William Alexander Kirkland was born in Hillsborough, N.C., on July 3, 1836, the son of Anna McKenzie Cameron and Alexander McKenzie Kirkland, a merchant. He entered the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1850 at age fourteen. In 1851 Kirkland was attached to the
PORTSMOUTH, then later to the
ST. LAWRENCE before his return to the academy in 1856. At this time, Kirkland was promoted to passed midshipman. Between the years 1856 and 1863 he served on several ships attached to the Brazil Squadron. By 1858 he had been promoted to lieutenant and by 1862 to lieutenant commander. The following year, Kirkland received orders to serve on the
JAMESTOWN followed by the
WYOMING in the East Indian Squadron. He was on the
WYOMING when the ship attacked the forts on the Shimonoseki Straits in Japanese waters.
After returning to the Unitized States in 1864, Kirkland received his first command. This was on the gunboat
OWASCO, part of Rear Admiral David G. Farragut's Western Gulf Blockading Squadron. Until the end of the Civil War, Kirkland commanded the river monitor
WINNEBAGO, which was involved in fighting during the last months of the war around the Mobile Bay Area.
In 1866 Kirkland returned to South America to serve as commander of the
WASP. Two years later, the commander of the South Atlantic Squadron, Charles H. David, ordered Kirkland to rescue Charles A. Washburn, the American minister in Asuncion, Paraguay. At this time, Paraguay was involved in the War of the Triple Alliance. Kirkland, who spoke fluent Spanish, was able to persuade Paraguay's dictator to allow the release of Washburn. Owing much to this achievement, Kirkland was promoted to commander in 1869.
During the next decade Kirkland spent two years ashore on ordnance duty and in various other command positions. In 1880 he was promoted to captain while serving on the
SHENANDOAH on the South American station. During the next decade Kirkland remained ashore commanding in succession the Norfolk Navy Yard, receiving ship
COLORADO, New York Navy Yard, receiving ship
VERMONT, Harbor of New York League Island Navy Yard, and as governor, the Naval Home in Philadelphia.
In 1894, Kirkland was given command of the South Atlantic Squadron, but then requested an assignment to the European Squadron. Expecting to be further promoted, instead, Kirkland was soon removed from the command of the squadron. This demotion occurred after Kirkland made some controversial remarks related to the French president and American missionaries in Turkey.
From 1896 until his death, Kirkland commanded the Mare Island Navy Yard in California. He died on August 12, 1898, and was buried in the Naval Academy Cemetery at Annapolis. In 1860, Kirkland had married Consolacion Victoria Gowland of Montevideo, Uruguay. She died in February 1909. Together they had five children (Anna Rebecca, Maria Isabel, Florencia Maria, Roberto Lathrop Gowland and William Alexander, Jr.), all born in Montevideo.
Dictionary of North Carolina Biography. Edited by William S. Powell. The University of North Carolina Press.