Painting courtesy of Nathan Greene, artist
Richard Kirkland was just 18 when he enlisted as a Confederate soldier to fight in the American Civil War in 1862. On December 13 of that year, his unit was engaged in heavy battle with the Union army near Fredericksburg, VA. The Confederates had built a low stone wall across the battle field, and from it they wounded more than 8,000 Union soldiers. Many died, many dragged themselves to hastily set-up field hospitals behind the lines. But hundreds lay wounded, bleeding, cold, and desperately thirsty.
All through the night the wounded could be heard crying out in agony. Whoever said, “War is hell!” may have been at Fredericksburg. Neither side wanted to venture onto the battlefield to help them. To do so meant nearly certain death. But Sergeant Kirkland could not get the anguish of the cries to stop echoing in his head.
Toward dawn Kirkland asked his commanding officer, a General Kershaw, for permission to try and help the wounded Union soldiers. The Confederate commander reminded him that these men were the enemy; permission denied. Kirkland pleaded that they were wounded, they were in pain, they were cold, they were thirsty. With Kirland’s pleading, Kershaw re-thought his decision, listened to the moans and cries, and reluctantly gave his okay.
Kirkland set to finding all the canteens he could locate. Some from the living, some from the dead. He filled those that were empty from a nearby spring, and with water containers hanging all over him he crossed the wall and began crawling toward the agony he could hear. Those watching expected every minute to hear a shot ring out from the Union side and Kirkland to fall dead. But there was not a rifle fired. For an hour and a half the sergeant moved from one wounded man to another. Gave them water; covered them with a coat or a blanket from their own backpack when he could. Gave a word of encouragement, then crawled on to the next.
Tired, thirsty, cold, smeared with mud, running only on courage and compassion he moved across the carnage till he had reached every wounded Union soldier. Inspired by his sacrifice, neither side fired until his water was gone and every wounded man was tended to.
Only then did Sergeant Richard Kirkland climb back over the wall to safety. (He would die the next year at the battle of Chickamauga, GA, at the age of twenty.)
We’re in a war. You knew that. All around us are those who are dying for lack of the water of life. You knew that. Somebody’s got to go over the wall and help them. Let’s do this!
By Don Jacobsen