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Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Angel of Fredericksburg


The battle of Fredericksburg had been fierce. It was not the bloodiest of America's Civil War, but it was bloody enough, with over 7,000 casualties on the Union side against 1,200 Confederates. General Jackson occupied the high ground of Marye's Hill and his men had the Union army pinned down behind a four-foot stone wall 150 yards away. The ground between the two sides was literally covered with fallen Union soldiers. Temperatures dipped below freezing on the night of December 13th, 1862, and many of the wounded froze to death. Others used whatever means they could to keep warm throughout the night, including scavenging the possessions of their dead comrades -- and sometimes even using their bodies as shelter from the cold.

By the next morning the continuing skirmish was punctuated with cries from the wounded. "Water!" they cried. "Water!" But the Union soldiers couldn't get to them; the Confederates wouldn't let them approach.

The cries for water affected many of the soldiers, but none more than Sergeant Richard Kirkland. Kirkland was a member of General Kershaw's Second Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers. Throughout the morning he listened to their cries, and finally he could take it no longer.

Kirkland made his way to Kershaw's tent, saluted the general, and said, "Sir, all through last night and all through the morning I have heard the poor wounded Federal soldiers crying for water. I request permission to go give them some."

The general sat back in his chair and looked up at the young sergent. He wasn't much to look at, but there was something about his earnestness that struck the general. "Sergeant, you realize of course that the moment you go over that wall you will probably get a bullet put through you."

"Yes sir," the young sergeant replied, "But I am willing to try."

The air hung thick with cold and anticipation for a moment. In the background the men could hear the crack of a rifle, followed by a call for water. "Very well," the general said at last. "I ought not let you go on this fool's expedition, but the spirit that moves you is so noble I cannot refuse. Go, and may God protect you."

The young sergeant saluted and left the tent. He gathered up a half dozen canteens, made sure they were full of water, and went for the wall. One or two of his fellow soldiers tried to stop him, but most, seeing what it was he meant to do, just watched in amazement.

On the other side of the battlefield, there was no less amazement when, during a lull in the skirmish, the Union soldiers saw a figure slip over the wall they had tried in vain to take the day before. A few took aim, but lowered their rifles when they saw that his hands in the air, and six canteens slung about his neck and shoulders. The Confederate soldier, keeping an eye on his foes a few yards away, carefully approached a wounded soldier calling out for water. He raised the canteen to the man's lips and let him drink. Then Kirkland took the man's backpack, propped his head up against it, and did his best to arrange the man's broken limbs to make him as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.

"Hold your fire!" the call went up from both sides. "Hold your fire!"

Kirkland continued in this way, giving water to the parched soldiers until his canteens ran out. As he shook the last of the water out of the last canteen, he heard a thump behind him. He flinched and ducked, as any soldier on a battlefield would, and then heard two more thumps. When he looked up three canteens lay near him, tossed there by Union soldiers.

All that day Kirkland delivered water to the wounded.

I wish I had a happier ending than to tell you that Kirkland did not survive the war. He was killed at the battle of Chickamauga less than a year after Fredericksburg. His heroic service does not go unremembered, however; on Sunken Road near Fredericksburg, there is a monument to Kirkland, designed by sculptor Felix DeWeldon, who is better known for the monument commemorating the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima.


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