Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Compassion in War (The Battle of Fredericksburg)

The Union army came across the wide plain in beautiful order, a moving forest of steel, hundreds of regimental flags giving a russet tinge to the wintry landscape. The army, in its thousands, came relentlessly toward the stone wall, the wind rippling its flags, the sunlight sparkling from its musket barrels and bayonets.

“General Lee was right in what he said,” thought nineteen year old Sergeant Richard Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina watching this grand spectacle, “It is good that war is so terrible or men would come to love it.”

Kirkland knew war. He had fought at first Manassas, Savage Station, Maryland Heights and Antietam. He had killed and seen beloved friends killed. And now as he crouched behind the stone wall above the little town of Fredericksburg, Virginia he prepared to kill again.

The Northern host moved steadily forward until the guns of Kirkland and his brother soldiers began to thunder from behind the stone wall. An avalanche of iron whistled, shrieked, and burst into the bodies of the men in the advancing lines. The lines shuddered, staggered for an instant, and then dissolved. But the Yankees kept coming, wave after wave, crashing against that stone wall until only nightfall brought the slaughter to an end, leaving thousands of dead and dying men on the frozen field.

A chilly fog filled the valley. The cries of the wounded echoed in the darkness. A single agonized scream quivered above the others, and then merged into the crescendo of thousands of voices pleading in a disorganized chorus of pain.

“Damn Yankees,” said Newt, a big bellied veteran in his forties, “I wish they’d all just die and shut the hell up. I wish they had just one neck, I’d crawl out there and chop it off.”

“It’s a terrible noise,” said Kirkland, running a hand over the slight blond beard that barely covered his still soft cheek. “We could crawl out there and help some of them boys.”

“Help them to Hell you mean?”

“No, not help them to Hell. Give ‘em some water or something. Here we are two weeks from Christmas and you’re wanting to crawl out and kill wounded men. And you call yourself a Christian?”

“You’ve been shooting ‘em all day, and now you want to save them? That don’t make good sense, ” said Newt spitting a stream of tobacco juice in the direction of the Yankees, a trickle of the brown liquid trailing down his long filthy beard.

“My pa says that even in a battle you shouldn’t hate your enemy, any more than the sheriff hates a lawbreaker. My pa says war is a terrible scourge. You do your duty, but you don’t add to the evil by hating individuals.”

“Sounds like your pa ain’t spent much time on the battlefield.”

“Maybe not, but that don’t mean he’s not right about this,” said Kirkland. “That could be you or me out there.”

“But it ain’t,” said Newt. “Besides, I ain’t never heard of no Yankee worth his own weight in shit. I’m sure there ain’t one worth getting shot over.”

“I’m going to slip over the wall and give some of them boys water,” said Kirkland.

“You do, and they’ll shoot you down sure. And if they don’t Colonel Kershaw will have you shot for deserting your post. You do know we are at war with those people?”

“I’d better talk to the Colonel first,” said Kirkland.

“You do just that. And be sure to tell him about Christmas and how you want to give the Yankees a present,” Newt said.

Kirkland made his way back to the headquarters of the brigade commander Colonel Joseph Kershaw.

“Sergeant Kirkland, you are a good man and you have done good service, but we’d just best leave God in church for Sunday morning and leave him off the battlefield,” said Colonel Kershaw, a man of commanding presence in his early forties, who looked benignly at Kirkland from behind firm blue eyes.

“But I’ve heard General Jackson say that this is God’s army and that we must have God with us always. General Jackson says we must pray without ceasing. When we take our meals, when we take a draught of water, when we write a letter, and so for every act of the day,” said Kirkland.

“And I’ll tell you what I’ve heard General Jackson say,” said Kershaw, his eyes hardening, “when we were fighting during the Seven Days, a Yankee colonel on a white horse was riding up and down in front of his men, bold as brass, rallying his men. And we didn’t shoot because it was such a sight of magnificent gallantry. General Jackson rode up and said to me, ‘Why are you not shooting at that man’. And I answered, ‘General, we are honoring that man’s heroic bravery’. General Jackson said to me, ‘Shoot that man. If you kill the brave, the weak will run.’”

Kirkland’s lips pressed together tightly. “Sir, I request permission to speak to General Jackson so that I may ask him directly if I may comfort the wounded.”

Colonel Kershaw flushed red. He wasn’t going to risk being reprimanded by General Jackson a second time. General Jackson was a tough old cob, that was sure, but you never knew which way he was going to jump. “Alright boy, you hear me now,” said Kershaw, flecks of spit boiling from the corners of his mouth, “If you want to get yourself killed then you go over that wall. But if you do, you are not taking a white flag. I don’t want to see so much as the flutter of a white handkerchief, and if I do I’ll have you shot for desertion. You will have to rely on the mercy of those people. Do you understand me sergeant?”

“All right, sir, I'll take my chances,” answered Kirkland.

Kirkland returned to the stone wall, gathering up whatever canteens and blankets he could along the way.

“Colonel says I can go,” Kirkland told Newt.

“You are the damndest fool.”

Kirkland scampered over the wall. A shot rang out.

“I knew that damned fool would get shot,” thought Newt. “I warned him. Hell, now I guess I’ll have to crawl out there and save his sorry ass.”

But Kirkland was not dead, or even wounded. He made his way toward the closest wounded Union soldier. The soldier, laying flat on his back, tried to raise his rifle but didn’t have the strength.

“Probably thinks I’m going to chop his neck off,” thought Kirkland. Kirkland gave the man water which the wounded soldier gulped gratefully.

Another shot rang out. “Probably think I’m looting the corpses,” thought Kirkland, with the sickening realization that now the Yankees weren’t shooting at the Confederate army, they were shooting at Richard Rowland Kirkland.

Kirkland crawled on to the next soldier and the next, making his way through the writhing mass of mangled bodies. Some begged for water. Some called on God for pity. Some with delirious, dreamy voices, murmured loved ones names. Kirkland could do little but ease a painful posture; give a cooling draught; compress a severed artery; apply a crude bandage; take a token or farewell message for some stricken home.

Within a very short time, it became obvious to both sides what Kirkland was doing. There were no more shots. Some of the men behind the stone wall began to cheer, but no one came out to help.

Cries for water and comfort erupted all over the battlefield. There were thousands upon thousands of wounded men. There was so little he could do, but Kirkland kept crawling from man to man. It reminded him of those red tides along the beach when he was a boy. He still didn’t know why they called them red tides, but that’s what they called them. Thousands of fish would suddenly wash up on the beach, seemingly for no reason, flopping helplessly, gasping for air, dying. He spent one entire summer afternoon picking up fish and throwing them back into the sea. One of his friends said, “Richard, you must be addled. Can’t you see you’re not doing any good. There are thousands of them”. He remembered throwing another fish back and then saying, “It did that one some good.”

As dawn approached and the armies prepared to renew the fight, Kirkland slid back across the stone wall and slouched down next to Newt.

“Someday you’re going to get yourself killed with that kind of foolishness,” said Newt.

“If I do, tell my pa, I died right.”

Authors note: This fictionalized story is based on a true incident. Sergeant Richard Kirkland is known to history as the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” for his compassionate acts upon the battlefield of Fredericksburg. Kirkland was killed in action at the Battle of Chickamauga at the age of twenty. At the time of the Battle of Fredericksburg, Kershaw was a Brigadier General. He initially refused to let Kirkland go onto the field to help the Union wounded, but relented. He refused to let Kirkland go out under a white flag.

My titles on Amazon

My titles at Barnes & Noble

The best reading experience on your Android phone or tablet, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Windows 8 PC or tablet, BlackBerry, or Windows Phone.