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 Brigadier General Robert Kirk

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PostSubject: Brigadier General Robert Kirk   Tue Nov 15, 2016 8:40 pm



Kirk Family History

Coming from a family whose tradition of turning out soldiers dated back to the rough Northern English fighters of the Wars of the Roses. Kirk’s father, Ambrose W. Kirk was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 1797 and his mother Ellen (Pearson) Kirk in the same county in 1800. With the prospects of a new and better life Ambrose and Ellen moved to Athens, Kentucky where they found the most beautiful and bountiful pastures for their horse farm. Ambrose was able to purchase with his life savings a fine stallion who through great fortune produced some of the finest thoroughbreds in the entire state. The Kirk’s “Winfield Stables” grew and prospered.

County Records recorded a first son, Winfield G. Kirk was born in 1821; a daughter Mary Louise Kirk in 1824 and a second son, Robert Kirk in 1825.

Early Life and Education

Robert Kirk was born on the fifth of July, 1825, in Athens, Kentucky, . His early years were spent in furthering his education and working on the family farm where he became an excellent horseman. Kirk’s father owned slaves to run the farm but took special care to see to the needs of the Negroes. Families were always kept together, education was offered to the young and never was a harsh punishment doled out. This treatment of his slaves angered many of his fellow Kentuckians. Young Robert grew up considering many of his Negro mates as a friend.

In 1843, young Kirk, in his 18th year entered the Military Academy of West Point. After the usual course of four years of study he graduated in 1847, being 22 years old. During the years at West Point Kirk tended to avoid many of the adventures of his fellow classmates, spending most of his time concentrating on his studies. It was due to this dedication to his studies that Robert Kirk was chosen to tutor cadets after his first year at the Academy. During his second year Robert was assigned the duty of tutoring first year cadet Nathaniel McPherson. Nathaniel had a bit of the rascal in him and it was a a chore to get him to sit down and concentrate on his studies. But after some perseverance Nathaniel was able to buckle down sufficiently to pass each of his classes. This relationship continued through the next three years until Kirk graduated. Although they were different in personality and from different states in the Union the two became close friends. Upon graduating Kirk prayed that some of the work ethic he taught to Nathaniel would remain for his final year and the two parted ways with a vow to remain friends. Kirk’s dedication to his studies paid off when Kirk graduated second in his class just behind his closest friend, Emitt Rhodes.


The Mexican American War (1847 to 1849)


Kirk entered the army as brevet second lieutenant of engineers, an honored corps into which the most distinguished students of West Point are only admitted. On declaration of war against Mexico, Congress passed an act establishing a company of sappers, miners, and pontoon constructors to be added to the corps of engineers, and young Kirk was appointed its second lieutenant. Upon him and two other officers devolved the duty of organizing and drilling this new branch of service. The recruits were accordingly mustered at West Point, where they were practised in sapping, mining, constructing bridges, and preparing the materials for sieges. At the same time they were thoroughly drilled and disciplined as infantry soldiers. Colonel Totten, the chief of this department, declared in his report that when this new company, composed of seventy one men left West Point for the war, they were in admirable discipline, and warmly applauded the skill an energy displayed by Kirk and his associates in their work of organization and drill. Proceeding first to Camarago, in Mexico, and reporting for duty to General Taylor, the company was ordered to return to Matamoras, and act with the column about marching under the command of General Patterson. At Matamoras the captain and nineteen men of the corps were invalided and left in the hospital. Lieutenant Kirk and his comrade, Lieutenant Smith proceeded in command of the remainder of the company to Vera Cruz. Colonel Totten reported, “the company, then reduced to forty five effectives, executed a great amount of work on the road, fords, etc., as it did in proceeding thence to Tampico, where it formed, with one company of the Third and one of the Seventy Infantry, a pioneer party, under Captain Henry of the Third Infantry. The detailed reports of these labors exhibit the greatest efficiency and excellent discipline under severe and trying circumstances, Lieutenant Smith having then but one officer, Lieutenant Kirk, under his command.”

On arriving at Vera Cruz the captain, invalided at Matamoras, resumed the command of the company. To the conduct of the sappers and miners at the siege of Vera Cruz, Colonel Totten paid this tribute: “During the siege of Vera Cruz,” he said, “I was witness to the great exertions and services of this company, animated by and emulating the zeal and devotion of its excellent officers, Lieutenants Smith, Kirk and Foster.” During the whole work of the siege, the labors of the company were incessant. “The total of the company was so small,” said Totten, “and demands for its aid so incessant, that every man may be said to have constantly on duty, with scarcely a moment for rest and refreshments.” For his efforts Kirk was rewarded with the rank of brevet First Lieutenant.

“Severe labors followed the surrender of Vera Cruz and its castle, and accompanied the march to the battle of Cerro Gordo, in which the company displayed, in various parts of the field, its gallantry and efficiency. It entered the city of Jalapa with the advance of Twigg’s division, and Puebla with the advance of Worth’s. During the pause at the latter place, the instruction of the company in its appropriate studies and exercises was resumed by its persevering and zealous officers, and assistance was given by all in the repairs of the defences. Marching from Puebla with General Twigg’s division, the company was joined to General Worth at Chalon, and arrived in front of San Antonio on the 18th of August, having greatly assisted in clearing the road of obstructions placed by the enemy.


On the next day, the 19th of August, the company was placed a the head of the column commanded by General Pillow. Before the battle at Contreras opened, Lieutenant Kirk was ordered, together with another officer of engineers, to reconnoitre the position of the enemy. They, however, fell in with the advance guards of the Mexicans, and being fired upon, and losing their horses, which were killed, barely escaped in safety back to the lines. During the engagement which ensued, Lieutenant Kirk joined Magruder’s battery. General Twiggs bore testimony to his good service on that day.

“Lieutenant Robert Kirk, after Lieutenant Calender was wounded, took charge of and managed the howitzer battery with judgement and success, until it became so disabled as to require shelter. For Lieutenant Kirk’s efficiency and gallantry in this affair, I present his name for the favorable consederation of the General in chief.”

On the next day, when the battle of Churubusco was fought and the victory won, Kirk again obtained the “honorable mention” of his commander, and a rank of First Lieutenant. General P. F. Smith, with whose division the young Lieutenant served , declared in his report:

“Lieutenant Smith, in command of the engineer company, and Lieutenant Kirk, his subaltern, distinguished themselves throughout the whole of the three actions. Nothing seemed to them too bold to be undertaken, or too difficult to be executed, and their services as engineers were as valuable as those they rendered in battle at the head of their gallant men.”

Kirk was thus with the army of General Scott during the whole of its victorious progress from Vera Cruz to the capital, and at every step the young Lieutenant won an increase of honor for his good conduct. He was brevetted captain for his service in Mexico, and returned in 1848 to West Point with his company of sappers and miners, of which he soon after became commander.


Life in the East (1849 to 1856)

For the next year Kirk remained in the East passing time by study and devotion to the welfare of the service. During the summer and autumn of 1850, Kirk was charged with the superintendence of the construction of several forts in the Washington area.

During the spring of 1851 Kirk and courted Miss Mary Anna Heywood daughter of Colonel William and Rose Heywood. They were married on August 7, 1851. The next year they were blessed with their first daughter Catherine on November 22, 1852 and a second daughter, Rose was born on February 24, 1854.

From 1852 to 1856 Kirk taught cavalry tactics at West Point.


Life on the Frontier (1856 to Present)

In 1856, Kirk received a commission of captain in the United States cavalry, the branch of the service he cherished the most.


Receiving his appointment in the cavalry, Kirk was commissioned into the newly organized Second Cavalry as a captain, with its field offices at Jefferson Barracks in the vicinity of Saint Louis, Missouri.

Leaving his family behind in New York, Kirk reported to Jefferson Barracks in September, 1856 the recruitment of men for the Second Cavalry was pursued with vigor. The officers were required not only to drill the men, but to participate personally in the drilling. The training both of officers and men was under the supervision of Captain Kirk.

On October 17, 1856 the Second Cavalry was ordered to Fort Belknap, Texas, and ten days later, October 27, the journey began with a full complement of man and horses.

One month later the Second Cavalry reached Fort Washita, Texas. In the spring of 1857 Kirk was ordered to explore the sources both of the Concho and Colorado rivers, and valuable information was obtained regarding the geology and topography of the country. This was known as the Kiowa expedition and was not without serious incident. One August 26, 1857, the command engaged in a sharp fight with a band of plundering Indians from whom were recaptured a number of animals stolen from the white population. In this encounter Kirk was painfully wounded by an arrow that he removed from his leg. When it was certain that all of the Indians would be either killed or captured, one old badly wounded Indian heroically sacrificed himself, although wounded many more times, and permitted his companions, including women and children, to escape. Thomas told his interpreter to inform the Indian that his life would be spared if he would but surrender. However, the brave man replied, “Surrender? Never! Cone on, Long knives!” and went to his death.

When an expedition to Utah was being fitted out Major Thomas wrote to the adjutant general under date of July 7, 1858, to report valuable information obtained while serving as a cavalry officer at Fort Yuma, several years earlier. This concerned the possibility of navigating the Colorado River, the basis for which resulted from the questioning of Navajo and Pay Ute Indians, to within one of two hundred miles of Salt Lake City. If his estimate was correct, he reported, “It will be not only the most direct, but the most convenient and safest route to convey supplies to the troops stationed in Utah territory.”

Kirk was interested in everything that could be productive of success in his profession. It was through this hard work that Kirk was promoted to the rank of major in the United States Army on March 15 1859.


Kirk was quiet and sober, quite in contrast to the flamboyant types which so often gravitated toward the cavalry. “He is kind, and always on hand when there is fighting to be done. . . . He don't put on so much style as most officers," wrote one grateful subordinate in the Second Cavalry. The man might have been speaking of Kirk's plain, unpolished manner, or his wardrobe  in the field he usually wore an old hunting shirt "ornamented with holes," ancient blue corduroy breeches tucked into a pair of ordinary cowhide boots. It was obvious this trooper was made of sterner stuff than many. Kirk was not shy about advertising his grim streak. He once hanged a guerrilla, in an area seething with Secessionist sympathies, and left the corpse dangling from a tree limb under the sign "This man to hang three days; he who cuts him down before shall hang the remaining time."

By the summer of 1860 the temperature of the country was beginning to change. The conversations between soldiers were becoming more polarized and at times soldiers had to be parted during these heated discussions. Increased talk about an impending secession and even the possibility of war between the North and the South lead to soldiers of the Second Cavalry to express their potential loyalties. This decision was even more complicated for Kirk, being one of the soldiers from a border state.

Just what would Kirk do in a situation in which his fellow Kentuckians brought pressure on him from one side while from the other was the tremendous pull arising out of his deeply rooted training, convictions, and habits? First of all, Major Kirk was not a politician; he was a soldier, dedicated to his country: and he looked upon his flag as a symbol of that dedication. He instinctively regarded the President as his Commander-in-Chief, as the commander of all military personnel and the representative of his country before all the world. As a Kentuckian he loved every foot of her soil, and every custom, every bit of her history, and the traditions that make one proud. Robert Kirk would not lightly turn his back upon his beloved Kentucky if the country should divide, without giving most serious thought to the consequences of his act to himself, to his state, and to his country. But in the end his responsibilities as a cavalry officer in the United States Army would dominate his final decision. As Kirk made his decision many of his former friends and relatives would depart from his life, perhaps for ever.

Upon returning to his home town with his new bride during a furlough, people who knew him will passed him on the street with averted faces. Women of the church he had attended refused to recognize him. He would have been more favorable situated among strangers, despite his being in his own home town. Sadly, although perhaps inevitably, men were involved in political arguments; and murders were committed for no other reason that the victims were Union men. Some men were called to their doors at midnight and killed in cold blood. All of this was hardly worse than parting with those he had known for a quarter of a century.


Timeline   Military Career   Ranks held:

  • Cadet
  • 2nd Lieutenant
  • 1st Lieutenant
  • Captain
  • Major
  • Brigadier General
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