When the Civil War broke out, Kirkland was colonel of the 11th North Carolina Volunteers, later designated the 21st North Carolina. He fought at First Manassas, and, the next year, he participated in Stonewall Jackson's Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Kirkland was shot through both thighs during the First Battle of Winchester, putting him out of action for several months. When he returned, Kirkland became chief of staff for Patrick Cleburne during the Murfreesboro campaign in December 1862.
Kirkland returned to active service with his old regiment at the Battle of Gettysburg, taking part during the fighting on July 1 & 2. He was promoted to brigadier general in August 1863, and commanded the former brigade of J. Johnston Pettigrew at the Battle of Bristoe Station, where his left arm was fractured by a bullet. In 1864 he fought in the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania before being wounded again at the Battle of Cold Harbor, when he was once again shot in the right thigh. Kirkland was assigned to the command of another brigade in Robert F. Hoke's division in August 1864.
Kirkland served under James Longstreet at Richmond, taking part in the attack on Fort Harrison in October 1864. Transferred to North Carolina in December, Kirkland assisted in the defense of Fort Fisher by forcing back the Federal advance under the command of Benjamin Butler. Later, when the Confederates abandoned the fort and withdrew to Wilmington, he commanded the rear guard and directed events in the fighting at Wise's Fork. He fought at Bentonville and surrendered with Joseph Johnston on April 26, 1865 in Greensboro, North Carolina.
William W. Kirkland in The Guns of the SouthEdit
In 1864, General William Kirkland commanded a brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia. His brigade was equipped with the new AK-47 repeating rifles while in winter quarters and successfully used them during the Battles of the Wilderness and Bealeton and the storming of Washington City.
Kirkland believed in leading from the front and so was in the vanguard of his brigade in the advance on Washington City. In fact Sgt. Nate Caudell was taken by surprise (and secret horror) when he challenged orders Kirkland issued in the dark and discovered who he was talking to. Kirkland was irate to be challenged and ordered Caudell to lead one of the squads he was sending out to outflank Federal forces that had set up makeshift field fortifications defending an approach to the city.
Both survived the fight and met up again within the city when Caudell approached him seeking permission to try and capture the White House. Kirkland's hearing was sharp and he recognized Caudell's voice as that of the "mouthy sergeant from the fight in the dark" but on thinking over his request, he warmed up and agreed, stating that he had no orders to the contrary. As a result, men from his brigade were among the first at the White House and to take President Abraham Lincoln prisoner.