From Hennessy: To see Part 1, click here.
This constituted our second stop on Sunday’s Remembrance walk. This passage was read by Beth Parnicza at the Kirkland Memorial
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We should be repelled by war and warfare. They are an exercise in pain, aiming to inflict enough harm and anguish to compel an opposing army to collapse or a society to give up. In that, Fredericksburg is a case study.
The battle here in December 1862 very nearly brought the Union army to its knees. At the same time, what happened here made clear that civilians and their homes would not always be spared. The fortitude and commitment of white Southerners to all that the Confederacy represented to them would be challenged again and again. Until Appomattox.
But despite all the suffering and struggle entailed by war, we are compelled to look. We are attracted by it. Why?
One powerful reason: the immense challenges and even inhumanity of war almost always inspires people to great and selfless acts of humanity. We are awed by such acts, which often entail immense courage. We often wonder of ourselves: could we, would we have done the same?
And so here we remember….Richard Kirkland and those like him who, amidst crushing inhumanity, endeavored to help those in peril or pain.
Richard Kirkland was only 19 at Fredericksburg, with only ten months to live. He and his fellow South Carolinians joined the fight in the Sunken Road late that winter afternoon. Like his fellow Confederates, he endured the cold of the night after, and the sounds of the wounded left on the Bloody Plain.
The next day, he could endure the sounds no more. He went to his brigade commander, Joseph Kershaw, in the Stevens house. “General, I can’t stand this,” Kirkland said. Kirkland request permission to cross the wall to help the wounded.
General Kershaw at first said no, warning Kirkland that he would be killed. Kirkland insisted, and finally Kershaw conceded. He gave permission, and Richard Kirkland THANKED him–THANKED his commander for permitting him to risk his life to help others.
And so Kirkland crossed the wall, armed only with canteens.
The distant Union troops—about 150 yards away—quickly saw Kirkland’s intent. No bullets whizzed his way. For 90 minutes, Kirkland moved about the field among the Union wounded, giving water, placing knapsacks as pillows—caring for chilled men lying in bloody muck. For 90 minutes, Kirkland did his work, then returned to the Sunken Road and its protective wall, unharmed.
Men on both sides performed acts of kindness, here and elsewhere. Three weeks after the battle, a train bearing the body of Confederate Captain Edward P. Lawton arrived at Falmouth station, in the midst of the Union camps in Stafford. Lawton had been wounded on the south end of the field December 13, captured, and had died in a hospital in Alexandria.
With his body that day was his wife Evelina, heartbroken and alone. She had traveled through the lines to Alexandria to, she hoped, nurse her husband back to health, but got there too late. Now she simply hoped to take her husband’s body home to Georgia.
Union Colonel William Teall found the despairing Mrs. Lawton alone with her husband’s coffin in the train at Falmouth Station. Among Teall’s many jobs was arranging the return of Confederate bodies, and occasionally widows, to the Fredericksburg side of the river. Struck by Mrs. Lawton’s ordeal, he sought for her some consolation. He summoned 20 men from a New York regiment to escort Captain Lawton’s body and his widow to the river crossing above Chatham.
Colonel Teall remembered:
After giving the order to proceed I took my seat beside her & this little procession moved slowly towards the river. She was entirely ignorant of the demonstration of respect to her husband’s remains, & as our ambulance turned into line & the escort moved solemnly with arms reversed to the music of 2 muffled drums her surprise was instant and complete. I saw the struggle. She turned to me and said, “Col I needn’t tell you how gratified I feel” & burst into tears. Oh! what a moment of anguish was this, of grief pure & intensified. It was more than I could bear & involuntarily gave way myself to the pressure of the mournful scene.
Stories like this one, and like Kirkland’s, tempt us define war, or an army, or a political movement by these acts. In fact, stories like this do not define war, but rather defy its basic nature.
We should not grow too fond of war.
But within war, we can occasionally find great acts of humanity and charity. These acts remind us that while war may obscure or overawe our humanity, it does not—at least in this nation—destroy it. And so we remember…and wonder: would each of us have had the courage to act as Kirkland and Teall did, when so many others did not?
Next: the original stone wall, and the men who defended the Sunken Road.