by Bill Dolack
It was a horrifying scene. Although shrouded in darkness, the hillside at Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg was littered with the dead and dying. Anguished cries from the Union wounded called out into the frozen air, leading to an incredible act of bravery and charity on the part of one young Confederate soldier.
Union forces began their assault on Fredericksburg early in the morning of December 13, 1862. While one division engaged Stonewall Jackson’s forces in a tremendous back-and-forth that cost many lives on both sides (“The action was close-handed and men fell like leaves in autumn,” reported one Union soldier from Pennsylvania), another set its sights on Marye’s Heights.
Major General Edwin Sumner’s troops began their assault at noon. Targeted by Confederate artillery atop the heights that blasted holes through their formations, the Federal forces doggedly worked their way to a canal spanned by three partially destroyed bridges. Cannon balls continued to tear through their lines at this bottleneck, sending more and more soldiers to an early grave.
Eventually, Sumner’s men established their lines under the cover of the canal ditch that afforded some protection. From here it was pretty much an open slope—with very little cover—that led to the fortified stone wall behind which the Confederate forces were amassed. The order came, the men fixed their bayonets, and, with a Yankee war cry, they charged the enemy that lay but a few hundred yards distant.
Instantly, the artillery barrage, joined by almost uncountable rifle fire, rained down upon the advancing men, cutting most down where they stood. Those who were not killed sought out any cover they could find… the lone brick house, a few scattered outbuildings, several slight knolls. Wave after wave, the Union soldiers left the safety of the canal ditch in an ill-fated attempt to breach the Confederate lines at the top of Marye’s Heights.
The death toll was staggering: in just one hour, the Union troops suffered 3,000 dead.
But still, it continued. Despite the impossible odds, the Federals continued to pour out into the killing field where ceaseless cannon balls and bullets ravaged their lines. Each wave of attack fell short of its mark; nary one Union soldier reached the stone wall behind which the Confederate forces were entrenched.
All through the day, more and more Union soldiers entered the fray, picking their way around the bodies of their dead and wounded comrades… with most of the newcomers fated to soon join them. Charge after charge, they carried on, with some soldiers making it within 25 yards of the enemy line before being cut down in a deadly hail of gunfire.
“The smoke lay so thick that we could not see the enemy, and I think they could not see us,” recalled one Union officer, “but we were aware of the fact that somebody in our front was doing a great deal of shooting. I found the brick house packed with men; and behind it the dead and the living were as thick as they could be crowded together. The dead were rolled out for shelter, and the dead horses were used for breastworks. The plain thereabouts was dotted with our fallen.”
After 15 separate, unsuccessful charges up the hill, the fighting ceased for the night, leaving the slope littered with thousands of broken, bloody Union bodies. Around midnight, Union soldiers ventured forth under cover of darkness to gather what wounded they could find.
Although the fighting had ended for the day, the suffering continued through the night. With a cold north wind sweeping in across the field, temperatures plummeted below freezing, leaving the remaining wounded to cry out in anguish.
“Weird, unearthly, terrible to hear and bear,” the cries of the dying soldiers—lying crippled on a hillside so many miles from home—filled the air, breaking the hearts of soldiers on both sides of the battlefield.
As dawn broke the following morning, December 14, one Confederate soldier could take the weeping of the dying no longer. Sergeant Richard Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina Infantry, a 19-year-old soldier, was grieved at the suffering of the Union wounded, and asked for permission to aid the enemy. His commanding officer was reluctant to let Kirkland climb the stone wall and descend into the field among the devastation where he would be an easy target for Federal sharpshooters. Finally, permission was granted, provided he not carry a weapon—if he was shot and killed, the weapon would be lost—and that he not carry a flag of truce. Accepting these conditions, the brave young man collected a number of canteens from his fellow soldiers, and scrambled over the wall.
Expecting a shot from the Union line that would take Kirkland’s life, the Confederates watched expectantly as the sergeant made his way toward a grievously injured northern soldier. The Union soldiers watched, but did not fire, as the Confederate soldier knelt down alongside the wounded man, gently cradled his head, and lifted a canteen to his parched lips.
The Union line broke into a loud cheer at this incredible act of charity on the part of Kirkland. The cheering subsided, and the Federal forces watched in silent awe as Kirkland went from wounded soldier to wounded soldier, bringing what little comfort he could to these dying men. For an hour and a half, he gave life to the words of Christ, who told us to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and do good to those who hate us.
Now, I don’t know if Richard Kirkland was a Christian or not… but I like to think that his willingness to risk laying his life down for his northern friends was done to fulfill Jesus’ words that “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Even if he didn’t, can’t this man’s heroism and compassion be an example to us?
Kirkland’s act not only showed compassion and love, it was an attempt at reconciliation. A Confederate soldier was willing to risk his life to comfort dying Union soldiers, men who, just hours before, would have killed him without a second thought.
Would we, if in similar circumstances, be willing to do what Richard Kirkland did?
Are we, wherever God has placed us in life, willing to reach a hand of reconciliation and love across the battle lines toward our enemies?
As Christmas approaches this year, what a great time it is to reflect on Jesus’ love for us as lived out in the life of one solitary soldier who made a difference in the hearts of so many on that bloody battlefield so long ago.