, truth is stranger than fiction.

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