It looks like Michelangelo's Pieta. But instead of the Mother of Christ holding her dead son, it's a young soldier cradling a dying soldier in his arms - an enemy soldier. The emotional statue is the only monument standing on one of the bloodiest battlefields of the American Civil War. Fredericksburg, midway between Washington and Richmond, the Confederate capital, saw a lot of heartache during that tragic war, but it also witnessed one of its most humane acts.
Richard Kirkland, a Confederate sergeant from South Carolina, was already a hardened veteran by age 19. He had participated in many fierce battles and lost close friends. On Dec. 13, 1862, Kirkland and his fellow Confederates had mowed down nearly 8,000 Union soldiers attacking - wave after futile wave - uphill against their southern enemy, protected behind a long, sturdy, stone wall near the centre of this town.
After nightfall, the Union wounded that could move, crawled back across the open killing fields to their own lines. The immobilized that didn't succumb to the overnight frost, spent that night and next day begging for help and asking for water.
After listening for hours from behind the protective stonewall to the pleas of his wounded enemies, Kirkland could take it no longer. He asked permission of his superiors to go over the wall and take water out to the wounded lying only yards away. Gen. J.B Gershaw said he could go, but he couldn't carry a white flag because he didn't want the Federal side to think they were surrendering.
Union sharpshooters at first fired at Kirkland moving about on the battlefield carrying a dozen water canteens. They thought he was robbing the dead. But, the Union soldiers soon realized he was giving water to their wounded comrades and covering them up against the cold with the blue coats of their dead friends. Officers from both sides watched in amazement as Kirkland carried out his dangerous mission of mercy. They dubbed him the Angel of Marye's Heights.
Nine months later, Kirkland was shot dead at the Battle of Chickamauga in Northwest Georgia. But it was more than 100 years later that Kirkland's battlefield humanity was finally saluted by the victorious North. A sculpture by renowned artist, Felix DeWeldon, depicting Kirkland giving water and comfort to a fallen enemy soldier, stands a few yards from his protective stone wall.
Little has changed on Kirkland's battlefield where many thousands died as Marye's Heights changed hands several times over two weeks. In fact, much of the great history in the Fredericksburg area at the mouth of the Rappahannock River, has been preserved.
As you walk among the antique shops in Fredericksburg's charming downtown, you will notice many of its brick walls are a patchwork of colour. As the locals rebuilt their town from the Civil War destruction, they picked bricks off the nearest pile of rubble.
Virginia saw more Civil War battles than any other state. Some of the biggest and most influential clashes, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Wilderness occurred only a few miles from downtown Fredericksburg.
Hundreds of volunteers keep the area's history alive and much of the Civil War lifestyle of civilians and soldiers will be depicted with a variety of events, battlefield tours, reenactments, music concerts, military encampments, and demonstrations for four days over the U.S. Memorial Day weekend.
Patrick Brennan is a veteran travel, business writer/photographer based in Guelph. His credits include writing for a chain of 60 newspapers with 1.6 million readers. He was a staff writer/photographer at the Toronto Star for 32 years.
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