The American Civil War was a bloody and terrifying event. The casualties exceeded all the other American wars from the Revolution through to Vietnam.
One of the key battles was fought at Fredericksburg on the 13th December 1862. The Union forces attacked a heavily fortified position known as the “stone wall at the sunken road”.
The Confederate army had left the town to the Unionist forces so that they could fortify themselves along a stone wall at the bottom of a hill. When the Unionist soldiers attacked the wall on the morning of the 14th, they were mown down. By the day’s end 7000 men had been killed and many others left wounded on the battlefield. They were wet, cold and thirsty and in great pain.
The cries of anguish continued all night. One Confederate soldier stated that the noise was “weird, unearthly and terrible to hear and bear the cries of dying soldiers”.
A young infantry sergeant, Richard Rowland Kirkland was a devout Christian and remembering the words of St Paul “if your enemy is hungry feed him, if he is thirsty give him something to drink”, he asked his commanding officer, General Kershaw, if he could take water to the wounded. The general tried to dissuade him, fearing he would be immediately shot down, but Kirkland persisted and eventually was given permission but he could not do it under a flag of truce as the two sides were still officially in combat with each other.
He collected as many water canteens as he could carry and for 90 minutes he would scale the wall and take water and words of comfort to as many men as he could. When the Unionist soldiers saw that what his motives were, they ceased firing, and, for a a short while, an unofficial truce was acknowledged by both sides.
As a result of his actions, he became known as ‘The Angel of Marye’s Heights’. Kirkland was killed 9 months later during the battle of Chickamauga.
In 1965 a memorial was erected to his memory not far from the battlefield.
It was to be a testimony to man’s humanity to man. It illustrated the purpose of leadership — to care, to guide and to serve.
In the military, acts of self — sacrifice and moral courage are not uncommon. Kirkland exemplified the highest calling of leadership.
John Quincy Adams summed up Kirkland “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader”.